OP-ED: To Improve Your Economy, Form a Backbone Agency

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Collaboration is good, but not good enough.

When a problem arises, our tendency is to convene to support an initiative that will combat the problem. Collaborations tend to be driven by a single issue — they put out fires — when instead we should act like Smokey the Bear to prevent the fires.

It’s a good thing when we can bring people together from their respective silos to tackle a problem, but it’s not enough if we keep problems separate that are interconnected. All we have done is collect the people, not the problems.

Community problem-solving is about collective decisions to improve outcomes — not merely supporting a program or initiative. It’s a continuous and sustainable process that has a collective impact on every child, youth and family.

It has been stated that “There is no other way society will achieve large-scale progress against urgent and complex problems, unless a collective impact approach becomes the accepted way of doing business.”

I am ecstatic about Clayton County, Ga.’s collaborative initiatives to reduce detention and school arrests. They certainly contribute toward a better future for youth.

However, many go home, experience the pain associated with poverty and return to the justice system. We must do better to improve their lives, which requires economic opportunity for their parents.

This will not occur until leaders support a backbone agency that coordinates and connects several public and private entities to move them toward collective impact.

A backbone agency that targets children beginning at birth, equipping them with skills so they don’t break and flow into the cradle-to-prison pipeline, will result in more taxpayers who can then contribute to economic growth.

Without such a backbone agency that develops a community care plan to produce healthy and productive citizens, communities can’t rely on initiatives to attract businesses.

It will not matter how much space is available for economic growth or how much access to major highways, interstates and airports exist if the citizens are not healthy. Businesses draw their employees from that community. They will ask themselves if these are citizens we can count on to make us a profit.

Businesses will invest in a community that invests in its children and youth — their future will determine the crime rates. High crime alone will make a community less inviting for investment. The stronger the collective, the stronger the impact, resulting in positive outcomes.

I have created many collaborative initiatives over the years — detention alternatives, school-based probation, restorative justice and more. These initiatives have helped reduce detention rates by 70 percent and commitment to state custody by 72 percent — preventing many youth from exposure to scary kids.

Despite these celebrated outcomes, they are not enough unless we connect them to other initiatives under a single umbrella, the backbone agency. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the number of youth referred to my court didn’t decline 62 percent until after we established the Clayton County System of Care (CCSOC), a collective impact model that connects local initiatives.

We were talking collective impact as early as 2003 during negotiations leading to our school referral reduction agreement, a collaborative initiative that has decreased school arrests 83 percent.

Trying to solve our school-to-prison pipeline revealed more problems — like what are we going to do with these chronically disruptive students no longer subject to arrest? This question led us down the collective impact road, though we didn’t know it at the time. We kept meeting and agreed to create a system of care for disruptive youth, mostly kids in poverty. This resulted in the Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team (Quad C-ST), a single point of entry for schools to refer disruptivekids for assessment and treatment.

Five years later we found grant funding to seed the beginnings of our backbone agency, the CCSOC. It funded a full-time administrator and part-time assistant who focused on improving disruptive students’ behavior. This pilot project revealed an 83 percent improvement in behavior and 23 percent improvement in reading and math scores. The SOC was able to do what the school system could not — get into the homes and retool the families.

By 2013, the county and school administrations agreed to financially support part of the SOC’s administrative costs. This joint agreement has attracted funders who want to invest in a community that also invests in itself.

Keeping kids in school and out of courts and onto a positive and healthy future is the goal of the SOC — and that will bring economic growth! The key to growing the local economy is investing in growing our kids.

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