Advancing systems and policy innovations in human services

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Every individual plays several different roles to be their full, authentic selves. My identity as an aunt is one I hold in high regard. I am a proud aunt to 14 nieces and nephews ranging in ages from 5 to 18. Given that my two children are the older cousins, I prefer the company of the younger ones when the opportunity arises. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I am grieving the time lost with my beloved nieces and nephews, notably my five-year-old niece, Willa. As a precocious and curious child, our conversations are often extended by her many inquisitive questions. Here are a few that I can recall:

But how does your body heal from a scraped knee?” 

“And why don’t we eat cake before dinner?”

“And how do the stars stay in the sky?”

“But why do my cousins have to go home?”

I don’t always have answers, but I love how her curiosity leads us to deeper examination and hopefully inch us closer to a fuller understanding.

In 2019, the Trust embarked on a strategic planning process where staff and key stakeholders examined the Trust’s influence in the social impact sector. We began to ask questions of why the Trust focused on certain programmatic domains and not in others. We challenged ourselves to examine how we might work differently to address the root causes of our region’s challenges. As many readers know, the rigorous planning process resulted in the Trust’s North Star of closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap.

The Trust is working across sectors and through collaborations to undo decades of discriminatory practices and attempt to repair the harm due to centuries of systemic racism and racial and economic segregation. Alongside the strategic goal of closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap, the Trust’s evergreen strategy is responding to the region’s most pressing needs to support residents in need of assistance. Under the Addressing Critical Needs strategy, the Trust’s approach is to 1) build pathways to stability, 2) promote well-being across one’s lifespan, and 3) support policy and systems innovation.

In November, the Trust released a Request for Proposal to support organizations advancing systems and policy innovations in the human services sector. Under this RFP, the Trust will fund organizations that work in coalition, partnership, or through a membership structure to share best practices and take collaborative action. Under this initiative, we seek organizations whose core work is to advance the collective power, knowledge, strategy and systems that build well-being for individuals and, more broadly, our communities. The long-term impacts under this initiative will advance equity and strengthen the Chicago region’s social impact sector.

As the region’s community foundation, the Trust will support organizations helping families and individuals who face barriers to stability. Fortunately, the Chicago region is home to many reputable organizations that provide high-quality services. In tandem with the delivery of essential services, the human services sector must advance systemic reforms and promote innovation in services. We do not lack innovative ideas, but organizations are often not funded to pilot new interventions. The Systems and Policy Innovations RFP offers organizations opportunities to disrupt existing systems of care. For instance, a coalition of community organizations focused on the social determinants of health may advocate for more housing opportunities, or a member organization working across the region may advance a more equitable state budget supporting Black and Latinx communities.

Like my niece, we must allow our curiosity to lead us into a deeper examination and ask the questions of why and how? Why do homelessness, hunger and violence disproportionately impact people of color? How might we begin to address the root causes of gun violence and food insecurity through innovation? And while we may not quickly arrive at the answers, it is my hope that our curiosity will lead us to work that results in a thriving Chicago region that is more connected and equitable.