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Using Systems Change Strategies to Address Structural Racism

August 28, 2023

Clair Minson Founder and Principal Consultant, Sandra Grace LLC
Cassandra Garita Senior Program Manager
Practices & Centers Topics

Systems and structures in U.S. society have been intentionally designed to yield positive results and advantages for white people and negative consequences for people of color. It’s what Michael McAfee of PolicyLink, a nonprofit working toward racial and economic equity, calls a “design challenge,” the idea that the inequality and inequity that we see in the United States directly result from the original design of this country’s laws, processes, and systems. This web of processes and practices that encompasses historical, cultural, institutional, and interpersonal interactions is called structural racism.

The Building Equitable Pathways (BEP) community of practice has addressed individual (personal), interpersonal, institutional, cultural, structural, and systemic racism. In our final meeting of the racial equity strand, we wrestled specifically with structural racism.

A structural racism analysis focuses on the historical, cultural, and social-psychological aspects of our racialized society. This is different from, yet closely connected to, systemic racism, which directly calls out the “interlocking and reciprocal relationship between the individual, institutional, and structural levels which function as a system of racism.” Uniquely positioned at the intersection of transactional practices and transformative change, intermediaries can confront structural racism through designing and deploying systems change strategies. You can read more about the functions and features of intermediaries in education and career pathways systems here.

We asked the Chicago-based Education Systems Center at Northern Illinois University (EdSystems), which has more than a decade of experience in dealing with the many levels of structural racism, to share its approach.

To advance racial equity, EdSystems works at the state level in developing and bringing forward innovative career pathways and workforce policies and legislation. EdSystems also supports program implementation, working directly on the ground with communities across Illinois. The organization labels this approach as “bi-directional,” defined as “align(ing) local efforts to state policy while elevating local experiences and learnings to state tables.” One great strength of EdSystems is its commitment to using data collection and analysis as a critical strategy to spot and target the impacts of structural racism. While all intermediaries collect and analyze data, often against challenging odds, EdSystems stands out in elevating data effects and leadership to one of its three priorities at both a statewide level and in its work with communities across Illinois. The other two are College & Career Pathways and Bridges to Postsecondary. (For other examples of organizations successfully using data to address structural racism, see To Use Data as an Equity Lever, Translate, Then Advocate.)

The Jobs for the Future (JFF) team interviewed members of the EdSystems team by email. We extend our thanks to Sarah Clark, director of development and communications; Edith Njuguna, director of the Illinois Education and Career Success Network; and Heather Penczak, director of innovation and implementation, for sharing their collective insights.

Partnering in Pursuit of Structural Change

JFF: Structural racism has to be addressed in partnership with others. Who are some of your partners working collaboratively with you to name and address structural racism?

EdSystems: We have worked with national partners, including National Equity Project, ConnectED, and JFF, to help our team expand our understanding of structural racism and frameworks to create meaningful change. Further, our engagement in BEP has deepened our team’s understanding of the ways in which structural racism manifests in policy and practice and strategies to address the barriers young people face as they transition from high school into postsecondary.

At the same time, we are partnering with statewide organizations, such as OneGoal, and regional collaboratives, such as East St. Louis, Rockford, Chicago, and many more, to practice what we are learning by designing and implementing equitable pathways.

Addressing Structural Racism

JFF: How does your systems change work address structural racism?

EdSystems: We engage community, school district, and higher education stakeholders in deep racial equity work in the context of college and career pathways to address structural racism. For example, in East St. Louis and Chicago, we are using sector-specific pathway initiatives, such as Accelerated Model Pathways for Information Technology (AMP-IT) and Scaling Transformative Advanced Manufacturing Pathways (STAMP), to support cohorts of communities to engage students through empathy interviews, focus groups, and surveys. These vehicles help communities understand how existing policies and practices are inequitably designed and implemented, resulting in differences in participation in opportunities such as dual credit. Because of these learnings, participants have expressed the need to engage students more frequently, setting aside dedicated time to help them reflect on practices and biases that impact student success.

In addition, we work with various community college partners to create currency options that incentivize the College and Career Pathway Endorsement (CCPE). These options include but are not limited to fee waivers, scholarships, additional credit hours, and campus resources exclusively for CCPE earners. Our college partners also complete equity plans that identify inequities in pathway metrics that impact vulnerable populations, and we work with them to identify strategies to address these challenges. As a result of this work, our community college partners have adopted in part or all of the following barrier-reduction strategies to increase student participation and retention:

  • Diversified pathway enrollment marketing strategies
  • Additional need-based funding and scholarship opportunities
  • Culturally relevant enrollment and recruitment activities
  • Implicit bias training for staff and faculty

Finally, we emphasize how to use data as a bridge for identifying where we need to capture student voices. Our data reviews should lead us—and our community partners—to seek to learn from those students and families reflected in the data analyses and tools we produce. This emphasis on qualitative data helps ensure our existing assumptions and biases do not drive our interpretation of quantitative data.

Capturing student voices and using what we learn to inform action requires intentionality and deliberate processes. While many of our partners frequently engage with students and other key stakeholders, they are not always clear on how to code and analyze stakeholder voices. There’s a clear need for additional tools and guidance on gathering qualitative data—through empathy interviews, focus groups, well-constructed surveys, and more—to advance racial equity.

At the same time, we want to challenge ourselves and our partner communities to consider how we can elevate our stakeholder engagement strategies. How can we bring more student and stakeholder voices into the room to co-design solutions, shifting power dynamics to give our stakeholders more agency and space to innovate? How do we follow up with students so they understand the impact they had on an initiative and provide space for them to offer additional feedback if we didn’t get it quite right?

Influencing and Aligning State Policy and Local Practice

JFF: How does your understanding of structural racism shape the way you approach your regional efforts?

EdSystems: EdSystems takes an intentional, systematic approach to developing our understanding of structural racism and ways to address it. We regularly review how we are utilizing Liberatory Design mindsets and applying racial equity learnings across our portfolio, hold “lunch and learns” centered on a racial equity topic, set annual individual racial equity challenges and goals, and conduct periodic, topical empathy interviews with students. We are also learning more about the targeted universalism framework and how to apply it to our work and support our partners in using the approach

With that common understanding, we then use a bi-directional approach in which local practices inform policy, and policy supports local efforts. To this end, we established the Illinois Education and Career Success Network with our partners Advance Illinois and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to support communities in increasing meaningful and equitable postsecondary attainment. We have awarded the Leadership Community designation to 18 communities across Illinois that are using the collective impact approach to advance postsecondary attainment. We support those communities by building local capacity to develop and scale efforts by encouraging them to examine data to inform them where they are making progress and where more work is needed. Throughout our engagements, we center equity—from helping communities identify potential racial equity barriers through data to employing student voice in designing solutions to those barriers to considering racial equity-focused targets for their postsecondary attainment goals.

Furthermore, we believe that the most effective change is grounded in the experiences of and inputs from those most impacted by any system. We established a Student Advisory Council to gather feedback on how students experience various initiatives that the network supports. Network organizers also seek to understand what kinds of supports are helpful to students as they navigate the education system. Students have helped inform topics including how we discuss labor market information and the barriers students face in pursuing work-based learning opportunities.

Leadership Communities are a powerful vehicle in driving state policy implementation and helping to inform other regions about best practices for increasing postsecondary attainment.

Creating a Vision for the Future

JFF: What long-term outcomes do you envision as a result of your work, specifically your focus on equity and structural racism?

EdSystems: On a statewide level, we have identified five “big bets” to ensure that our state’s education and workforce systems not only create structures that enable pathways to opportunities but also truly lessen racial inequities and lead to tangible progress for our Black and Latinx students who have for far too long been underserved by these systems. Through these big bets, we’re working toward a number of long-term outcomes:

  • Increasing the number of high-quality pathway systems that are available in districts serving Black and Latinx students.
  • Ensuring pathway participation demographics reflect the school and community and are occurring at a scale to transform the school and community culture.
  • Making sure students, particularly in our targeted equity populations, earn the Illinois College and Career Pathway Endorsement and transition successfully to postsecondary.
  • Scaling innovative work-based learning models to meet the needs of and break down barriers for all students, particularly Black and Latinx students, to increase participation in work-based learning across the continuum of experiences.
  • Establishing seamless pathways, transitions, and supports into postsecondary: working to scale and use an array of currency models to offer pathway students incentives from secondary to and through postsecondary and facilitate school district and college partnerships to expand dual credit offerings and remove access barriers.

At the same time, we are committed to building our team’s facilitative leadership competencies, promoting collaboration, distributing leadership, and strengthening a collective identity and purpose around our racial equity goals. Our supports for communities must not only include helping them to develop holistic systems for college and career readiness and pathways implementation but also focus on how they advance racial equity for students furthest from opportunity.

We will continue documenting and sharing what we learn from communities and partners around equity challenges through blog reflections as well as new resources and will focus on how we translate these learnings into actionable terms to support our stakeholders involved in the difficult work of systems implementation and racial equity within our schools.

The Work Ahead

Disrupting structural racism requires intentional effort, strategic partnership, and an inherent belief that the people who are most affected by systems of exclusion and oppression know what they need and thus are centered in all decision-making processes. EdSystems is only one of the intermediaries in the BEP network that has chosen to address structural racism through a systems change framework; many others are making similar strides in their respective communities. We are excited for the work ahead, recognizing that if every intermediary works intentionally to confront systems, policies, practices, and cultural norms that uphold structural racism, the education system will be much closer to our goal of racial equity.