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Field Notes

Where Can Equity Begin? Taking Steps to Build Collective Action in Rhode Island

Lucas Orwig
December 14, 2022

“it starts when you say We

and know who you mean,

and each day you mean one more.”

– Marge Piercy

Over 60 members of the Newport, RI community gathered together on November 30 to begin a conversation about collective action. This group, assembled by the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, included people young and grown working in education, the arts, health care, and more; they represented public institutions, government, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, and their own families – the main thread tying them together was the energy to build a better, more equitable Newport for its residents.

I and my colleagues Consuela Greene and Colette Stanzler had the privilege of working with this group, introducing Root Cause’s model for collective action. We talked about how much of the work done in communities is only able to address the symptoms of larger, deeper problems. In order to make real transformational improvements, it may be necessary for several organizations and individuals to band together with the intention to address that common purpose.

Collective Action: a community-led process for advancing equity and achieving social change. It’s the movement of a group of people impacted by and impacting a systemic challenge who share power, trust, resources, and effort to achieve a common purpose.

In our short afternoon meeting, we explored what it might take to identify a common purpose. Each attendee shared the issues that they were focused on – educational equity, resident leadership and voice, food equity, etc. We then considered the causes that drive these issues, using a metaphorical framework from the Groundwater Institute. As we looked deeper, toward the root causes of symptomatic problems, we began to uncover similarities. Housing inequity, for example, impacts educational outcomes for students, makes it harder for those in need to access support, and even drives disparities in the health of pets. 

Our meeting definitely felt like the very beginning of a long conversation. It will take many more meetings for this group to select a common purpose, and sustain a collective effort to pursue the changes they hope to see. But I find that the right kind of beginning gives me great hope. Here we began with the courage of a funder to ask its community what they need rather than to lead out with a proposed solution. We began with stakeholders from enough corners of that community that they could fill in each other’s blind spots. And we began by cultivating possibility and energy. I, for one, look forward to seeing what this amazing group of people will go on to do together!

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