As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day and reflect on the progress of the civil rights movement, it is humbling to see how the dynamics of structural racism and economic inequity persist. Stories of police abuse of people of color dominate the news, income inequality has increased across demographic lines, and people of color are disproportionately the last to benefit in regions where economic growth has occurred.

Whether the problem is racially and/or economically based, there are certain dynamics and assumptions that lead it to persist. Moreover, there are certain strategies a community can pursue to more effectively serve all of the people who live in it. These findings are drawn from my experiences supporting leaders at the state, county, and municipal levels to reduce inequity in the areas of education, health, and economic development.

The first dynamic "Success to the Successful" describes how opportunity and success are closely linked. Opportunity breeds success, and success breeds opportunity. This cycle works to the benefit of people who begin with certain advantages that pave the way for greater success and opportunity over time, and works against those who start from a disadvantaged place.

The second "Treading Water" details how multiple vicious cycles combine to drag the disadvantaged down over generations, and why numerous programs to improve the quality of their housing, health, education, and employment are insufficient to lift people above the level of survival.

Both dynamics are perpetuated by assumptions that lead those on top to celebrate their accomplishments as earned and to judge people on the bottom as deserving of their failure.

These are six high leverage interventions leaders can pursue to create greater equity in their communities:

1.   Distinguish two system purposes – enabling people to survive or supporting them to thrive – and make an explicit choice in favor of the latter.

2.   Learn from outliers who succeed despite their ostensible disadvantages or fail despite their obvious advantages.

3.   Focus on strategies that are community- as well as government-driven, structures that are informal as well as formal, and metrics that are qualitative as well as quantitative.

4.   Increase collaboration among stakeholders within each sector (public, private, nonprofit) as well as across these three sectors.

5.   Redirect the revenues generated by economic development and dividends created by more effective interventions that reduce social service and criminal justice costs towards additional resources for increasing equity.

6.   Educate advantaged people about the fundamental humanity and potential they share with the disadvantaged – and how inequity and inequality undermine not only the moral but also economic and social fabrics of all.



To learn more, read David Peter Stroh’s new book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results (Chelsea Green, 2015).