Taking on systems change in Conn., as well as those “elephants” Taking on systems change in Conn., as well as those “elephants”

Working Cities Challenge CT leaders mark 1st year by exploring opportunities, challenges Working Cities Challenge CT leaders mark 1st year by exploring opportunities, challenges

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June 17, 2019

It’s been a year since Connecticut’s five Working Cities Challenge winners officially received the grants they needed to propel their initiatives, and we celebrated the anniversary with a gathering at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. But this was more than a chance for 75 WCC Connecticut leaders to eat some cake.

The get-together last month was aimed at building on our successes, reviewing challenges, and taking on an elephant or two (more on that later). We also put “systems change” at the center of the agenda. But what exactly is that?

Systems change involves a hard look at local processes, procedures, and culture, with an eye toward determining what would cause the system to operate more effectively. Faulty systems (i.e. workforce, employment, social welfare systems) are often at the heart of problems that prevent lower-income neighbors in our cities from improving their economic well-being and meeting their potential.

Even deciding which systems to start with is difficult. That’s why our Boston Fed team and people from our five WCC CT cities of Danbury, East Hartford, Hartford, Middletown, and Waterbury spent time revisiting local action plans, identifying opportunities for systems change, and developing concrete steps to spark those changes.

A strategic approach is needed to take on entrenched local systems

No matter how badly change is needed, taking on often entrenched local systems is not easy, so we also learned about the “thinking and doing” of systems change and ways to talk about it to our own Working Cities teams and the broader community. Longtime WCC ally Monique Baptiste-Goode, JP Morgan Chase’s vice president for global workforce philanthropy, and Sylvia Cheuy of the Tamarack Institute, a Canadian community development organization, led our teams in complex discussions on how to build local action plans around a “systems framework.” In essence, the framework involves changing the visible elements of a given system – its public policies, rules, and where it gets its resources – by addressing the visible and semi-visible elements that undergird it all, such the different relationships, power dynamics, and unspoken assumptions that guide its mission.

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Taking on ‘elephants’ demands less armor, more openness

Oh, and about those elephants – you know, the ones in the room, the big problems everyone sees but is reluctant to speak about? They got a lot of attention, because the elephant is the most important creature in the WCC animal kingdom, and a key consideration of every WCC team looking to spark systems change. But how do can our teams face up to them?

We suggested that our best teams take on those elephants by shedding some of the figurative armor they wear to protect themselves from these animals. This armor actually keeps teams guarded and perhaps more afraid than they should be. It’s not easy to take this armor off, but when teams risk being even a little more vulnerable and open, they can unleash creativity and energy that helps the work and teams crackle with life. In places where we have honest connections of head and heart, we are better able to ask difficult questions and speak the unspoken in a direct and respectful way. That’s where magical things can happen.

In sum, the two days left us energized, but our increased insight about systems change doesn’t remove our illusions about how tough it can be. Time together, though, left us encouraged by what was behind us, and hopeful that the collaboration and hard work that carried WCC through the last year in Connecticut will lead to more successes ahead.

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