Designing Cities + Schools with an Equity Lens

The Our Children, Our Families Council in San Francisco is committed to collaboratively building systems with an equity-focus.

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Hungry for inspiration, I attended the Our Children, Our Families (OCOF) Council meeting on the eve of January 30th. OCOF is an advisory body co-chaired by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Superintendent Myong Leigh and consists of 13 department heads from the City & County of San Francisco, 13 leaders from San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), and 14 community leaders appointed by the mayor, including leaders from the nonprofit, religious, philanthropic, educational sectors. 

The purpose of the OCOF Council is to promote coordination, increase accessibility and enhance the effectiveness of programs and services for children, youth, and families, with an emphasis on those with the greatest needs. 

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I went into the 2 hour long council meeting curious to better understand the tactics and strategies that this extraordinary group of local leaders employs to serve the diverse needs of their students, together. What role does empathy play? How do they encourage this at a systems level? What is missing?


I heard and observed tons, but here are three things that really stuck with me around how we might build empathy for and across students with diverse needs. 

1. Commit to Education + Reflection at the Leadership Level- Sheryl Davis, the Director of the Human Rights Commission in San Francisco led the entire council through an hour long workshop on "Engineering for Equity". It was part of the Council's commitment to continue to learn how best to build understanding at the leadership level as well as their continued effort to agree on city wide definitions for key terms. 

PROVOCATION: How might we "engineer for empathy" and create a shared understanding of what this means at the systems, organizational and individual level? 

Equity vs. Equality

2. Design an Outcomes Framework with an Equity Lens- One of 4 major deliverables, the outcomes framework (attached here) articulates the milestones the Council wants all youth, children and families to reach. Equity is the lens they use look at every single one of their metrics.

PROVOCATION: How might we build in an empathy lens when we measure success in schools?

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3. Bring the Voice of the Student into the Room- One of the major deliverables of this council is "Systematic data sharing between the City and School District". In order to kick off this effort, the Mayor brought in Tanea who shared her experience growing up in San Francisco with an incarcerated father and a bi-polar mother. She both benefitted and struggled thanks to all the services and systems provided by the organizations of the council members. There wasn't a dry eye in the room by the end and it proved to be a beautiful way to call out signs of inequity and systemic oppression as well as get people thinking about the role data can play in it- all from the perspective of the student. 

PROVOCATION: How might we tell the story of what empathy (or a lack of empathy) looks like in a way that inspires action?

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[Optional] Synthesize a little! What's one take away or insight to leave people with?

As we explore what it looks like to build empathy, consider (1) starting by encouraging leaders to grow their empathy skills and (2) designing systems and outcomes using an empathy lens.


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