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SPARCC: What We’ve Learned May Surprise You

The Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) has a bold mission to change the way regions grow, invest, and build. The initiative kicked off two years ago as a partnership across a range of funders and nonprofit organizations from across the country to create new approaches to equitable regional development, focusing on three areas or “lenses” – health, racial equity, and climate change.

Midway through our project we took an in-depth look at how this initiative is working, how it can stand as a model for others and how we can turbocharge this effort in the next phase. We revisited some of our original hypotheses and took time to reflect on what we’ve learned.

So, how have our assumptions played out? A new report based on a series of interviews gave us a lot of answers.

Check out the full the report here.

Laura Choi of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s community development research team interviewed 15 people representing the six SPARCC regions—Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Denver— to better understand their experience in testing these hypotheses over the first half of the initiative.

Hypothesis 1: Equitable development requires looking at the work simultaneously through the integrated “lenses” of racial equity, health, and climate.

In testing this hypothesis, we learned that despite our theory on the three lenses, racial equity has emerged as primary.  SPARCC site participants from areas of health, climate and community development told us the main lens of racial equity is at the root of most of the challenges communities face today and it is the one that all others should flow through.  As one team member put it, “If we want to make systemic changes, … we realized we had to start with racial equity then look at these other outcomes [health and climate] through that lens.” Thus, in all six SPARCC regions, these new alliances and collaborative tables—looking through multiple lenses—forced a conversation and stark conclusion that may never have occurred otherwise. 

We also learned that displacement pressure, particularly among communities of color, is a common backdrop to the work in all of the SPARCC regions, leading us to hold a 350-participant gathering in Los Angeles at the close of 2018. The day-long event explored strategies that can help cities and regions around the country achieve equitable, inclusive growth informed by the voices, needs, and interests of those communities most threatened by growing displacement pressures.

Hypothesis 2: Achieving equitable outcomes requires engaging the community to build a shared vision and the power to implement change.

Although the underlying spirit of our second hypothesis that community engagement is key rang true for all of the sites, SPARCC regions are prioritizing a new, more expansive definition of the concept— one that includes true partnership with community members built over time. SPARCC sites emphasized that true community engagement is built on shared power and, importantly, acknowledgement of the ways power has been stripped from communities of color in the past.

Hypothesis 3: A formal cross-sector leadership table at the regional scale is a necessary component of effecting systems change.

SPARCC sites told us that their hard work building cross-sector leadership at the regional scale was incredibly valuable and was a key component of effecting systems change. Partners told us that aligning cross-sector actors within the region is complex and challenging and they often had to balance an understanding of multiple problems at the same time.

But this, they said, is when the magic happens.

“The solution to a complex problem like racial inequity has to be complex too. It has to be cross-sector and long term. It’s only when you bring them all together that you arrive at ‘aha’ moments.”

Hypothesis 4: Flexible financing is necessary to encourage capital deployment and effect regional change.

Finally, SPARCC’s collaboration shows the need for a new definition of flexible financing. SPARCC makes available a pool financing capital to support sites in developing projects that advance racial equity, health, and climate resilience. Sites told us capital needs to be truly flexible, that incremental flexibility within an inherently rigid capital system is insufficient for effecting the kind of transformation communities need. They pointed to the importance of things like speed and responsiveness, especially in rapidly appreciating real estate markets.

Flexibility and adaptation

This learning has led us to make some important conceptual adaptations to SPARCC’s model going forward:

  • First, racial equity is the primary lens that drives health and climate outcomes.
  • Second, SPARCC’s capital strategy now has a more defined focus on approaches that are community-informed and driven.
  • The SPARCC National Team is working to shift its mindset from being an intermediary/funder to an equal partner with the sites. Together, the SPARCC sites and the SPARCC national team are focusing on policy, capital, and collaborative effectiveness as key strategies for effecting systems change
  • And finally the team is working on achieving greater clarity on short-term outcomes for SPARCC’s work.

With SPARCC’s ambitions and goals, we knew flexibility and adaptation would be our watchwords. We have learned that we need to better recognize the need for human-centered program design and the development of new networks and relationships among people, not just capital and policy. We have also learned to create greater clarity on short-term outcomes while being appreciative that long-term change is occurring. As we look forward, we are reframing some basic approaches as our understanding grows of the agency and power of the community as its own driving force toward change. 

We look forward to our continued community partnerships as SPARCC unfolds.