More than a decade ago, frustrated by what we saw as negative health and educational outcomes for Boston’s children of color despite the city’s wealth of resources, we — an academic and an activist — joined forces to do something about it.
Two presidents, two governors, three mayors, and five Boston Public School superintendents later, we are still seeking solutions. Equity in our city is long overdue. Challenges facing our children have only worsened for many due to the COVID-19 crisis, which the Massachusetts Department of Education has documented with two major reviews. Chronic issues deeply rooted in our history and a fragmented social service sector have stalled the city’s growth and potential. With the best of intentions, a cacophony of nonprofits can operate in ways that focus only on the behavioral manifestations of racial inequities, not the root causes.
The most effective way to address those root causes? Break down the silos between government, nonprofits, and residents to build a connected coalition that helps children of color, giving communities a true voice in the process. It’s an approach known as “collective impact,” and we’ve seen it work on a series of city blocks starting at the Roxbury end of the Blue Hill Corridor. With the right sense of urgency, investment, and encouragement from forward-looking funders and an appetite for bold experimentation, it can work across Boston.
Collective impact is a growing field built on advancing equity through sustained partnerships, common agendas, and accountability. But at its core, collective impact depends on genuinely engaging the people who live in the affected neighborhoods. We founded Boston’s Higher Ground in 2011 to serve as a backbone organization in this venture. Together with community residents, we started with one Roxbury neighborhood in and around the Martin Luther King Boulevard and Warren Street intersection. Our focus: to link government and nonprofit partners and ask parents, principals, and teachers what they needed to boost educational outcomes for children.
What we heard from Roxbury school leaders, within steps of the intersection, is that children without housing can’t focus on learning. They need safe places to play outside, more access to pre-kindergarten programs, and teenage students need work experiences that teach them accountability and reliability. And, like their more affluent counterparts, enrichment and intervention services are essential to helping them reach their full potential.
None of this was surprising, but it once again revealed the tangle of public health factors disproportionately affecting Boston’s children of color. Unraveling this knotty problem takes a willingness to connect the dots between Boston’s social service providers and harnessing the expertise and energy present in each one.
Principals had identified housing as the highest need. To help house Roxbury families, four community providers and three city agencies joined forces for the Family-Led Stability Initiative. Since 2018, FLSI has housed families of more than 400 homeless students from 10 participating schools, 10 percent of the roughly 4,000 homeless students in Boston Public Schools. The initiative is on track to house families of 500 more homeless students from 20 schools within three years.
Parents and school staff called for culturally relevant, high-quality services and outdoor space for their students. We created the Surround Care Coalition, which supports three schools in Roxbury and the nearby Crispus Attucks Children’s Center, a pillar of early education in the Roxbury community. Thanks to our 14 community partner members, these services — academic, social/emotional, clinical, before and after school programing, summer learning academy, and other enrichment programs — are available to the schools’ 1,000 children and their families, and we helped secure $4 million for a major capital project at the Crispus Attucks campus. Our team effort also secured a $500,000 grant to build a safe playground at the Higginson Elementary School where there was previously only a sheet of asphalt.
Like anything worthwhile, collective impact takes time. We’re more than 11 years into this experiment, and we’re doubling our efforts during a time of both great need and great opportunity. Trust by families in our public schools feels broken, the safety of children during the school day has come into question, and educators are weighed down by the pandemic’s increased levels of homelessness, learning loss, and mental health challenges. The bridge between families and the school system needs major attention and repairs.
Across Boston, many neighborhoods have coalitions or community groups that, with the right tools and resources, can create meaningful solutions and accelerate health and educational outcomes for children. Children of color have the potential to lead this city, but acting alone, we are failing to instill them with the skills and confidence they need to do so. Let funders, policy makers, and political leaders stop rewarding siloed behavior and short-term solutions built without community voices. Let’s join forces and make collective impact the Boston standard, advancing equity in our city once and for all.
Hubie Jones is dean emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work. James Jennings is professor emeritus of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.