Shifting Structural Power to Advance Race Equity—Part 3

By Tracy Wareing Evans    July 15, 2022

Catch up on Part 1   |   Part 2

In part 3 of this special series, I want to reflect on what structural power is and what it means to system leaders aiming to center communities in delivery of their agency mission. How do we truly shift power to people and communities and drive system change?

A key to achieving this objective is shifting how we work. For the power dynamics to change, we have to show up differently than we have before. It begins with building authentic relationships with community leaders, not just in the occasional stakeholder meeting but by getting out into communities at the table set by the people who live there. As we enter each community, we have to respect its uniqueness, seek to understand its history, and value its strengths.

Focusing on the assets of family and community is not new to human services leaders. Nor is the concept of designing systems and service delivery from the perspective of the end user. And, yet, if we are being honest with ourselves, we know we are far from achieving a human-centered, community-led system of care. We work within systems and structures that are rules based and constrained, fueling a culture of compliance instead of one that fosters authentic engagement in service of people. And, contextually, the public institutions in which we aim to do good are themselves a historical vehicle of systemic racism and structural bias.

Recognizing our part in generating inequitable systems that stymie the inherent power of people is a first step in truly being able to shift structural power and help unlock the assets of families and communities. A colleague recently described what we need to do as “radically disrupting the current system” through a human-centered lens that “sees people as experts and whole.” This disruption is more than a shift in policy or practice, it requires a new mental model that shifts the paradigm of how government itself, including human services, interacts with people and communities.

In many ways, leaders of public human services agencies have been on this path for some time.  Through the applied lens of the Human Services Value Curve, as well as whole family approaches, trauma-informed care, and social determinants of health, we have gained critical insights into how our institutions and systems work—both their potential for good, and the inherent and cumulative harm we are obligated to undo. Put another way, the lens of these orientations has helped us, as human services leaders, see more clearly that people and communities are too often held in place by the very systems and structures we run.

Our imperative is to learn how to use our positional power to remove that structural hold. This is at the heart of leadership today. We must resist the temptation to pass off relationship-building and engagement with community stakeholders as “nice to do” or something that some leaders do better than others.

As I speak with leaders across the country, it is increasingly clear that the proactive cultivation of community partnerships and deliberate building of a more “collaborative infrastructure” is foundational to shifting structural power (for additional insights, check out resources and tools collated by Chapin Hall in its System Transformation Through Community Leadership series).

At its core this means:

  • Modeling what it means to authentically engage with people. To do so requires leaders to recognize personal agency, actively seeking to understand the dreams and aspirations that people have for themselves and their family, not just asking them to repeatedly recount their experience with agency services. Learning from people with lived expertise requires that system leaders invest the time—often during nontraditional work hours— to be with the community in active listening, and with an openness to exploring alternative paths forward. And, equally important, we need to understand that if the only way we interact with people is to ask them to re-live their experience, we risk defining them solely by the stresses they have experienced; in doing so, we not only miss the mark on being trauma informed, we may inadvertently limit their own view of what is possible, rather than lifting up their strength and resilience as inherent assets.
  • Building in feedback loops that show that the ideas and contributions coming from the community are not only being heard, and but actively integrated into policies and practices. These feedback loops should be frequent, transparent, and celebrated as the community’s “win.” Moreover, we should be proactively asking if the changes we instituted are in fact responsive to the original input and be prepared to adjust again when we have missed the mark.
  • Being real with communities about the time needed for change to occur, especially for sustainable outcomes to materialize and build on each other. Leaders must be in it for the long haul—always thinking beyond their tenure and working to institutionalize shifts in power dynamics at every level of the agency.

These are just some of the ways human services leaders can model what it means for systems themselves to relinquish structural power. We are on this trek together and look forward to learning from each other. To share your stories, please contact, Jessica Garon, Communications Director, APHSA.

Catch up on Part 1   |   Part 2

About the Author

Tracy Wareing Evans (full bio)

President and CEO
American Public Human Services Association

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