Systems Change: Addressing Racial Disparity by Putting Theory into Practice

​As we explore creating a more equitable homelessness crisis response system, we interviewed Marc Dones, whose recent work has focused on leading the Supporting Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) initiative. The mixed methods study was conducted in eight communities, with a focus on the overrepresentation of people of color among those experiencing homelessness. The results can be used to inform and guide systems change efforts.

USICH: In your experience, what are the hardest elements of systems change for people to grasp?

Marc Dones: In order to do systems change work, you have to be focused on structures and the interactions between structures. Oftentimes when people say they’re going to transform a system, they’ll say something like “I’m going to transform the housing system,” but they fail because it’s actually about the way housing interacts with other systems, and traditional management metrics lead them to believe that looking at those interactions with other systems is beyond their scope. I always talk about homelessness as a multi-sector failure, there’s no single point of entry into a solution space; the solution space is reengineering how sectors interact with each other.

USICH: What are some of the great “a-ha” moments you’ve witnessed as people undertake systems change?

MD: My favorite ah-ha is when people genuinely consider the fact that we could end homelessness by applying equity-based lenses to drive a systems-change process. The recognition that it’s possible to work at scale. Getting people to the point that they’re feeling expansive, brave enough to take on a 150 year-old set of systems—not just at the program level—is really exciting.

USICH: Much of your work has focused on systems change to address racial inequity. What has that work taught you about our systems more broadly?

MD: So much of our frontline staff in direct service agencies are people with lived experience and they’re marginally employed. You can’t run an agency responding to the crisis of homelessness in America while you contribute to it. We need our funders and our executives to work together to find balance for our staff that are stretched too thin and trying to hit goals for an agency that would need to be three times the size.

USICH: Learning from people with lived experience is a cornerstone of the SPARC research. How did you balance the fact that you were using their time to support your work?

MD: We have a societal value system that only understands pedigree as expertise, not experience as expertise. We have to pay people for sharing their expertise. Everyone who participated in the SPARC work was asked for no more than an hour of their time and compensated with unrestricted $20 cash gift cards for their time.

USICH: If you could instill one principle or one shared understanding among everyone undertaking the work to address racial inequity within and affecting homelessness service systems, what would it be?

MD: One thing I say to people is, “You’re going to need to slow down.” There’s a tipping point where people get fired up about equity work, they roll up their sleeves and say “let’s get to it.” But no matter where you put an equity-based lens, it always requires us to take more time. Everyone wants a toolkit or a checklist; but this work requires training. Ideally, trainings on equity are embedded in organizational development plans and happen quarterly for all of the staff so that people are able to practice. Folks need to continually practice this way of doing because it’s so alien. Doing things differently takes more time. For example, recruitment will take longer this way, accessing historically marginalized communities and considering “What does this job really take?” instead of short-circuiting that by looking for degrees and job titles.

USICH: With communities across the country beginning to apply equity-based lenses to their work to end homelessness, what’s ahead in our work to address ra​cial inequity as a field?

MD: The next piece is migrating our words into action. Now, we have to do something. The next 5 years are about people doing actual training, diversifying senior leadership, introducing salary equity within our organizations, right-sizing the scale of what we do based on our capacity—really implementing the things that we know are equity-driven to end homelessness. If we did all of those things, in the next 4 to 5 years, we’d be able to say “these are the things to scale to end homelessness.”

Marc Dones is the Senior Lead for Equitable Systems at Future Laboratories and former Associate Director of Equity Initiatives at the Center for Social Innovation.