Over time, with these elements in place, we have measured substantial reductions in youth drug and alcohol use, with binge drinking and cigarette use down by more than half since the coalition began, and alcohol and prescription drug misuse down by a third. We have also seen significant reductions in our priority risk factors for youth substance use, including family management problems, parental attitudes favorable to youth drug and alcohol use, and community laws and norms favorable to youth substance use.

Having defined ourselves synonymously with collective impact, we also realized that the constructive feedback and critical conversations about this collaborative approach to social change were likewise relevant to us. In particular, it became clear that we needed to build on the original model of collective impact (and our coalition) so that we could center racial equity as a key necessity in fostering grassroots community ownership and leadership.

From the beginning, we were a very white, top-down coalition. Though the younger generations in our region were more diverse than the older ones, the population was 91 percent non-Hispanic white. Our coordinating council (our initiative’s governing body) included leaders from traditional seats of power in the community—the police chief, the president of the chamber of commerce, an administrator from the hospital, and a school district curriculum director. And our work groups (the action-oriented groups that choose and implement strategies) were composed almost entirely of middle-class professionals, since we largely recruited people in decision-making roles at local partner agencies. Our parent education work group regularly tried to engage parents with the lived experience of poverty or substance use problems, but was unsuccessful.

From early on we were aware that these were weaknesses in our coalition, but we didn’t quite know what steps to take to address them. Additionally, our outcomes in youth health were exceeding even our most ambitious goals, so we were reluctant to adjust what seemed to be working. But increasingly, we were aware that our vision was myopic, particularly as we worked more closely with the recovery community, whose mantra is “Nothing about us without us!” Ethically, our approach was inequitable and paternalistic if our decision-making table was missing input and leadership from people with lived experience in historically rooted and systematically supported oppression.

Read the full article about centering racial justice by Kat Allen, Rachel Stoler, Keyedrya Jacobs, Ilana Gerjuoy, Sage Shea, and Leigh-Ellen Figueroa at Stanford Social Innovation Review.