ASR is thrilled to share our Q&A with Megan Joseph, Executive Director of Rise Together Bay Area. Megan spent some time addressing questions regarding her passion for equity and collective work, the efforts of Rise Together, as well as also Leadership for Equity and Opportunity (LEO), a unique leadership development program developed by Dr. Monica Sharma.
Q (ASR): What is Rise Together and how does it intend to end poverty and promote equity in the 9 Bay Area counties?
A (Megan): We are a regional coalition of over 250 organizations across the 9 County Bay Area working to accelerate systems and policy change in employment, education, housing and basic needs. We believe we are stronger together and through collective learning and action, we can create a Bay Area that works for everyone. Our backbone organization is United Way Bay Area, and we are guided by both a 20-member Steering Council representing business, philanthropy, nonprofit, government and social service sectors and by representatives from the 9 Bay Area counties who help develop and implement our core strategies and priorities.
Over the last two years, we have zeroed in on three key intersecting issue areas, which we’ve named A Strong Start for Every Child, Affordable Housing for Every Individual and Opportunity for Every Worker. Without these key building blocks in place, we cannot move the needle on poverty. Through Leadership and Capacity Development, Data for Informed Decision Making, Strategic Communications and Policy Advocacy, we work with our coalition to lift up what works, identify and advocate for specific systems and policy changes and build a strong and inclusive voice representing the most vulnerable in our region. Learn more about joining Rise Together!
Q: What changes have you seen happen over your time working with Rise Together?
A: I began working with Rise Together nearly two years ago, and in that time we have seen great political and societal shifts across the nation that have impacted every single entity and individual we work with. The need for organizations and initiatives to remain nimble and respond to each emerging crisis, whether it is the rights of the immigrant community or defending funding for basic needs, we have all had to redirect some energy and attention to these emerging issues – showing up for each other and acknowledging that your fight is mine, and mine yours. The most successful versions of this redirect, in my view, are those that didn’t veer away from the incredibly important issues they were originally working on, but found a way to integrate the emerging issues into their existing work. They did things differently, rather than doing different things that cause already thin resources to be spread even more thinly across issue areas.
"We cannot address living wage without addressing the benefits cliff, we can no longer talk about housing without also talking about transportation, quality employment and access to affordable quality childcare."
In addition, successful initiatives including our own are increasingly highlighting and designing based on the intersectionality and interdependence of our issue areas. We cannot address living wage without addressing the benefits cliff, we can no longer talk about housing without also talking about transportation, quality employment and access to affordable quality childcare. In fact, if we do silo these issues we are weakening our impact. And we cannot talk about any of these issues without naming and addressing the structural racism and inequality that is undeniably present, made explicit both quantitatively and qualitatively in our data and information gathering.
If I had to summarize the shifts I’ve seen in the last two years, it would be the remarkable level of urgency and the increased quality of collaboration that is emerging to address our common challenges. Among the challenges of these times, a great new hope has emerged.
Q: What is LEO?
A: Leadership for Equity and Opportunity (LEO) is a unique leadership development program for change makers of all types and all levels who want to increase their capacity to create results. The program was developed and is facilitated by Dr. Monica Sharma, former Director of Leadership and Capacity Development for the United Nations. Dr. Sharma developed this leadership framework through her work with diverse communities over two decades through the U.N. LEO is about what it truly takes as leaders to design and lead deep equitable change.
"This program provides practical tools and practices for overcoming the root impediments to creating progress on an issue"
I am often asked how this program is different from the many leadership development curriculum out there, especially in the Bay Area where we are saturated with leadership opportunities. This program is unique in several ways. First, it is based on the application of prominent leadership and systems change theory usually reserve for high level entities or organizations and makes it accessible for community settings. This program provides practical tools and practices for overcoming the root impediments to creating progress on an issue - divides based on gender, religion, race, class and other potentially divisive factors in order to overcome barriers and create space for breakthrough results on complex issues. The program is also designed to help teams and initiatives work more efficiently and effectively together, overcoming both internal and external barriers and sticking points that get in the way of reaching the desired goal. The program is positioned to be appropriate for all levels of leadership, from those most impacted by an issue to Executive Directors, Elected Officials and business professionals.
Q: What changes have you seen happen over your time working with LEO?
A: Over the last 8 years that I have worked with two versions of this leadership framework - Leadership for Community Transformation (LCT) in Santa Cruz County and Leadership for Equity and Opportunity (LEO) in the Bay Area. I have seen tremendous shifts in how individuals, teams and initiatives work together to create change over the course of these programs. Addressing both visible and invisible divides in communities is the core of the Leadership framework. Day one is designed to flatten hierarchy of race, class, gender and professional title so that each participant can learn from one another and build a community of respect and shared goals. This is one of the most powerful shifts that occurs and alone leads to breakthrough results in organizations and in the community. From this new foundation, individuals then work to re-design and re-imagine existing projects through a series of powerful tools and processes created to ensure they create sustainable and equitable results. Here are just a few examples of results in communities applying the Leadership tools and principles to their work:
- A team of Solano County employees participated in the first and second cohorts of LEO, using their new internal Equity Committee as their project, designed to help ensure equity is built into public benefit programming and other aspects of county administration. They have since grown both participation and commitment within county departments to bring conversations about race, equity and inclusion forward and make this a central factor in planning decisions.
- Participants in the Santa Cruz County Housing and Homelessness learning community that emerged out of LCT recently worked together to design a community planning session and write a grant for new HUD funding to address youth homelessness using the Leadership tools. They were awarded 1 of 10 grants given nationally, and HUD provided the feedback that their implementation plan was the strongest they had received.
- The Santa Cruz County Youth Violence Prevention Task Force was designed and implemented using this framework, and is staffed and made up of many LCT alumni. They have built and sustained this coalition over 5 years by securing local government funding. They recently used LCT to apply for a Federal grant to support boys and men of color, and were one of a handful nationwide that received the $2 Million grant. Called Project Thrive, the task force is creating a trauma informed system of care of Latino men and boys in the county. Feedback from reviewers noted the cohesiveness, collaboration and systems change principles outlined in the proposal which helped them win the grant.
- The Director and Policy Coordinator of Ensuring Opportunity Campaign to End Poverty for Contra Costa County participated in the first Oakland based Leadership for Equity and Opportunity (LEO) cohort. They then used LEO tools to design their housing summit and town hall meetings across the county to help build leadership for affordable housing.
Why do you believe in this work? Why do you feel it is important?
The core of this work for me is making equity, dignity and thriving a reality for everyone, with no one left out anywhere. Humanity can no longer afford for 'equity' to remain rhetoric or a feel good conversation without action. Equity is a moral and economic imperative that must be sourced by all sectors for meeting today's challenges and planning for the future. How we act on equity today will determine the future for not only ourselves, but for many generations to come.
Equity is a moral and economic imperative that must be sourced by all sectors for meeting today's challenges and planning for the future.
I have seen time and again that it is when we lead with equity and do not falter from the commitment to everyone having the opportunity to thrive that we are able to explicitly identify gaps in our current systems and design alternatives. From this space we can see, name and act on the structural racism inherent in our systems. We can see that certain populations are left out of opportunities based on status alone and address this directly. From this space we can identify leadership challenges and begin to grow the capacity to meet them. Ultimately, we can create a world where all children, grandchildren and generations to come no longer have to fight to meet their basic needs because together we have designed thriving and equitable communities.
Therefore this collective work, in my view, is everything.