Local leaders must lead: Community leaders should think, plan and act collectively to improve the long-term safety and success of children and their families

Creating a Community of Hope that will ensure the safety and success of children begins with local leadership – leaders who challenge others to think differently about seemingly intractable problems.

These leaders come from a variety of backgrounds. They include parents, mayors, government officials, tribal leaders, pastors, business leaders, judges, community advocates, local residents and many others.

Regardless of their job titles, these individuals have the courage, energy and commitment to overcome the inertia of the status quo. They also share another key quality: They understand that success requires a broad cross section of the community working together to develop a clear and measurable plan for change.

In Paintsville, Ky., Family Court Judge Janie McKenzie Wells saw firsthand the problems faced in this small Appalachian community: poverty, drugs, fractured families. She knew that the only way to achieve lasting change in her community was through collaboration with others.

Fortunately, she already had a great working relationship with Susan Howard, the regional manager for Kentucky’s child welfare system. They understood that the challenges confronting children and families in Paintsville and surrounding Johnson County required a commitment from every sector of the community. On a fall day in 2012, they invited just about everyone they could think of to a conference room at the downtown Ramada Inn.

In a city of just over 3,000 people, more than 120 people gave up their lunch hour to attend. They included mothers and fathers, local business leaders, retired educators, mental health experts and even representatives from the local library. Howard and Wells tapped into that enthusiasm and created committees to focus on specific problems, educating the members about the nature of child welfare in Johnson County, about how there could be more effective solutions than just removal of children from their home and family.

Howard and Wells received something in return: An education of their own.

“They taught us, too,” Wells said. “There were resources in the county we didn’t know about.”

Through Johnson County Community of Hope, Wells and Howard have watched new resources come to the region, volunteerism increase, collaboration improve among branches of government, and local residents renew their commitment to the health and well-being of children and families.

Creating a shared vision for progress

But leadership goes beyond the initial call to action. Success in Johnson County and other Communities of Hope shows the importance of creating a shared vision for what a successful effort looks like. And it demonstrates a clear-eyed assessment of what it will take to turn the vision into results.

Efforts like the one in Paintsville have begun and are making progress across the nation. FSG, a social-change consulting group, has been a critical leader in the spread of an approach to successful, community-based improvements, known as “collective impact.”

According to FSG, the five elements of collective impact are:

  1. Common agenda: All participants have a shared vision for change, including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed-upon actions.
  2. Shared measurement: Collecting data and measuring results consistently across all participants to ensure that efforts remain aligned and participants hold each other accountable.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities: Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
  4. Continuous communication: Consistent and open communication is needed among the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives and appreciate common motivation.
  5. Backbone organization: Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization with staff and a specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative and to coordinate participating organizations and agencies.

We’ve learned this approach is not easy, but it is effective. Strong local leadership is key.

While it is obvious that each one of those elements would go nowhere without strong local leadership, another issue remains: How do you develop a common agenda?

Developing a common agenda begins with engaging those who best know the problems in a community – the people who live their everyday lives confronting the challenges in their neighborhoods. They are the mothers and fathers, the business owners, the pastors, school teachers, nurses and anyone else who lives, works and struggles to get by in places where opportunities to succeed are fewer.

It’s the difference between asking what we can do “for” communities and asking what we can do “with” communities. At the end of the day, it is the community members themselves who have the most at stake.

This kind of philosophy has helped to drive change in long-struggling neighborhoods in New Orleans and Philadelphia.

Community leaders should think, plan and act collectively to improve the long-term safety and success of children and their families.

Each day in America, approximately 13 young people under the age of 25 are victims of homicide. The majority of them are young men of color who die at the hands of other young men of color. The vast majority of these homicides take place in a handful of urban ZIP codes.

What happens on the streets can influence safety at home. Risk factors tend to cluster and compound in poor communities.

Chipping away at the barriers to success
RUNTIME: 30:12
Related video: Casey Family Programs President and CEO William C. Bell discusses leadership in his 2012 speech, “Chipping Away at the Barriers to Success.”
RUNTIME: 30:12
Related video: Casey Family Programs President and CEO William C. Bell discusses leadership in his 2012 speech, “Chipping Away at the Barriers to Success.”
These challenges have been with us for decades – violence flaring up in the neighborhoods of not only Philadelphia and New Orleans, but in Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore and many other places.

Both New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter decided that to save lives, they needed real sustainable change in their cities and at the national level. And they both realized it would take a different, community-based approach to make the change happen.

In both cases, the mayors chose strategies that closely mirror those of “collective impact.” Philadelphia’s Youth Violence Prevention Collaborative and New Orleans’ NOLA for Life program have led to:

  • The creation of a shared agenda to reduce violence.
  • Nonprofits, churches, civic organizations and others being engaged in block-by-block efforts to prevent homicides and create better opportunities for youth.
  • Measurements of what is working.

In short, these two city efforts are promoting an unprecedented level of cross-system collaboration.

In 2011, Mayor Nutter invited Mayor Landrieu to join Cities United, a growing network of 58 cities working to equip local elected officials with the tools, practices, skills and resources needed to eliminate the violence-related deaths of African American men and boys and other young men of color.

We depend on safe, prosperous communities where everyone has an opportunity to feel safe and succeed.

– Mayor Michael A. Nutter, City of Philadelphia

“(We) depend on safe, prosperous communities where everyone has an opportunity to feel safe and succeed,” Nutter said in explaining his decision to help create Cities United. “Cities United helps mayors and city leaders focus on prevention rather than prosecution, intervention rather than incarceration, and it provides data and tools to topple systemic barriers to opportunity facing African American men and boys.”

But Cities United means more than help for one threatened segment of the population. It is an acknowledgment that we are connected members of larger communities where the success of one is linked to the success of all. It is the realization that any child whose life is impacted by violence is my child, too.

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