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Renewing Social Architecture by Building Bridges

A community in which diverse organizations share a common agenda, continually communicate, share data, and employ shared measurement systems is extraordinarily rare. In fact, I've never seen Believe2Become accomplished elsewhere.

"What do you need?" That was the open-ended question that the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation presented to the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Public Schools in 2006. In an age when many spend their energy wagging fingers, assigning blame, and touting their own successes, this is a shocking question for a Christian foundation to pose to a public institution. Even more surprising was their willingness to listen attentively to the answers and to seek to create what Robert Putnam calls "bridging social capital": capital that is created by heterogeneous groups of people and has the capacity to improve society as a whole. The result is a case study in the renewal of social architecture, one that highlights the importance of building bridges for the common good.

Like so many urban public school districts, the challenges facing the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) are not small. For instance, only 51.8% of students graduate from high school, in glaring contrast with 96.7% in a neighbouring suburb. As many local families have sought private, parochial, and charter schools for their children, the population of struggling families and students is even more concentrated in the public schools.

Many conclude that the schools (and teachers) are the problem. But the most important discovery has been that the educational and experiential disparities are deeply established long before children even get to school. In 2009, for example, only 17% of kindergarten students in Grand Rapids met school readiness benchmarks, compared with 97% in the neighbouring suburb. So the question, "What do you need?" is not just a question for a school system, it is a question for a community.

To answer that question, the DeVos Foundation engaged hundreds of individuals, institutions, and organizations through community forums and grassroots outreach. They discovered that any solution would need to align early childhood, in-school, after-school, and summer learning environments by building a broad coalition across sectors that are too often siloed: government, private, business, non-profit, philanthropy, church, and family. The key stakeholders in the various sectors—parents, educators, executives, trustees, clergy, social workers, and health care professionals—would be essential in identifying local assets and designing for collective impact. Specifically, the DeVos Foundation set out to define a common agenda that would be supported by continuous communication among partner organizations, mutually reinforcing activities, and shared measurement. Most importantly, "backbone" support organizations would be designed and built to achieve these objectives. Thus the program not only stipulates goals and expectations, it builds the scaffolding and supports needed to achieve those goals. This is the work of building social architecture. In this case, it was a matter of building bridges between different sectors, all of which have a stake in the education of children.

Becoming "bridge building champions" meant not merely identifying needs, but engaging the community to identify local assets. In many ways, the assets they identified are as abundant and diverse as the needs: after-school programs, social service agencies, public health programs, churches, and community engagement organizations. In fact, one such local asset has proved to be key in building trust and listening to the community: LINC Community Revitalization. With a strong history of building community relationships in the target neighbourhoods, LINC was ideally positioned to engage a wide range of local stakeholders in clarifying a common agenda.

The product of that community process was Believe to Become (B2B), a collaborative partnership of community members and nearly one hundred local organizations committed to addressing the individual and systemic factors in four specific centre-city neighbourhoods called Hope Zones. Their mission is to nurture "children who are ready for school, work, and life." The remarkable achievement of this initiative was successfully marshalling community assets for a specific goal (eliminate the achievement gap by 2025), breaking the communication and niche silos that had isolated them, and establishing consistent measurement to improve quality and transparency.

To accomplish this, they identified four systemic keys to change, and specific mutually reinforcing activities in those key areas. First, strong schools are an obviously important systemic key. The DeVos Foundation provided funding for the GRPS to develop a culture of effort-based education and improved instruction through the Institute for Learning. Furthermore, the DeVos Foundation worked closely with the GRPS to enable continual data sharing in ways that honoured the schools' commitments to legal requirements for data security. This was critical for the second systemic key: community partnerships. For the initiative to successfully implement an early childhood intervention (Baby Scholars), a research-based after-school program, and a family development program (Gatherings of Hope), it needed effective data sharing so that they could see which elements were having an impact on student achievement. The third and fourth systemic keys, parent resources and student experiences, span the preschool and school years and are intertwined. In the Baby Scholars program and the Gatherings of Hope, both of which will be described later in this article, student experiences and parent support happen simultaneously—ensuring that families receive the benefits of both interventions.


Systemic KeysMutually Reinforcing Activities
Strong schoolsData sharingSchool readinessInstitute for Learning
Community partnershipsGatherings of HopeBaby ScholarsAfter-school
Parent resourcesBaby ScholarsParent LeadersGatherings of Hope
School experiencesEarly childhoodAfter-schoolSummer Learning


These four systemic keys to change are intentionally directed at five "vital behaviours" for families and children to prepare for school, work, and life:

  1. Daily affirmation: affirmation and high expectations go hand in hand.

  2. Daily school attendance: showing up is essential.

  3. Check schoolwork: discussing class work validates and enriches learning.

  4. Get help: knowing when to reach out for help with school, relationships, and life is critical.

  5. Read together: learning together becomes a habit, and a delight.

To succeed, the systems need to work in symphony to provide resources and opportunities, and to cultivate vital behaviours. One of the critical insights of B2B is that a strong school is just one of the four systemic keys. Working strategically and collaboratively on all four areas with local experts provides meaningful opportunities for children and families, and makes it possible—and indeed essential—to have high expectations for students and families in the Hope Zones.

Having a community in which these kinds of activities are occurring simultaneously is not uncommon; having a community in which diverse organizations share a common agenda, continually communicate formally and informally, share data in real-time (such as yesterday's school absences), and employ shared measurement systems is extraordinarily rare. In fact, I've never seen it accomplished elsewhere.

What is even more remarkable is that the initiative built the organizational backbone into its constituent organizations rather than creating a new super-organization. For example, the DeVos Foundation funded a technology position in GRPS to facilitate data sharing. It contracted Community Research Institute (CRI), a trusted local research group, to design, execute, and analyze the research. In so doing, the initiative empowers the member organizations to measure their progress, establish best practices, focus on their core value, coordinate with related support services, and better serve their community. Community outreach is probably the most salient example of how the initiative has been able to reduce redundancy. Formerly, each of the nearly one hundred organizations needed to do its own outreach to serve its clients well. Now, by letting the community engagement specialists (LINC) lay the groundwork, and by fostering data sharing and continual communication, each organization can focus on its core service.

So what do the partner organizations do? Community engagement in the Hope Zones begins at conception, or even before conception, to address huge disparities in rates of low birth weight and infant mortality between the rich and poor. Fourteen community health workers from Strong Beginnings, a B2B partner organization, build networks in the Hope Zones through hair and nail salons, libraries, and other local gathering places to spread the word of the free in-home visits for expectant mothers and mothers of children under two. When a hairstylist sees that one of her clients is newly pregnant, she puts her in touch with Strong Beginnings. And it is working—affecting the lifestyle and health behaviours of mothers during a period of life that has magnified impact on their children. The rate of low birth weight of program participants has dropped from 17% to below 7%. In addition to lowering rates of low birth weight, fully half of the community health workers are women who received the services of Strong Beginnings. The organization has indigenized.

Strong Beginnings supports the Baby Scholars program, built on the framework of Dr. Susan Landry of the Children's Learning Institute, and led by Arbor Circle, another B2B partner. Baby Scholars offers ten weeks of in-home parent coaching for families of children 5 to 19 months old. For parents of 20 to 36 month-olds, there is a 10-week group parenting course in which parents work with professional coaches while their children participate in a high quality learning classroom. Parents of 3 to 5 year olds, too, can participate in a 10-week Baby Scholars program during which their children participate in a preschool classroom and can come back for another two-hour preschool session that week to give parents a break. The Baby Scholars sequence squarely engages all four systemic factors for success: children, parents, community—and schools, by dramatically boosting children's school readiness.

Yet B2B wasn't content simply to lay a good foundation in early childhood. The community recognized that setting high expectations and providing opportunities meant addressing out-of-school learning time during the school year and summer months. In the realm of after-school programming, B2B partner United Way Schools of Hope offers quality instruction and support through a consistent, research-based curriculum delivered in nineteen area churches, schools, and community organizations. The Summer Learning Academy aimed to reduce or eliminate the two months of learning that low-income youth typically "lose" during summer break through exciting, engaging summer programs—including ones that provided college and vocational exposure. It succeeded. Through a variety of summer offerings, students showed substantial learning gains—not losses.

During the school-age years, B2B engages families through a church-based initiative called Gatherings of Hope. Early on, the DeVos Foundation surveyed local churches' engagement in educational issues and concluded that "the latent social power of churches remains largely dormant, untapped, and impotent when it comes to addressing critical social issues." Gatherings of Hope was designed by and with those congregations with a specific goal in mind: "confident and resilient children; strong, united families; strong, cohesive neighbourhoods; and improved academic performance." The format is simple: local congregations (forty congregations in the pilot) host ten to twelve two-and-a-half hour programs, each constituted (ideally) of ten families, and include incentives for familial involvement, program-related celebrations, and certificates of recognition for participation. These evening sessions begin with one hour of family bonding, including a meal and activities designed to foster communication and reinforce values. During the second hour, students receive mentoring, homework help, and character development coaching while the parents participate in parent training classes and discussion. The parents and children reconvene for the final half hour of sharing, prayer, and singing. This format has mobilized and connected dozens of local churches; it has fostered clergy collaboration across racial, denominational, and turf lines; and it has deployed thousands of hours of volunteer time in focus on two of the most sensitive and predictive components of educational attainment: parent involvement, and student character. It is already achieving results: 82% percent of participating parents reported increased confidence in parenting, and 71% reported improved family life.

An example of the thoughtfulness of design in Believe2Become

For anyone who seeks the renewal of social architecture, Believe to Become offers important lessons in design, funding, collaboration, and faith. Community engagement is the first and critical component: B2B is its constituent organizations. They collaborated to define, design, and execute the initiative. Social capital is a close second. Analyzing the B2B initiative in The Foundation Review, Neil Carlson and his colleagues note, "Social capital consists of productive, industrial-strength social relationships that churn out social goods the way a factory produces manufactured goods. . . . There is no social capital without norms of reciprocity and trust. These take intentional and patient work to grow." B2B has invested deeply in that intentional and patient work, and is beginning already to reap the fruit.

For a philanthropic foundation, funding is a critical mechanism of building social trust and bridging social capital. Providing funding to, and soliciting funding for, existing community institutions is demonstrable trust in their capacity, and commitment to their success. At the same time, partner organizations demonstrate good faith by submitting to external, agreed-upon measurement and evaluation criteria. Building sufficient trust and infrastructure to share data among collaborating institutions, including the Grand Rapids Public Schools, was a monumental achievement in bridging social capital, and an essential condition of doing the kind of research and evaluation that is critical to achieving its aims.

Paradoxically, the clarity and breadth of mission are essential success factors for B2B. It is necessary to address and engage diverse social institutions as powerfully formative, and to raise expectations for individual students and parents in the pursuit of educational renewal. B2B played an indispensable role in connecting institutions to one another across spheres: public schools, private foundations, government and privately funded non-profits, public health teams, educational researchers, and Christian churches. Indeed, it is fair to say that its role as connector and social glue is at least as important—if not more—than the funding it provides.

This shared work is the reweaving of the social fabric by patiently building bridges to create social capital. The means reflects and foster the end: a flourishing community in which each individual has God-given dignity and responsibility, and every institution has a particular sphere and calling in which to steward resources for the common good and the glory of God. In this faithful, public action of a family foundation, the citizens and organizations of a particular community work collaboratively to see hints of God's kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.

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Graham Scharf Graham Scharf
Graham Scharf is a father, the husband of a developmental pediatrician, and the author of The Apprenticeship of Being Human. ... read more »
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