Jan 4, 2023 33 min read

Moving from Talk to Action - with StriveTogether

"If we can get a community to commit to each other, we can partner with them to get the change they seek." - Monroe Nichols

Episode 38, 47 min listen

Working across the community, achieving collective impact, building civic infrastructure, and moving from talk to action. Those things are at the heart of our discussion today.  In this episode, we talk with Monroe Nichols from StriveTogether. StriveTogether animates a network of over 70 communities, reaching around 14 million students with a focus on improving cradle-to-career education outcomes. Based on his experience, Monroe shares with us what it takes for communities to be successful at the changes they wish to see.copy intro here



Learn more about StriveTogether and their network HERE.

If you enjoyed this episode, you might also find our interview with Kalika Curry from Eastside Pathways of interest. Eastside Pathways is a member of the StriveTogether Network. Listen HERE.

If you're interested in more episodes focused on equity in education, you might also enjoy The Leading Equity Podcast with Dr. Sheldon L Eakins.

Learn more about Impact Tulsa HERE


In 2016, Representative Monroe Nichols became the first African American elected to represent House District 72 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. During his time in the Legislature, Representative Nichols has authored legislation focused on providing all students with a high-quality education, all Oklahomans with access to health care services, ensuring Oklahoma’s economy works for everyone, revitalizing neighborhoods, and reforming the justice system. Currently serving as Vice Chair of both the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus and the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus, Representative Nichols is the incoming Chair of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus and will assume that office in April of 2023.

Prior to being elected, Representative Nichols spent his career in government, private business, higher education, and the non-profit sector, serving as a mayoral aide, chief of staff in the president’s office at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, and an economic development director. In 2014, he co-founded ImpactTulsa, a collective impact organization aimed at improving education for all Tulsa area students. From 2014 – 2016, Representative Nichols also served on the Tulsa Technology Center Board of Education.

In addition to his legislative service, Representative Nichols is the Director of Policy and Partnerships for StriveTogether, leading the organization's state policy strategy focused on advancing equity to improve student outcomes in communities across the country.

Over the course of his career, Representative Nichols has been the recipient of several awards including the United States Department of Justice Award for Public Service. Monroe holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Tulsa and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma.



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion Podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better. And we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome.

A few weeks ago, we spoke with Kalika Curry. Her organization, Eastside Pathways, is a backbone organization for a coalition that’s focused on improving cradle-to-career opportunities in the Bellevue and Lake Washington areas of Washington State. Kalika told us that Eastside Pathways was also part of a national network called StriveTogether. So, in this episode, we’ll have a chance to learn more about StriveTogether and their work in over 70 communities across the country, impacting nearly 14 million children. Along the way, we’ll learn more about what it takes to make coalitions work, better understand concepts such as collective impact and building civic infrastructure.

So, if you’re new to State of Inclusion, you may not know that we’ve been developing an approach that we call the practice of building a more inclusive community. It’s made up of six practices, and this episode happens to align very well with the fourth practice area we call Coalition Work. We also along the way discovered that we share a philosophy with StriveTogether. That philosophy is that solving community problems is an inside job and can only be done by individuals within their own communities. As we will hear in this episode, there is much to be gained from sharing knowledge across communities and formalizing methods. Listen in as we learn more about how StriveTogether contributes to and supports the success of the communities they serve.

We are happy to welcome Monroe Nichols. Monroe is the Director of Policy and Partnerships for StriveTogether. In this role, he leads the strategy development for cultivating and supporting communities that are seeking to join their network. I’ll also mention he is a representative in the state legislature in Oklahoma, and we’ll talk a little bit about that later. So welcome Monroe. Thanks so much for joining us.

Monroe Nichols  01:55

I’m excited to be able to join the podcast.

Ame Sanders  01:58

I’ve heard StriveTogether described as a lot of different things: as a collective impact organization, a movement, a network. How would you describe it? And tell us a little bit about the work that you do. would you describe it? And tell us a little bit about the work that you do?


Monroe Nichols  02:10

Great. Again, thank you for inviting me on to speak about our work at StriveTogether. So, my work at StriveTogether, is as you described. I work with a lot of communities looking to engage the network in different ways, learn from the work we’re doing across the country, or to join the network. I also lead some of our state policy strategy for the organization as well. One of the things that we learned after doing this work for almost two decades was the great practice work that you heard about at Eastside Pathways on your last episode. So, I think a lot about how do we make sure that’s institutionalized work? How do we change policy that is benefiting or that is aligned to these wonderful things we’re seeing change on the ground? So, that’s the other part of my role at StriveTogether.

If you were to think about our network, we really are a network that is focused on how do you really bring some discipline to this idea of collective impact. How do you, with rigor and evidence, bring together these big institutions–public schools, and higher education, the early childhood system, business, and the public sector–all these different partners? How do you bring them together to really work on changing outcomes for kids and families? If you look at our website, you’ll see these education outcomes, everything from kindergarten readiness to high school completion. If you look at it on its face, we really seem like an ed reform network. I don’t think I would describe us as that. Our focus really is around how do we help families that are at the bottom really climb the economic mobility ladder. How are we centering equity in those conversations, and how do we do that? We really are a national network of changemakers focused solely on how do we, by taking data, by bringing these different institutions together, change outcomes for children and families. That’s really what we are at StriveTogether.

Ame Sanders  02:16

You talked about a couple of terms here, and I want to double back to those. One term you mentioned was “collective impact,” and then there’s one that you mentioned in some of your materials called “civic infrastructure.” Maybe you can unpack those terms for our listeners a little bit. Some people may be familiar with them, but some people may not be.

-Collective Impact

Monroe Nichols  04:27

Sure. I’ll start on the collective impact front. How we think about collective impact is not just simply getting all the people around the table, right? It’s really how do you understand your individual contribution or your institutional contribution to the overall whole and changing the trajectory of children and families in your community. So, we have reasons to sit around the table. There’s something that’s grounding our conversations. It’s not always harmony in the beginning. There are some really difficult conversations when you’re really thinking about how to do collective impact with rigor. Those conversations are really grounded in in some ways, things that are long-term, historic challenges that we’ve had as a community and those types of things.

But, it’s also really trying to uncover, as I said before, figuring out how do you and your institution, and what role do you play at the health department in improving third-grade literacy, for example. There are things that you do and families that you touch, and you have an important contribution to play. What is that contribution, and how does it ladder up to broader community goals? We talked about codifying a lot of things at StriveTogether. The codification of collective impact is really our theory of action, which is really a roadmap for communities to understand how do we measure like our community progress. For example, we know we’re sitting around the table. We’re doing good work. Programs are doing whatever they’re doing. But how do we measure how we’re doing as a community? Are we getting better or worse? That theory of action really is almost two decades of codifying what is collective impact actually mean in the community. What’s a roadmap the community could follow to do it.

-Civic Infrastructure

The civic infrastructure part of it is very similar. So, we think about physical infrastructure, highways, and things like that as waves as we move around, and the ways that we build communities and cities, and they’re an incredibly important part of who we are. Civic infrastructure really similarly is the same way. It’s how do these institutions, what role do they play together in helping families and folks who may have been left behind for a long time up that economic ladder. How are we making sure that whatever cracks we have in the system (so this is not just programmatic support, this is like a system thing), that we’re filling all those cracks in the system?

We’re making sure that we have a system in our local communities, and we use regional partnerships that work for everybody. So, that civic infrastructure is how strong are those ties? How well are institutions working together? How’s it benefiting folks, particularly with an equity lens? Are people better off? We talked about more better outcomes, which I’m not sure is the best grammatical way to say it, but more better outcomes are what we’re after. So, how are we wielding all these institutions and centering that civic infrastructure conversation to get more better outcomes, specifically in equity? You can only do it if you build that sense of civic infrastructure. Again, that is also a grounded theory of action.

So, if you look at that theory of action on our website, you really see these two things. You can really see how they come together in the way in which you start with a shared vision, and you work all the way through down about the data. You’re thinking about how are we aligning around the kind of some continuous improvement concepts? But most importantly, what is the underlying impact to your institution, and how your institutions come together with all the others to build communities where folks can thrive?

-StriveTogether Framework

Ame Sanders  08:01

In the work that you do, you guys have a lot of reach which was also very impressive to me. So obviously, you’ve been busy. You tell us that you’ve been at this for a long time, but you have about 70 communities in your network. You reach a lot of students in through that, right?

Monroe Nichols  08:18

Yeah, absolutely. I would even say, I think it’s many times in many communities, a multi-generational approach. So, it’s really students and families. I think it’s somewhere in the neighborhood–and I would hate to misquote–but I think we’re in the neighborhood of 14 million children that that represent. Majority children of color in these communities. So, we have quite an impressive reach. I think how we view this at the national office is how are we a great partner with those communities? Every community is somewhat unique. If you look at the data, you’ll see it a lot of communities are struggling with similar issues, but there’s this uniqueness in every community.

So, we don’t offer up as like a national organization, a cookie cutter approach, or a cookie cutter model. It really is a framework, to where you can build the infrastructure in your community. As long as you’re grounding data, as long as you’re building that, as we talked about that civic infrastructure there locally, and centering equity, you’re going to get results. So, as we looked across the 70 communities, I think the proof is there. When communities come together in this way, kids, families, particularly those communities that have been traditionally left behind, are the beneficiaries of that work.

Part of it is making sure that those communities are actually at the table with these big institutions. So, we talk a lot about shifting power, for example. We really have tried to ensure that equity is not a buzzword across our network. So, we take that next step, in how do you actually shift power to people who are most impacted by the system? We have this community engagement spectrum.

Traditionally, and both of my public sector hat as an elected official and in my professional career, we do outreach in ways that isn’t really the most engaging a lot of times. You send people surveys, or you put together a focus group. Typically, that’s an after-incident type deal. Like, “Did this work for you or not?” Very few times, at least in my experience as an elected official and as a professional, have we had people sitting at the table when we’re making plans, when we’re deciding what our focus is going to be, and having them be part of the process. As opposed to just on the back end, “Look what we did for you.” So, shifting power means that we have to give agency to folks who are most impacted because their perspective, their lived experience is just as important, if not more so, than the institutional traditional power that other people might hold in a community.

Ame Sanders  11:00 And so do you see that happening in the communities that you’re working with?

Monroe Nichols  11:04

Absolutely. I can even point to most recently, in Colorado where there was a recent ballot initiative that has failed seven times. It was for some investment in high school completion, post-secondary work in Colorado in a majority Hispanic school district, it wasn’t until they had children and families leading the charge on the advocacy front and really engaging them, that actually this past election that they actually got that passed. We see a lot of examples where we’re starting to make sure that youth are sitting at the table, that their voice is reflected, not just in a response to what has been done, but in the planning of what will be done.

I’ll say this: it’s not easy work. It’s not work that I can say all 70 communities do perfectly. It’s not work that we’ve even done perfectly as StriveTogether, but we continue to learn and grow in it. It is our focus. Shifting power is a stated goal of our network. How we hold the communities accountable, how we hold ourselves accountable, all that kind of stuff, is all driven by how good of a job are we doing at centering the folks who are most impacted in all the work that we do? When I say centering them, it’s not just planning for them, but are they sitting at the table as we’re making big plans and decisions about the things that we’re going to do?

Ame Sanders  12:26

So that leads me to a whole bunch of other questions that I want to ask you. So first, how do you know that the approach you’re taking with communities, how do you know that they’re the right things to push out and to share with folks?

Monroe Nichols  12:42

Yeah. Part of that’s just what you learn over the years, right? I keep using this theory of action. It has gone through several iterations. It looks different than it did in 2014 when it was originally rolled out. Now, in 2022, it’s gone through revisions, and it goes to revisions based on what we learn in communities. We talk a lot about continuous improvement. We model that in our national office. Communities are very dynamic–things change. We learn more about why something didn’t work and so we make those changes. So, the approach and the framework–and that’s why we say it’s a framework more so than it’s just a model–it really is a framework by which you understand from the very start how do we partner with members in our community? What are the rules of engagement in a community to be able to do this work well? So, we always talk to communities about establishing that shared community vision. The shared community vision isn’t the StriveTogether mission statement.

-Success in Tulsa, Oklahoma

I started a partnership in Tulsa. Are people in Tulsa really around the table and aligned for the betterment of Tulsa? Not necessarily to simply join a network, not simply bring a new program to town. But, are we willing to do the hard work as a community together? Are we all in agreement on where that road leads to in Tulsa so that every child was guaranteed high-quality education, cradle to career? So that commitment, what does that really mean for us in Tulsa? Does this framework at Stive Together help us get there? Can we benefit from the coaching? But the coaching and the network only help if you have that initial commitment with the folks who live in that place.

So, I think it works really well because it’s not a national program. It really is a framework that is grounded in the commitment of actors in a community being committed to each other and being committed to their own goals. Then yes, we can help you understand that journey on getting there because we’ve done this in 70 other places. We’ve learned a lot from the 70 other places, and we can apply some of that learning, not just on, “Hey, this community did this specific thing.” But also, “Here’s some of the road bumps that came along the way that you should be thinking about.” Transitions are tough, right? We’ve learned a lot about leadership transitions and how that impacts partnerships and how that impacts progress. So, we do a lot of coaching around that kind of stuff as well. A lot of it is just simply, if we can get a community to commit to each other, we can partner with you to get the change that you seek.

Ame Sanders  15:30

I’m really so glad that you mentioned the work in Tulsa, because that was one of the other questions I wanted to ask you about. So, you have a very unique perspective, and one of the reasons I’m really happy to talk to you is because you started this work in Tulsa at the local level. Now, you’re working at the national level with multiple communities. Talk a little bit about that–about your experience in Tulsa. Maybe a little bit more than what you said already about how you got started and some of the experiences you had and then how your perspective or the vantage point that you have now changes your perspective on things.

Monroe Nichols  16:04

Yeah, the Tulsa work was really interesting because in our community, and I still live in Tulsa now, we have a great culture of giving in Tulsa. People don’t realize this, but I think the Tulsa Community Foundation is top five just in the corpus, the amount of money sitting in it, in the country. We have a community that is a community of giving. But if you think about all the investments that have been made in Tulsa, our numbers against those outcomes are not too much different than a general community in any urban area.

So, the question for us was, are we willing to consider what better aligning around community-level outcomes and thinking about what all of our investments are going to? How are we tracking impact and those types of things? Are we willing to have that kind of courageous conversation locally? StriveTogether provided a framework for that, but again, it started with folks in Tulsa saying, “Look, as we’ve talked about StriveTogether, we are program rich, but systemically, our system is is is not where we would like it to be? How do we do something about that?”

How that’s informed my work at the national level is really understanding the pride in my community in Tulsa and not having some national person come in and tell me how to do things in Tulsa. That’s probably the thing I take the most to other communities. When I’m talking to communities, I always tell them, “Look, I can’t tell you how to do life in Pontiac, Michigan. You all have to figure it out, and I can work with you because I understand that starting, there’s a lot of adaptive challenges that come up.” Our numbers aren’t bad in certain places because people don’t care. It’s because we have tried approach after approach after approach, and folks get exhausted with it. I understand that, and I think I understand it in a unique way, because I started at the local level and then just chiseled away.

The neatest thing about doing the work in Tulsa first and then looking and doing the national work now has really just, been sitting there and being able to understand how dynamic communities are and how quickly progress happens now. I consider my work in Tulsa as being what we call some of the OG communities that have been in the network for a while now and how difficult it was for us to get out of the gate on some things and how much more accelerated a lot of communities are at this point. So, it’s fun to work with communities. But I can tell you the approach that we have as a network, it can be complex, but it’s also very simple, right? It’s very simple stuff. The toughest thing is just getting communities to align around outcomes, getting people to understand it. This work is becoming more and more tangible and easy to wrap your head around.

I first heard the term “collective impact,” probably in 2005 or 2006, and we still have some folks who have struggled to understand really, what does that mean. But, I think the behaviors of a lot of communities, they really are embodying some of that. They just don’t really know how to align around things.

We’re actually doing a lot more work now on really partnering deeper with the public sector. Not just elected officials, but like folks who are working in state agencies, folks who are working at the city who are part of the institution. What you learn is people like me, I gotta get elected every two years. So every two years, I may or may not be here as a representative. I may or may not be there after four years. But, there are a number of people who work as part of the institutions who are going to be there for a very, very long time.

So, one of the things that has been really interesting over the years from my time in Tulsa to today, is the interest in the public sector to engage in this kind of work at a much deeper level than before. What’s been great about it, being able to watch it from a local level to the national level, is just seeing where people before, because they didn’t fully understand something, were like, “I ain’t touching that.” They’re more so now thinking, ‘”I don’t know everything about it, but I’m willing to engage and figure out  can this be an approach to help us do good work?” That’s been a statement of the growth of not just the network but  all of us across the country are trying to really understand how do we get better outcomes. We know we can’t do it by ourselves, but how do we come together to do it? That’s been probably the neatest thing working from local level to regional level to national level is just the difference in tone across the county and the receptiveness to do this work well.

-Necessary Local Capabilities and Capacities

Ame Sanders  21:09

It’s exciting that you talk about being able to move more quickly now. I love the phrase that you use: “being able to commit to each other” and how important that alignment and commitment locally is to being able to even entertain this kind of work and make progress together. So, let me ask you a question just to get a little bit more practical. So, the work of StriveTogether is focused on cradle-to-career outcomes for youth. Right? So, what are some of the things that communities need to do or capabilities or capacities they need to have in order to be successful in this work in addition to their commitment each other?

Monroe Nichols  21:49

Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things that we have across-the-board training on is around what’s called results-based facilitation. So, this is all about really understanding how to move groups from talk to action. What we find is in most cases, like I said before, people have been already been really thoughtful about how to approach a problem. They may not know how to do it with other partners, but they’ve been doing this for a long time. There are smart people across the country. But, the challenge is when you have a group of folks who don’t all work for the same institution, so not everybody has one boss. How do you take that group and move them from all these ideas to implementation? That’s the number one capacity, just helping groups move from talk to action. That’s a capability we spent a lot of time working on.

-Success in Memphis, Tennessee

An example of that type of work, and I think it’s a good example of things that aren’t what you would think. So, Memphis, Tennessee is a community that I have a soft spot for. As a student-athlete, we won a bowl game in Memphis on New Year’s Eve, so that was my first trip to Memphis, and that’s where it started. But, it’s also home to one of our really strong partnerships called Seeding Success. Years ago, Seeding Success they were looking at their data, and they struggled in the areas of kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading, early literacy outcomes.

As they begin to dig into the data, so you get a group together, we know we are not where we would like to be. Well, why is that? Well, then you start to uncover it’s not that every kid is challenging. Some kids are challenging. So, what is the target population that we’re after? Because that has an impact on how you might strategize. So, when you find that, for example, we have a chronic absentee problem. That chronic absentee problem is particularly impacting low-income kids of color. A lot of times you can almost take that down to a geography. So, you’ve taken whatever the overall number of students in Memphis, which seems like an impossible thing to do something about, and you’ve zeroed in on a target population is 100% manageable.

So, then you’re starting to think about, okay, what are the particular things impacting these young people? So, we know chronic absenteeism is an issue, but why? Is it because parents don’t care about their kids going to school? Probably not. That’s probably not it. What they found was it was due in large part to families being evicted from their apartments from not being able to pay and that type of stuff. So, they began to work on things around affordable housing and that affordable housing work. You wouldn’t have thought about it when you’re thinking about kindergarten readiness and early literacy. We’d be thinking about how do we make sure kids’ parents read to their kids, that kind of stuff. All that stuff’s important, but that wasn’t the issue facing kids in that community. So, they began to work on affordable housing issues, and that target population of kids started being more stable in their attendance. Well, guess what? Their outcomes got better in early literacy and in kindergarten readiness.

-Success in San Antonio, Texas

In San Antonio, Texas, that partnership had some issues with kids and their attendance rates. That was in part because they had this policy at the school board level on transportation where if you live within a mile of school, there was no bus service for you. So, you had to walk a mile. Well, what they found was the kids missing school were all the kids who live within a mile of the school. So, they began to work with partners and say, how do we raise the money to make sure that bus service can happen within a mile of school? Well, guess what happened? They fixed the transportation issue. Kids went to school, and their outcomes got better.

It’s really these things where you have these non-traditional partners and some of these non-traditional issues that you can only figure out if you do the work of, “Hey, we have this issue. Let’s dig deeper and figure out what’s driving this issue. Then let’s find the appropriate partners to help us address it.” That’s really the kind of capabilities that you’re talking about. It’s really been able to do the investigative work and understanding your data, understanding what’s driving those numbers. Then, having the ability to work with partners in your community–where they are usual suspects or ones that you didn’t really know about–who can then come together and address an issue. So, in those two examples, you got two academic outcomes that got better. they happened largely without any in-school intervention. It was about removing barriers to some populations within the community that were struggling with something. So, we talk about fixing the system. That’s what we’re talking about. That’s why I wouldn’t say that we are an ed reform group. I think sometimes folks look at our outcomes and think that. That’s not really what we are. We are really a systems-improving network because we see that all these other issues are a big problem.

-Another Tulsa Example

I’ll actually give one other example that has always been one that has tickled me a little bit. Early in my career, I was chief of staff to a university president at the University of Oklahoma, the Tulsa campus. At the time, we were working on a lot of community health initiatives. There was a 14-year life expectancy difference between an African American community in North Tulsa and a more affluent neighborhood that was literally five miles away. So, five miles, 14-year lifespan disparity. As you start to unpack, there are a lot of reasons why. There’s no specialty health care in North Tulsa. If you had a medical home, you needed transportation, which could be an issue in our part of the country. But we also got around this track around. Why didn’t folks exercise more? Why didn’t people walk and jog and those types of things? Just some of those healthy behaviors that you see folks in Midtown doing.

As you sit around the table, you hear, “Oh, it’s because of crime. It’s because there are no sidewalks.” Those types of things. Those things were issues, right? We could have had cops on every corner and build more sidewalks and all that kind of stuff. But it wasn’t until we asked the folks who are most impacted by those numbers what was the biggest thing keeping them inside not outdoors and why they don’t have their kids playing outside–it was stray dogs. So, animal control becomes a partner that has a role in improving health outcomes for people in the community. Not something that you’d ever think about, right? So, that’s why it’s important to look at the data. It’s important to do all those things, but you also have to validate it with the folks who are most impacted and then be able to respond with an effort to support. Here’s a health situation that animal control is a huge player and partner. Here’s two academic issues, both of which were rooted in attendance and early literacy. Two different solutions, neither of which were in-school solutions. Those are the kinds of things that we talk so much about. That’s the reason why you need all those partners working together. That’s the reason why you need that civic infrastructure, why it can’t just be about schools. It can’t just singularly be about a health system. It can’t just singularly be about a housing deal. All these institutions have to work together if you’re going to change outcomes. That’s really the heart of our work.

Ame Sanders  29:21

It’s also why it can’t be a formula because those were unique and specific situations that existed in those communities that the process help them uncover, but it was their own community situation that needed to be addressed.

-Commitment to Each Other is Key

Monroe Nichols  29:36

That’s right. That’s what we talked about, that commitment to each other. That’s why you have to have that commitment to each other because we have to solve these problems in our community. Here’s a framework to do it, but like StriveTogether and Monroe Nichols is not going to come to Washington DC and change outcomes in Washington DC. The people in DC have to come together do that. What we can help with is a framework for doing it, some of them lessons learned, and help you uncover some of those non-traditional approaches to things. But I can’t cause changes in housing policy in Memphis. The folks in Memphis have to do that. I can’t change the transportation situation in San Antonio. The folks in San Antonio do that. That’s why we start with that commitment together. It’s really the thing that drives it. Everything else are technical skills that can be applied to those things, but the commitment is where it starts.

Ame Sanders  30:32

So my podcast is all about equity and inclusion, right? You’ve touched on it as we’ve gone through our conversation, and the examples that you gave us really illustrate that. But, I’d like to talk a little bit more about how explicitly you see StriveTogether tackling that, and also how you see your communities that are in your network tackling that.

-Equity and Inclusion at StriveTogether

Monroe Nichols  30:54

We are 360 degrees when it comes to equity because in addition to the work we do in communities and the coaching work and all that kind of stuff, we also have invested in every one of our network members. A lot of it was able to support stuff through the pandemic, but we also partner in that way, right? We invest that way. We are constantly thinking about and being very thoughtful of even who’s leading organizations in our network.

So, how are we also embodying equity, as far as who our network is and where we work? When I started my career in Tulsa–this is not an indictment on anybody who we started working with–but I remember our leadership at the time didn’t want us to even talk about equity, like use the word equity very much at the time. This is 2014. It was because Oklahoma has an interesting political environment. So, they thought it’d be off-putting to talk about equity. Now, we talk about closing achievement gaps. We talked about it in different ways, right? But I will say when our national office began to center equity where it was, if you’re part of this network, you’re talking about equity, I think that changed quite a bit. The world is different in how folks talked about it. Tulsa is different. Tulsa is a great leading partnership, and equity is reflected all throughout.

But I think the examples from the network and how we are living equity, A) all of our internal goals are associated with it and B) our network members have equity goals. It’s in large part because what we know about this country and what we know about communities is, frankly, the system, as we were discussing just a second ago, has disproportionately negatively impacted families and children of color. So, we know honestly if we just stay faithful to the way in which we do business–and the way I’ve just described Memphis and San Antonio and those things–if we stay faithful to taking an issue and drilling all the way down to a target population, we’re going to arrive in equity almost every time. So, we track how outcomes are changing for kids of color separate from how outcomes are changing for everybody. It’s something that weaved into what we do. It’s just ingrained and embodied in everything we do.

-Youth Impact Assessment

We have a special project that I’m working on right now that is all about shifting public accountability and resources, centering youth with an equity lens. It’s called Sparsity. It’s how are we bringing together this youth engagement work? But it means that you’re not just engaging the young person who is class president, but are you engaging the kids who are most impacted by things? How do you do that well? We have a partner helping us do that. How we look at public resources and how they’re being spent in a community. How can we align these public resources to build a youth-centered agenda that these young people are telling us that they need? Here’s the money that can support those things. Then validating that on the back end with the Youth Impact Assessment that we’re really trying to look for public sector adoption.

So, what a Youth Impact Assessment is using an equity lens is just like when we’re going to build a factory. For example, we might do an environmental impact assessment to say, “Hey, what’s the impact on the environment to build a coal factory?” We do fiscal impact assessments on things that cost money. The one thing we don’t do is really understand the implications to young people when we make decisions about policy. So, these Youth Impact Assessments are also centered in equity. They’re all designed to say, “Hey, if we move to do this thing that we want to do–build a housing project, tear down the housing project, whatever the case may be–what’s the impact on young people?” It would have been nice when they decided in San Antonio to not offer the bus service within a mile to do Youth Impact Assessment then. They would have found then that these kids aren’t going to come to school, right?

One of the things we’re really thinking about our work with the public sector is how are we even making them be more thoughtful about equity. I will say, in a lot of these deals, it’s not difficult for me, Monroe Nichols to get my kid to school if I live a mile away or if I live five miles away. I don’t have that challenge. My mom does a lot of diversity training, and she always talks about how we all have to understand our privilege. So yes, I’m Black. But I’m also an elected official. I have two college degrees, that kind of stuff. So, asking me about the things facing the Black community is not necessarily always going to be a fair representation. So, part of the equity work is just being engaged with the people who are most impacted. It’s really about shifting power there. For us, it is so ingrained in who we are. If you look at any of the outcomes work that we do, it is all grounded and centered in equity. Even the examples that are offered up earlier, I think those are all great examples of how communities are centering equity. They are a gazillion ways across the network.


Ame Sanders  36:39

Following our interview, Munro shared information about StriveTogether’s results and how they quantitatively impact equity for those they serve. So, I’m going to share a few of those statistics with you at this point before we resume the interview.

He told us that 49% of their network has documented data showing closing of equity gaps in at least two outcome areas. And 59% of the youth and communities are in partnerships that serve youth of color. And 15% of those are English language learners. 45% of their students experience poverty, as you would define by living at twice the poverty threshold or below. In 2020, StriveTogether invested $20 million into the communities in their network. 66% of those investments went to communities that had large populations of youth and families of color.

Let’s rejoin the interview. You touched on a couple of things that makes me switch gears a little bit and go to your elected official hat. I don’t want to put you in a difficult spot, but I guess you have such a unique vantage point. I wanted to take the opportunity of talking with you to ask you questions about this. So, across some of our communities, particularly our states–and I’m from South Carolina, so I can certainly say it’s here–but perhaps in Oklahoma as well. There’s legislation at the state level that is impacting our youth and making it more difficult for them to be successful on their education and life journey. Whether that is making it more difficult if you’re LGBTQ youth to be able to be yourself and show up. Whether it is things that are making it difficult for people to effectively teach history and understand the story of their history and life, and culture. Maybe as well with our Native American children.

What are things that you think communities should be doing? They should be watching out for? What kind of actions could they be taking to make this more successful and those kinds of barriers to be lessened?

Monroe Nichols  38:51

What I’ve learned being in the legislature and then on the other side of it, really just being a citizen, is that we’re at a real inflection point where you can’t really sit things out anymore. You can’t turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to things that are happening in state legislatures. You’re absolutely correct.

I mean, Oklahoma, from a political-cultural standpoint, is probably very similar to South Carolina. So, you see these barriers put on young people and, frankly, the most vulnerable families every session. I think a lot of it is because, and this is something that we have to embrace, there are so few people who are of those communities who serve in legislatures. So that’s the number one issue, right?

I mean, I’m here at a legislative conference–Black legislators here in Nevada–and I was telling somebody last night at the reception that we had our Black Caucus in Oklahoma, over the last couple of years has been the largest it’s ever been. So, we have 149 legislators both in the House and the Senate combined. There are seven African Americans serving the legislature of Oklahoma. Seven. There are, I believe, three Latinx folks serving legislature out of 149. There are two Asian Americans serving in the legislature out of 149. There is probably nobody in the legislature who depends on public transportation. There are probably no legislators who have had to navigate the health care system in a way that you have to do it if you don’t have health insurance.

So, the perspective of the folks that are serving is far different than the condition of the folks in which they have been elected to represent in the legislature. So, what happens is we have a lot of culture wars and folks whose lives don’t get any better off than they were before. I was talking to some partners a while back at McComb Capital, and they estimate that less than 3% of public decisions (so decisions that we make as elected officials) are rooted in data. So, we don’t think about the impact that it has to anybody. For whatever reason, in the state that deals with mental health problems and poverty, we have this transgender sports issue that seems to be the most important thing. It’s not the most important thing. There’s a whole bunch of other things we should be addressing. But I think it’s a work avoidance ill in state capitals.

I will say there is some progress in some of these areas, like paid family leave is a great example of this. I know this is not a paid family leave podcast. But, I think this is something that is pretty interesting because, post Dobbs decision and things like that, I think a lot of conservative legislators are trying to figure out what is going to be our approach to these challenges. I think there is some change that’s starting to happen, where folks are starting to say, okay, paid family leave might be something we should be considering doing. These childcare subsidies are something we probably need to be focused on. There are some small shifts, I think, but that’s only because of political backlash. So, when I talked about before, you can’t sit on the sidelines anymore, legislators have got to hear from people.

I think this would probably be true in South Carolina. It’s true in Oklahoma; it’s been true in Arkansas and other places. Idaho. Medicaid expansion is a great example. Would have never passed the Oklahoma legislature. There was an attempt by previous governor and then there’s so much backlash because it was associated President Obama they didn’t do it. Voters in Oklahoma did it though a ballot measure. Criminal justice reform is something that we never really got done. Voters did it through a ballot measure. My second year in the legislature, we raised revenue in Oklahoma for the first time in 30 years. Why did we do it? Teachers walked out, and folks are very vocal.

So, I think the lesson is all the things that I described can be summed up in people have got to make their voices heard on these issues. That’s the only thing it’s going to change. Now we have a situation where we’re starting to see the corporate sector get more and more bold in pushing back against some of the stuff because they have employees who have families who suffer from these things. I think they need to do that more and more aggressively. They have to understand that tax cuts and all that kind of stuff is not really what builds a vibrant community or even a vibrant economy. It’s not just about “inclusion.” It really is about empowering people.

If you leave legislative bodies to their own devices, people are gonna lose, because we don’t make decisions based on data. We make it based on what we hear from constituents and if we hear nothing, we assume that everybody’s happy with what we did. I think that’s the thing that everybody should understand. Circling back to our conversation around collective impact and civic infrastructure and those types of things, I talked about the commitment that you have to have to your place. That’s where it starts. I think it’s the same conversation that you have to have, with our commitment to each other in our civic life. You have to have the courage to say “That ain’t right, and we’re going to make sure that you all are gonna hear us, not just on election day.”

We’re really at a situation now where folks, just like we talked about in the collective impact space, have to have that same commitment to the civic space. It doesn’t have to be partisan. There are a number of very moderate Republicans that I serve with –I’m a Democrat–that get drowned out by extremists. I think if they had folks who were more involved, that’d give them a little bit of cover, I think things would be different. So, it’s just a time that we can’t sit on the sidelines when we’re talking about trying to get better outcomes for kids or we’re trying to think about the policy environment, which we’re living in, because they all work together, as we talked before. All these things come together.

Ame Sanders  45:15

Well, Monroe Nichols, that’s a great place for us to stop on, which is that it’s all about not sitting on the sidelines, making sure that we’re committed to one another in this work, and that we’re committed to our communities. That works at collective impact, working with cradle-to-career opportunities for kids in our communities, and also in our civic life. So thank you so much for talking with us today.

Monroe Nichols  45:42

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ame Sanders  45:45

You know, there are so many wonderful takeaways in this interview. However, there are a few points I’d like to highlight. In the stories that Monroe shared, he reminded us that we need to:

First, do the hard work, drill down to uncover the root cause or causes that are impacting our community, and to build a solid theory of action.

Second, partner up. Be willing to work with partners, even when those partners are not who we might imagine. It might be animal control, as he told us, or transportation providers. Sometimes the biggest impact on educational outcome happens from working with partners that are completely outside of the school itself.

Third, bridge across the cracks that exist across and within our systems.

Fourth, align around outcomes.

But probably the biggest takeaway that I had from our discussion is that lasting progress is built on a foundation of true commitment to place. That means we, as community members, commit to one another and to our community.

If you haven’t heard my interview with Kalika Curry at Eastside Pathways, I would encourage you to listen to that episode next. And if you’re interested in topics around equity and education, you might enjoy the podcast “Leading Equity.” The Leading Equity podcast is all about supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. The host, Dr. Sheldon Eakins shares interviews and stories from the voices of equity in education today. I’ll include links to both of those in our show notes.

This has been the State of Inclusion Podcast. Join us again next time. And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others. Leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening.


Guest: Monroe Nichols

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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