How could a philanthropist make the biggest improvement on social mobility with a gift of $1 billion?
Invest in a two stage approach of Bridges Neighborhood Centers and community-based Rapid Results Teams in 25-40 major metropolitan areas. In order to move up the socioeconomic ladder, two fundamental conditions have to be met: children are being prepared to enter the workforce, and opportunities for advancement are being made accessible. The combination of Bridges and Rapid Results Teams can move this vision to reality in some of our most disenfranchised communities.
Research is increasingly underscoring the critical role that parenting, early childhood, education, and neighborhoods play in developing the core elements of the American socioeconomic ladder. These elements consist of human capital, “stretch” influences (i.e. positive role models and caring adults), and access to opportunities. Consider the Bridges to be catalysts for human capital and “stretch” influences for low-income kids in distressed neighborhoods. In other words, Bridges lay the necessary foundation for children to later enter the workforce.
For the past five years in Palm Beach County, FL, ten Bridges Neighborhood Centers have established essential foundations to promote the virtuous cycle of healthy development through a place-based approach. The local Children’s Services Council, which provides the primary support for the Bridges initiative, analyzed data to determine ten areas with the greatest concentrated risk for low-income children, areas where social mobility has practically disappeared. The council then contracted two lead agencies, Community Partners and Children’s Home Society, to collaborate on the initiative, establish sites, and operate the Bridges. Unique among neighborhood centers, Bridges are intentionally focused on building parent and community capacity in high-risk areas to ensure that young children are equipped to succeed. Each site fulfills five core functions: outreach, engagement, navigation, service coordination, and development of partnerships and strategic alliances. In addition, each site has a full-time parenting coach trained in the evidence-based Positive Parenting Program. The Bridges have developed key systemic partnerships with local child care centers, public schools, and community stakeholders, promoting the shared vision of kids being raised healthy, safe, and strong – with local communities beginning to take ownership of realizing this vision.
This initiative to date has demonstrated positive impact for low-income children and parents, while also developing several key concepts that are transforming the way services are offered. Not only are all staff trained in Brazelton’s Touchpoints approach, but the concept of honoring parents as the expert on their child is operationalized in the behavior of the Bridges. Families who participate are referred to as members, and staff seek to promote family self-efficacy, rather than dependency, at every turn. This stance is more effective than traditional social service methods in engaging hard-to-reach parents and in building local momentum for a community focus on children. Staff facilitate regular “dialogue to action” circles with parents and residents using the Strong Starts platform designed by Everyday Democracy. Participatory dialogues are crucial to engagement and enable each site to adopt practices reflective of the particular culture in the neighborhood. Another key concept guiding Bridges has come to be known as the “double-loop.” Every member is engaged at first by the “single loop” of direct service support. As the relationship develops and members build capacity, they are encouraged to participate in the “double loop” of supporting other members, reaching out to neighbors, and volunteering in some way to build a community raising kids to be healthy, safe, and strong. It is worth noting that the Bridges have evolved significantly through the rigorous application of developmental evaluation and data-driven management. In forging new territory in a complex environment, it has been invaluable to document lessons learned along the way and to make adjustments based on data.
With the foundational elements of Bridges in place, the second stage of impacting social mobility involves creating access to opportunities through the use of Rapid Results Teams. Each community has various resources and barriers to opportunity, along with forces that tend to maintain a status quo. Complex or “wicked” problems without uniform solutions require adaptive measures. Consequently, cross-functional teams using a “rapid results” discipline offer the best bet for breaking through these idiosyncratic challenges. In preparation to launch the teams, it is important to work with the Bridges in collecting and analyzing local data to identify the gaps in access to opportunity. The teams then home in on a short-term stretch goal to be reached in 100 days or less. This short-term goal is an intentional stepping stone toward a much more ambitious, long-term goal that increases opportunities for kids. The design of the short-term stretch goal should also require innovation and learning, building capacity and momentum to tackle the next challenge. The teams will build on strategic partnerships between education, local authorities, residents, and the business community. They may decide to fill identified gaps with evidence-based programs, if there is a fit and the resources exist to implement with fidelity, such as the recommendations for education reform of the Social Genome project. Or teams may focus on improvements to resident infrastructure, such as transportation, housing, health, and local economic development. Regardless of the identified priority, the teams build momentum through “early wins,” learn by doing, and make rapid progress toward overcoming local problems inhibiting social mobility. This approach has made great advances in various sectors over the past several years, most recently in the homeless arena.
Restoring the American Dream for our lowest income children will entail much more than money. Yet this worthy goal, or rather imperative for the future of the country, cannot be achieved without dedication of strategic funding and resources. Robert Putnam describes the focal points for investment in Our Kids: “the transmitters of socioeconomic status that are so potent today (economic insecurity, family instability, neighborhood distress, financial and organizational barriers.)” These “transmitters” have become much more potent than they were 40 years ago, and our society itself is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. As a result, strategies cannot remain the same in this shifting landscape and must be adaptive to the frayed social fabric. Research is exploding with new, substantial insights into the conditions at play for low-income families. However, the answer lies in not only understanding the current conditions of low-income children and families from research, but also in partnering with them in addressing these conditions from the inside out. In partnership, service providers and families can rebuild the rungs of the ladder, building bridges to infrastructure when necessary. Top-down solutions are insufficient; we must unleash the power of local communities for our kids.
While rapid results offer promise, cracking the code to social mobility is a long game requiring commitment and perseverance. This sort of community change takes dedication and persistent focus; we are changing mindsets, dealing with stubborn disparities, and ultimately facilitating ownership of pro social behaviors. That said, investing in Bridges and Rapid Results Teams offer the path to ensure our kids can in fact move up.
*This perspective is born out of the rapidly growing body of research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES); early childhood brain development; toxic stress and the life-course model; Brazelton’s Touchpoints; the economic analyses of James Heckman; What Works in community development from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Rapid Results Institute (www.rapidresults.org); and the work of Peter Block and John McKnight on communities. For great brief video outlining this perspective, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urU-a_FsS5Y.