Disconnection matters

Nov 24, 2020

I recently attended a symposium about building inclusive organizations and had the valuable experience of learning from four equity leaders in our community. One of the speakers shared a model articulated by Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple called the “Cycle of Disfunction with Equity Work.” The model is based on four stages that create a reinforcing loop leading to no change in the status quo. It is a theory of failure.

In summary, the “Cycle of Disfunction with Equity Work” involves these four stages:

  1. A catalyst deeply impacts a broad group, such as the public killing of George Floyd this year and the protests for racial justice that were sparked across our nation.
  2. The catalyst must be influential enough to lead to the next stage, which is a commitment to equity by the dominant culture. The commitment can look like the formation of equity committees, book clubs, discussion groups, etc.
  3. The nature of creating change towards equitable systems is difficult and so stage three happens with problems in implementation. So many complex factors reinforce stage three, including power dynamics, implicit bias, and racism.
  4. The fourth stage blooms from a recognition that the work is difficult. Ambitious steps towards change are watered down and eventually the push for change stops. This stage is called “a return to the inequitable status quo”.

There are many historical examples of this cycle playing out in equity work where oppression in multiple forms is pervasive. Reflection about this theory has brought me to considering two things.

First, this theory of failure and “Cycle of Disfunction with Equity Work” is applicable to multiple systems issues and not limited to equity in education. Disconnecting the reinforcing loop of failure could have implications for how we work to address many conditions with deep roots.

Secondly, what if changemakers and stakeholders within systems were able to better understand the stages in this cycle and counter with methods to push back on the reinforcing loop? The set of solutions and how they are applied will greatly rely on champions and stakeholders closest to the work, along with those in power who can influence change. A disconnection to accepting status quo is also necessary by all players within the system. At the most micro level, any system will inherently change if the relationships among the players in the system change.

I accept that the work I’m doing to support early childhood systems with adopting equity guiding principles and create actionable change at a policy level is one of a million things that needs to happen for equity in education to occur. I also accept that as one player in a much larger system, I am only able to change a finite number of relationships within the network. However, my belief and optimism in the ripple effect I can have strongly pushes me towards disconnecting the loop of the cycle of dysfunction.

Here is how I envision disrupting this cycle at each stage.

1. Keep it personal

The catalyst for equity in 2020 has already happened. Hundreds of years of racial injustice and systemic racism are being amplified by COVID-19’s negative impacts on communities of color. Furthermore, equity in education is a deeply personal issue for me, as I am bi-racial and have painful lived-in experiences related to racism and struggles with education. The stakes are higher than ever in this moment. The catalyst and my personal “why” drive me to strive for change. I believe we must continue to make it personal in whatever way is meaningful to us to ensure change is a priority for allies as well.

2. Reinforce a commitment through more than one action.

Joining a book club, attending one annual training, or forming an equity committee is not enough to create real change at any level, whether it be among individuals or institutions. A commitment to equity must also include a regular analysis of disaggregated data to reveal the truth about who is thriving and not thriving within specific conditions. The data gathering must be carefully done with integrity because data can be manipulated, skewed, and subject to interpretation. Listening to individuals with authentic experiences and having true empathy towards voices are also required. Without both, we easily become distant from the work, which results in “why” we do the work misaligning with the “how” we address the issue. The disconnection to "why equity" in any system sets up the next stage, which leads to problems with implementation.

3. Recognize setbacks are likely and categorize these challenges.

Hundreds of years of a history of racism have passed and we are still grappling with disparity, pain, and trauma. Problems with implementation at an institutional level happen for many reasons, because there are layers of complexity with equity work. I do not profess to have all the solutions with this phase.

What has helped me understand this level and push through with the work I am responsible for is recognizing setbacks are likely and categorizing the challenges. For example, much of my work is focused on the institutional level of change and supporting organizations with implementing equitable practices. To manage problems of implementation I pose these questions as guideposts:

  • How many layers are necessary to navigate change within the institution towards more equitable practices?
  • Who are my allies and how can we leverage the spirit and assets of the team?
  • Who has power to make decisions on behalf of the institution and are they invested in change?
  • How are the communities who are not benefitting from policies and programs engaged in processes?

Additionally, I also motivate my teams by uplifting small milestones of progress. I naturally seek balance as a core value and when faced with frustration and moments of challenge I manage this by grounding myself and others in what has been accomplished in the work.

4. Reflect on what is at stake

Watering down or minimizing the work is what leads to a return to status quo. A remedy for me when tempted to give up is reinvigorate the passion by reflecting on what is at stake. To lead is to accept some fundamental things, such as leadership requires authenticity, bravery, and embracing the risks that may be involved. Frustration, loss, and fear are likely to be experienced. In these moments, we must breathe, remember that we are advocating for change to impact more than just ourselves, and courageously continue to use our voice.

Disconnection to the reinforcing loop matters. The price to maintain the status quo is much too high.

Related Issues & Ideas

Report

Champions for Change: A Collective Commitment to Children's Health

View Champions for Change: A Collective Commitment to Children's Health
Report

Why aren't kids a policy priority?

View Why aren't kids a policy priority?
Website

The United States Prosperity Index 2021

View The United States Prosperity Index 2021
Article

8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits

View 8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits
Article

Building a Trust-Based Philanthropy to Shift Power Back to Communities

View Building a Trust-Based Philanthropy to Shift Power Back to Communities
Website

Frameworks Institute: Changing the conversation on social issues

View Frameworks Institute: Changing the conversation on social issues
Website

Framing best practices with Topos Partnership

View Framing best practices with Topos Partnership
Report

Systems Change & Deep Equity

View Systems Change & Deep Equity
Website

Iowa Coalition for Collective Change

View Iowa Coalition for Collective Change
Report

Cultivating Change: How the HealthConnect Fellowship lifted a network of advocates to improve children's health in central Iowa

View Cultivating Change: How the HealthConnect Fellowship lifted a network of advocates to improve children's health in central Iowa
Report

Shifting the Lens: How The ACE Study sparked action to collectively improve our community's health

View Shifting the Lens: How The ACE Study sparked action to collectively improve our community's health
Website

Grant Makers in Health

View Grant Makers in Health
White Paper

Understanding the Upstream Social Determinants of Health

View Understanding the Upstream Social Determinants of Health
Report

Innovations in Health Equity and Health Philanthropy

View Innovations in Health Equity and Health Philanthropy
Report

2020 One Economy: The Blueprint for Action

View 2020 One Economy: The Blueprint for Action
Website

CAMHI4Kids Children's Mental Health System

View CAMHI4Kids Children's Mental Health System
Policy Brief

Transforming Iowa's Foster Care System to Support Kinship Caregiving

View Transforming Iowa's Foster Care System to Support Kinship Caregiving

Champions for Change: A Collective Commitment to Children's Health

Outcomes from Mid-Iowa Health Foundation's HealthConnect Fellowship, October 2019-June 2021

View Story
View Story

Elevating the Latinx Community

How nonprofit leaders brought attention to the Latinx community and built new systems of support during the pandemic

View Story
View Story

Central Iowa youth drive change for better health

uVoice high school students commit to learning about and addressing issues, including vaping and racial justice, in central Iowa.

View Story
View Story

The Dream Cube: Art for Social Impact

The Dream Cube, a monolithic structure constructed of pillows piled 8-feet high, popped up in downtown Des Moines late last fall. The provocative piece sparked conversations about the potential of our youth—if they have a safe place to dream.

View Story
View Story

Protecting Those Who Protect Our Kids

Iowa ACEs 360 shares this story about how supervisors in the Polk County Dept. of Human Services’ Child Welfare Division are addressing trauma in their workforce.

View Story
View Story

A New Approach to Supporting Youth in Juvenile Detention

Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.

View Story
View Story

7 lessons learned about systems change work

System change
Sep 9, 2021
View Post

The Foundation's role in the HealthConnect Fellowship

Funder practices
Sep 8, 2021
View Post

Go ahead: Brag a little

Leadership
Aug 5, 2021
View Post

Planning from strength: questions to ask your team

Advocacy
Apr 26, 2021
View Post

Preparing yourself to center the voices of those impacted by issues

View Post

Vision vs. Tactics: How we can achieve the change we want to see

Action planning
Feb 22, 2021
View Post

System-change achievements advocates are making for central Iowa’s kids

View Post

How we can begin to find peace in 2021

View Post

3 questions to reshape your policy agenda

Advocacy
Oct 30, 2020
View Post

What you should know about homelessness in central Iowa during the pandemic

Community response
Oct 26, 2020
View Post

Leading system change, even in times of uncertainty

System change
Jul 22, 2020
View Post

We must all do our part to be anti-racist

View Post

Lessons in preventing burnout

View Post

5 barriers pregnant women in poverty face in getting the care they need

View Post

What I've learned about system-change work during this time of crisis

System change
Jun 11, 2020
View Post

What the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about system change

System change
May 10, 2020
View Post

We have the resources to build a better food system here in Iowa

View Post

What we should do about COVID-19 racial disparities in Iowa

Advocacy
May 6, 2020
View Post

11 best practices for working from home during COVID-19

Leadership
Apr 8, 2020
View Post

5 things you must know about migrant farmworkers in Iowa

Community response
Mar 30, 2020
View Post