May 22, 2023 11 min read

Best Practices are Useless in Complex Systems

Original art depicting tree, fruit, winding road, community, transformation, in grays, blues, golds.
Artwork by Lucy Sherston

Vol. 1, No. 4

"Best Practices are Useless in Complex Systems.…and you’re probably working in a complex system."

That’s the title and subtitle of an article, by Jen Briselli, that recently appeared in my inbox.

Yikes! Didn't I consider my podcast conversations some way of gathering best practices from the communities I speak with?

Jen used Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework to define complex scenarios as those where:

"Cause-and-effect relationships are unpredictable and require experimentation, sense-making, and emergence to respond effectively, often involving collaboration, innovation, and adaptive approaches to address the situation."

With that definition, building a more equitable and inclusive community is definitely working with complex systems and complex scenarios.

So, are we wasting our time trying to learn from each other?

My answer to that is NO!

While there may not be “best practices,” I believe there is still plenty to learn from learning how different communities are working to build a more inclusive community.

In that spirit, I’d like to share some takeaways from a group of conversations I’m calling the City Collection. These are conversations I’ve had with leaders who are responsible for community-wide initiatives or organizations within their local government to make their communities more equitable, inclusive, resilient, and just.

Let’s see what we can learn from these leaders.

Fit In Where You Can Get In

Fit in where you can get in. - Jerry Harris, Charleston SC, Episode 42

In these conversations, we didn’t find a best practice or consistent way of organizing equity and inclusion work or even a common trigger for launching this work.

What we did find, in every case, were individuals and teams committed to making their community work a little better for everyone who lives there. Their work emerged from a collective recognition, awareness, and need bubbling up from the community and focused on the issues most relevant to their community at that moment in time.

The organization was purpose-fit, matching those leading the work and the work they set out to do.

As a result, the shape of the organization and the origin story for each of these initiatives is as unique as the communities and the leaders themselves.

  • In Charlotte, Leading on Opportunity is organized as a non-profit under their community foundation, The Foundation for the Carolinas. It was launched in response to research from Raj Chetty that placed Charlotte at the bottom of the nation in terms of Economic Mobility.
  • In Greenville, SC, the Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Team (REEM) was brought together by a few civic leaders as a response to the George Floyd murder and structured under the United Way. However, their formation was also informed by Raj Chetty’s research and the fact that, like Charlotte, Greenville performs poorly on Economic Mobility.
  • In Charleston, SC, the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission emerged from a lengthy process. It started with a period of reflection following the Mother Emmanuel Massacre in 2015. That was followed by an apology for the city’s role in slavery as part of the city’s 350th year anniversary in 2020. Still searching for a path toward action, the city launched a study that led to passing legislation that formally created their commission.
  • Illinois launched a pilot to operationalize diversity, equity, and inclusion across fourteen cities as part of a state-wide partnership between the Great Cities Institute, the Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus, and the Illinois County City Manager’s Association (ILCMA).

In Tulsa, OK, Madison, WI, and Portland, OR, their respective city governments have embedded diversity, equity, and inclusion organizations within their city government. In Tulsa, their work is sponsored by the Mayor and includes a focus on resilience and immigration. In Portland, the creation of the Office of Equity and Human Rights was sparked from city leaders responding to an equity report created by the Coalition of Communities of Color working with Portland State University. In Madison, Kristy Kumar described the establishment of her role and organization as coming from a “confluence of things.” She talked about equity reports, community pressure, as well as pressure from inside the city government organization.

Mobilize the Community to Action

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out. - Václav Havel

Many interviewees could point to a single leader or a few community leaders who were instrumental in mobilizing the community to action. In some cases, it was a political leader like the mayor, in others, it was well-respected business leaders. These leaders spoke out and stepped up, most without fully knowing how this work would be structured or where the work would ultimately lead the community. Yet they held strong convictions that it was the right time for change and the right thing to do and acted on those convictions to mobilize their community into action.

This is not to say that change can’t also come from the ground up. In talking with Judith Mowry from Portland, the emergence of their organization was built very much from city leaders acknowledging a groundswell of community activism, and she, as a community organizer, was brought into that team.

In every case, these community efforts reflect the recognition that progress requires some type of action, coupled with some type of public commitment, coordinated effort, structure, and staff.

Left alone, it’s not going to get better on its own. We actually have to do something to help us get to better. - Rev. Stacey Mills, Greenville SC, Episode 29

Engage All Community Members

One thing we heard loudly and clearly was the need to bring the whole community into this work. To move beyond listening or token representation and move to power-sharing and co-creating plans and actions with community members. To provide safe ways for the community to engage and be heard. To build and rebuild trust across the community. To be successful, we heard that this work can’t be seen as just another program coming from the top or with token representation. It needs to be built by and with those who bear the cost of the problems, benefit from the solutions, and know, based on lived experience, what is needed. Building community is a collective task.

The challenge for every community is not so much to have a vision of what it wants to become, or a plan, or specific timetables. The real challenge is to discover and create the means for engaging citizens that brings a new possibility into being. - Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

Nowhere was this more evident than in our discussion with Krystal Reyes of Tulsa, OK. She and her team are thoughtful, deliberate, and consistent about including the community in all that they do. This is reflected in their plans, their work, and their structure.

I can't think of something we do that has not engaged community. So I would say everything we do engages community members, whether those are the people with lived experience or the nonprofits or the foundations or businesses that are supporting communities. - Krystal Reyes, Tulsa OK, Episode 43

These leaders told us that creating a container, a safe place for community participation, and broad community engagement is really the most urgent first step of this work.

I would center community voices from the very beginning. What this looks like is making sure they are not only at the table to provide perspective but at the table to make decisions. – Sherri Chisolm, Charlotte, NC, Episode 14

This work also requires ongoing, constant, and relentless communication across many different stakeholder groups. Sherri Chisolm reminded us that “we need to be able to communicate to everyone” and to consider, “Who do you need to carry the message? It might not be you.”

Krystal Reyes described it as creating many “on-ramps” to communicate with and bring people to this work.

There’s different on-ramps to this work, I like to say. And sometimes people need a data on-ramp, sometimes people need the story, the personal story on-ramp, and sometimes people need the policy rationale. So, I think being able to speak to all those different audiences and creating all the different on-ramps to the work is very important. And lots of cities have done it in many different ways. -Krystal Reyes, Tulsa, OK, Episode 43

Frame Generational Change While Pursuing Incremental Action

One particularly challenging aspect of the work of building a more inclusive and equitable community is the challenge of scope, focus, and time horizon, balanced with the emergent nature of community change.

This is broad and far-reaching work. We saw teams who were challenged with unrealistic expectations to deliver results quickly. Some of the teams we spoke with talked about 90-day studies or three-year missions. There was pressure for progress and action across many different action areas. In some cases, it felt like a need to be everywhere, all at once. It requires skill in managing this work, but also in setting and managing expectations. All, while working through and with a shifting and changing community landscape.

Dr. Kathleen Yang-Clayton expressed it very clearly when she shared about an exchange she had.

What’s going on in your organization has been decades in the making. So please do not have the expectation that this one professor or woman of color is going to come in and fix everything in one year or even in three years. - Dr. Kathleen Yang-Clayton, University of Illinois – Chicago, Episode 41

We talked about balancing strategic thinking with tactical actions, even experiments. Being willing to frame the broader work in generational terms while still pressing for progress in the near term. Recognizing the many areas where action is needed but prioritizing and planning those across time. Recognizing that short-term progress is needed and possible but set within a broader context and longer-range perspective.

So, we won’t truly understand if this work has had the impact that we hoped it would have until 35 to 40 years from now. We are committed in the long run, but we recognize that we need to be able to measure our impact now. So, the language that we often use is ‘what does it look like to make generational change versus incremental change?’ - Sherri Chisolm, Charlotte NC, Episode 14

Work from the Inside, but with Outside Connections

Many of the leaders we spoke with recognized that this work of diversity, equity, and inclusion is an inside job, something that can only be done by local community members. Still, they and their teams benefited greatly from local partnerships as well as outside networks and connections.

Participating in national networks and state-wide or national peer groups was a powerful source of inspiration, support, wisdom, and even funding. Of the communities we spoke with, Tulsa perhaps best exemplified this approach. They regularly reach out, participate, and give back as part of many communities of practice in service of this work, including the following:

I recommend that they reach out to those national networks so that their city can be part of those networks. And they can tap into that, colleagues that can help provide advice, best practices, tools. In city government, we steal from each other all the time. We don't want to reinvent something if another city has already either written it or has tried an approach, especially if there's data to back that up. What we do is we very much try to be part of those national networks. – Krystal Reyes, Tulsa, OK, Episode 43

We also saw examples of communities partnering with local universities to provide expertise, facilitation, student interns, data analysis, and scorecards, as well as to help prepare the next generation of civic leaders.

These leaders also recognized that the scale of this work means it is beyond the scope of a single team or organization. We heard this from Kristy Kumar in Madison, Wisconsin, when she described the powerful work also being done in her city by their local YWCA. The teams we spoke with were stronger when they recognized and cultivated a local network of change agents across their community, supporting one another and working together.

Inform the Work with Data and Research

Each of these communities emphasized the need for their work to be grounded in data and research.

Greenville’s work was informed by its Race Equity Index, and Tulsa regularly tracks and reports out on its Equality Indicators.

Dr. Kathleen Yang-Clayton also reminded us how critical it is that we continuously test our assumptions. As practitioners, we bring our own biases to this work. Sometimes what can feel like a racial issue is just poor practice and adversely impacts everyone.

Again, partnering for expertise, analysis, and research can boost a community’s insights and work. Sherri Chisolm, from Charlotte, shared information about a research partnership they formed with the Brookings Institute to explore issues that contributed to a lack of social capital across their community. That research helped inform their actions.

Own Your Past While Working for Your Future

The communities we spoke with all grapple with some legacy of violence or past wrongs towards individuals or whole communities. We heard that finding ways to acknowledge, own and heal from the past while maintaining a decidedly forward focus is an important aspect of their work. This includes acknowledging the past and understanding the harms that have been and are still being perpetrated, as well as identifying those who have been harmed.

I think that's one of the first steps that a city and communities need to take is the normalizing of the conversations around what happened, naming the impacts in the legacy of historical and structural racism, talking about racism, talking about racial equity, and what that means, and having difficult conversations with community members, family members, your workplaces, and also across the city. – Krystal Reyes, Tulsa, OK, Episode 43

The communities I spoke with, clearly did not see this work as just about the past. They are using their equity and inclusion work as a basis to anticipate and face emerging and future risks. They are using this work to make a better future for everyone in their community.

We heard about the need to solidly embed the work of equity, inclusion, and accountability into operational processes and to plan ahead for the transition of supportive political leaders.

In Tulsa, their concepts of equity and inclusion are integral to their work of strengthening community resilience for ongoing and future shocks and also welcoming new immigrants.

In Portland, they are working proactively to establish policies to protect their citizens around practices such as the emerging widespread use of facial recognition, with especially adversely affects the Black community. They are also establishing policies and practices around the civic use of personal data to reduce the risk of future targeting or exploitation.

We also heard that this work of equity and inclusion is not without risk. Despite progress, or perhaps because of it, the communities we spoke with are vulnerable to political attacks, violent demonstrations, investigations, and even misconduct by some leaders and those within the city staff. Anticipation of these kinds of risks and advance preparation for prompt and clear responses is critical.

Practice Joy, Dignity, Belonging, and Care

For all of the big actions and changes that these leaders are pursuing across these communities, they remember that community equity and inclusion emerge from the smallest actions, personal relationships, and everyday interactions.

If the meeting isn’t equitable, the outcomes won’t be equitable. If the meeting isn’t joyful, the outcomes aren’t going to be joyful. So, I think we can’t just labor on with painful processes in the name of justice. We can’t just labor on with meetings and forums that don’t feel right thinking, well, we’re doing this to create a better world for future generations. – Kristy Kumar, Madison, WI, Episode 24
We’re not where we are for a lack of plans, right? We haven’t yet reached racially equitable societies for a lack of plans and research. The reason we’re not there is because we haven’t necessarily been taught or allowed to do an embodied practice where we are connecting the joy and the dignity piece, the belonging piece, the care piece, into our work. . – Kristy Kumar, Madison, WI, Episode 24


Hopefully, these leaders reminded you, as they did me, that on this journey, we are in very good company, and there is plenty to learn from one another.

If you’re intrigued by all of this, please set aside some time to listen to these interviews at The Inclusive Community, City Collection.

Wishing you the very best in your efforts to advance equity and inclusion in your own community.

A Word About Our New Artwork

The lovely original artwork used as the website cover and as the cover for our newsletter was created by Lucy Sherston.

Some of the concepts illustrated in this imagery include preparing community soil, planting seeds, putting down roots, deepening roots, and growing into the strength of a mature tree. This work of equity and inclusion, symbolized by the tree, bears fruit and is picked and shared by all across multiple generations. Forming the fruits are one-to-one dialogue and relationships. This includes speaking, but most importantly listening to one another. This fruit nourishes us now and into the future, as well as holding the seeds of future progress.

The road through the image symbolizes the long journey toward equity and inclusion, which leads along a twisting and winding upward trajectory toward a brighter and more positive future. There are butterflies and flowers that illustrate the emergent and transformational nature of this journey. This journey is also depicted as both an individual and collective journey, with hills and valleys along the way.

Thank you for joining us at The Inclusive Community, a newsletter produced by State of Inclusion.

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