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It Is Time to Take a Look at Collaborating for Equity and Justice

Collaborating for community or other types of social changes is not a recent idea. Formal community collaborations have been documented, along with corresponding literature, for almost 150 years. Explicit federal and philanthropic funding for collaborative efforts to address social issues began to burgeon during the 1980s. Before the end of the last century, it was rare to find a public or private Request for Proposal or grant program in the health and human services that did not require some form of collaboration, whether it was called a coalition, partnership, or collaborative. Every city had numerous collaborative efforts going on, each focusing on a certain social or health issue, or type of approach to that issue. By the mid 1990s, it was very common for nonprofit and other community leaders, along with funders, to spend a day or two each week going to meetings of different collaborative efforts in different offices, sometimes in the same building, and generally with the same people. Collaboration became the safe road to community and social change. We saw, during the same time, less funding going toward community organizing and other explicit efforts to redistribute power and wealth. While researchers and practitioners struggled with how to use collaboration to empower disenfranchised communities, Collective Impact was introduced as five basic ideas that would lead to change, devoid of any social justice agenda. Tom Wolff’s recent examination of Collective Impact (see Ten Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong) opens the door to revisit the complexities of collaborative efforts, especially when they try to address problems that are entrenched in our systems.

The purpose of this article is to begin where Tom Wolff left off: If Collective Impact is not enough, what should we be doing? This article is based on a previously published article (Chavis, 2001). The basic notion that collaborative efforts addressing social issues should be one big “group hug” needs to be challenged. That is not the experience of coalitions and other community collaborations, nor necessarily the best way to approach sustainable progressive change. For brevity’s sake, we will refer to these collaborative efforts as coalitions; however, the remainder of this article pertains to all forms of collaborative efforts, including those that fall under the Collective Impact banner or movement.

There have been growing theory and research on the centrality that the transformation of conflicts plays in the success of a coalition to build com¬munity capacity. Conflict transformation is the process whereby the resolution of a conflict builds the overall capacity of the coalition and actually makes it stronger. A study of 86 substance abuse prevention coalitions (Chavis, 1996) showed that conflict transformation was the major contributing factor to a coalition's ability to attain its programmatic goals. Conflict transformation was a much stronger predictor of the goal attainment of community coalitions than the combined effects of traditional organizational factors such as a strong structure, number of members, and detailed planning activities.

Successful coalitions are able to transform conflicts or para¬doxes within coalitions into a process of positive change. Community coalitions have inherent paradoxes that fa¬cilitate the emergence of larger community conflicts within them. These conflicts find fertile soil within community coalitions because of the diver¬sity of interests, different levels of power, and other factors (e.g., community history). The following are the paradoxes that can be found within coalitions based on theory and research on group dynamics.

Mixed loyalties: Coalition members are expected to have a dual commitment—to the coalition and to their own organization.
Autonomy versus accountability: The coalition must have enough au¬tonomy to take independent action and accountability to several lev¬els within the coalition (i.e., member organizations).
Means versus model: A coalition can be viewed as a means to accom¬plish a specific social change goal by the community (address poverty and powerlessness) as well as a model method to achieve an externally determined goal by its funders (e.g., substance abuse prevention).
Unity and diversity: Coalitions brine, together diverse interests and are expected to act with unanimity.  Coalition members share compatible, but not identical, interests. There are diverse self-interests and levels of power within the coalition that work against developing the unity that is expected of a coalition.
Scarce resources: Coalitions require people and organizations with limited time and resources to commit themselves to another orga¬nization. Member organizations are asked to contribute more than they receive.
Dependence-independence: The symbiotic relationship between the coalition and the lead agency (backbone organization or the organization that has the resources to support the coalition) is an inherent paradox. The lead agency and coalition members will emphasize the independence of the commu¬nity coalition. The coalition is actually very dependent on the regu¬lations and expectations of the lead agency (which has the legal and financial power). Resident dependence and independence comprise another version of this paradox in multisector coalitions. Resident leaders and their organizations need to be independent of the powerful institutions, but also depend on them for the betterment of their community.
Collaborations need conflict: Inequities in power and access to resources must be addressed to ensure that there is substantial transformation of these conflicts into increased community capacity for social change. These conflicts, often dismissed as personality issues, most frequently represent larger inequities or other issues occurring in the community (e.g., how funds are allocated, who represents the community, what groups dominate decisionmaking). Relatively few coalitions are able to make this transformation since, for too many, the idea of embracing conflict seems to run against the collaborative “why-can’t-we-all-get-along” spirit. Coalitions are most often conflict adverse or create cultures that suppress or isolate conflict and its causes. Conflict-free collaborations are unlikely to result in healthy relationships that serve the best interests of promoting equity and social justice. Current dominant models of collaboration, such as Collective Impact, view conflict as a failing, rather than an essential part of social change. The result is that the powerful get more powerful, and little systemic progress toward equity will occur.

THE ULTIMATE PARADOX: Current Dominant Multisector Coalition Models Reinforce Inequity

These paradoxes produce environments where conflicts will emerge that are related to inequities in power and access to resources. Most pro¬gressive human service experts and funders have touted coalitions and other collaborations as ve¬hicles for community empowerment. Yet, it may very well be that philanthropic and government-promoted approaches to community coalitions have in most cases greatly limited the ability of grassroots community organizations to obtain greater power. Coalitions are attractive because they are good management techniques for the implementation of social welfare activities (e.g., planning, coordination, re¬source development), but not necessarily for actively promoting greater con¬trol and participation by the leadership of disenfranchised members of the community.

Multisector community coalitions are the preferred model by public and private funders. In the vast majority of these cases, from our experience, multisector coalitions are structured to provide major institutions with the power to control the coalition. The numbers work against participating resident leaders, who are considered only one sector and therefore have small minority representing them. Funders of community coalitions and similar strategies (e.g., the partnerships) generally expect coalitions to engage large numbers of diverse community institutions and agencies. Most often they are government agency, foundation, human service, and business leaders dominating community coalitions numerically as well as in status and power. Lead organizations (the grantee or backbone organizations) are the recipients of the funding for the collaboration, and they have more connections within their sector of the community. These and other factors often end in relatively few community leaders of marginalized groups actually being involved in sufficient numbers in order to have a major influence on the direction of these multisector community coalitions. While research shows that individual relations among resident leaders and more powerful institutions do develop, there is rarely a change in actual power equity for residents. Collective Impact and other approaches just do not sufficiently concern themselves with this critical issue.

For true collaboration, there must be recognition of equal power among all those at the table, preferably from the very start. Many community organizations have not attained that level of power (or stature) within their community when the coalition is formed. Basic power inequities are never resolved until residents are seen as bringing equal or greater value to the table than the larger institutions. Funders and technical assistance providers need to be prepared to assist in this difficult process.

It is also important to recognize that there have been many coalitions that have supported the development of resident power and control of their community. They often structure themselves so that resident leaders are “co-chairs” or some similar top leadership position. Multigenerational and culturally diverse residents make up a majority, more or less, of the coalition’s decisionmaking body. However, more commonly, the culture of collaboration within most community coalitions is one that either avoids, placates, or squashes any conflict that may result as grassroots community leaders advocate for their constituencies. Redressing inequities that may lead to conflict in the larger community is considered counter to the goal of collaboration.

We have found that community coalitions did some unique things to transform conflict into improved capacity:

  1. Embraced conflicts and did not avoid them or personalize them;
  2. Shared ownership of conflicts and the resolution of the conflicts;
  3. Looked “outside of the room” as to the source of conflicts, focusing on system policies and practices;
  4. Changed the way they practiced so that it was explicitly equitable;
  5. Used data in decisionmaking, when available; and
  6. Monitored the transformation of that conflict by ensuring that equitable relationships and outcomes are maintained.

This is just the beginning and is in no way meant to appear simple or even requiring a short list of things to do. Collaborating for social justice and equity in our society is a complex phenomenon, and as Lee Schorr often states, we need to embrace the complexity in order to be successful. The first step to finding a solution is to acknowledge the problems of our current methods. Community Science hopes that this article and other discussions happening across the globe will begin this process.


Chavis. D. M. (1996). Evaluation of community partnership program process. Paper presented at the meeting of Prevention 96, Dallas, TX.

Chavis, D. M. (2001). The paradoxes and promise of community coalitions. American Journal of
Community Psychology, 29(2), 309?320.

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