Build Back Better by Empowering Communities

Build Back Better by Empowering Communities
(Jessica Berrellez via AP)
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Americans don’t just need relief; we need a bold plan. We need a plan that is grounded in vision for equity that is supported by the best data available. We need something that can move us from recovery to sustainability. We need something rooted in the future, informed by lessons from the past. In other words, we don’t want to just build back better; we want to build to last. 

The newest analysis from the Urban Institute on the impact of President Biden’s stimulus package shows promising results, including the ability to cut poverty rates in half. The Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University has similar projections. There is a lot to love about this economic package — from the focus on education to having a place-based approach — but the details in how it is executed matter. The current plan is an important step, but it is not the finish line.

While it is vital to address immediate emergencies to provide stability to families, we also need to be able to step back and address the systems that brought us to the moment of desperation. Charitable or stop-gap solutions will never solve the structural problems of injustice. Building to last means understanding the root causes of inequity and how to transform the systems that creates the conditions to begin with. 

Yet, some have been quick to reject the infrastructure proposal from President Biden because only a portion of it goes to support what they believe is considered “traditional infrastructure,” or bridges and roads, as the current proposal would also address racial injustice and expand Medicare support for caregivers as well. In other words, they fear that this is big government throwing money at the problem. However, the real issue is when the federal government doesn’t trust local communities to make the best use of the resources. Investing in Americans is never a mistake when it is paired with accountability and a vision for sustainable growth. If programmatic approaches like an injection of cash — or repairing a crumbling highway — could actually solve long term issues, wouldn’t all of the problems in our country be solved by now? 

As someone with decades of experience in leading large-scale community improvement across the United States, I believe that the Biden administration can meet its ambition with practical and scalable solutions that leverage the best in America when communities hold themselves accountable for results. Accountability is a prerequisite for lasting change. What does accountability look like in a community?

  • It starts with evidence-based decision making. Community members must identify shared outcomes and commit to improving them together. Communities hold themselves accountable when they align on metrics for success, as well as the processes needed to collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data regularly. 
  • It then takes the will to act on the data. This collaborative action can take the form of networks within a community focusing on just one outcome and then using continuous improvement to scale what works.
  • It takes a cradle-to-career vision that is embraced by all sectors and members of the community to improve outcomes, eliminate disparities and ensure economic mobility.

This shared accountability at the community level leads to lasting change because it enables communities to think beyond programs to the systems that impact opportunity. Shared ownership, transparency and cross-sector collaboration moves community members away from siloed programs with single-focused (and often ineffective) solutions to building systems to provide scalable and sustainable solutions.

All across the country, communities are proving that investments in civic infrastructure exponentially provide returns in the form of stronger neighborhoods, economic development, and reduction of inequities so families can thrive. We’re proving that this approach works.

Milwaukee Succeeds is a member of the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network that has demonstrated resiliency and innovation even during the COIVD-19 crisis. Throughout the pandemic, they mobilized resources and local partners to drive equitable responses in early care and education, K12 education, and mental health while aligning with adjacent partners working in food, shelter, physical health, and economic recovery for a wholistic and systemic approach. They were able to quickly respond by building a commitment to shared results across their community. They had already built a strong civic infrastructure that allowed them to collaborate effectively across systems like education, housing, health care and more. While many cities were forced to address crisis out of necessity, Milwaukee Succeeds was already positioned to meet demands and create solutions that will sustain even beyond the crisis. They aren’t just recovering; they are thriving. They aren’t just spending money on projects; they are investing in people and the systems needed to sustain their results. And they’re not alone: nearly 70 communities across the country and using the model of civic infrastructure to develop scalable and sustainable growth.

The government could apply this approach to any economic stimulus for a scalable and sustainable solution that also provides accountability. Evidence-based decision making informed systemic interventions that individual sectors would not have developed on their own. Shared accountability for results ensured money is well-spent.

Every generation has an opportunity to define what is possible for the future. This is our moment. But we have to hold ourselves accountable for results. We can build back to last with equity in mind. We need to invest in Americans. 

That’s how we will build to last.

Jennifer Blatz is president and CEO of StriveTogether, a national nonprofit working in nearly 70 communities across the United States to enable more than 11 million young people to succeed in school and life.

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