Welcome to the The Q — an interview series where we invite the Equal Measure team, clients, and colleagues from the field, to share their insights on evaluation, philanthropic services, emerging trends in the social sector, and more. In this interview, we spoke with Howard Walters, a Planning, Evaluation and Research Officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. During his time at Equal Measure, Howard worked on projects such as the D5 Coalition’s efforts to diversify philanthropy, New Connections: Increasing Diversity of RWJF Programming, the Student African American Brotherhood, and the Foundation for Child Development.
So you were with Equal Measure for eight years. Was there a particular experience that has stuck with you?
There were many, but one, ironically, took place in my first year. We all gathered around the television to watch the inauguration of the first African American president. Beyond the excitement of that moment, we hollered with joy when the President of the United States spoke about how he wanted to see greater investment in research and evaluation.
Why did that resonate with you?
It resonated because I think the power of information can influence real and meaningful change, which is why I got into this work. Folks say, you know better, you do better. So I think it was important for me to hear the President express that he also believed that before he could just start throwing out policies, he needed to know better. Knowing more about a given issue will likely enable a more efficient and more impactful solution.
One of the landmark initiatives of the Obama administration is the focus over the past few years on Boys and Men of Color, and the launch of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Let’s talk about that.
I think the administration has sparked a lot of really important conversations. One notable trend was the uplifting of broader conversations about how to build the infrastructure of public-private partnerships. What I think is so important about this is that he got together with groups like the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and others to have a real conversation about how public-private partnerships can contribute to removing barriers and creating opportunity for Boys and Men of Color. To hear the President give voice to this population is so important, and it gave leverage to private funders to invest in these programs.
In addition, the place-based nature of these strategies is critical to their success. Place-based strategies allow you to pay close attention to culture, climate, and context in a particular place — compared to rolling out a one-size-fits-all initiative across the whole nation.
How do you see all of this effort around Boys and Men of Color becoming sustained after the President leaves office?
I think the President’s heavy involvement has and will continue to be a driver of sustainability. After his time in office, President Obama is anticipated to continue his energetic support of institutions working around Boys and Men of Color, such as the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. But that example aside, in the broader field there’s a risk in trying to find or identify a single entity to take on this work.
Sustainability in the field is going to be driven by a couple of things. One results from the growing use of social media and other digital communication tools. Now that national initiatives are talking to each other more through these tools, they’re sharing more information, challenges, and successes — leading to a better understanding of how to develop solutions. The other piece of the approach to sustainability is seen in these conversations between the public and private sectors. In part stemming from these conversations, funders have invested tens of millions of dollars into the Boys and Men of Color space, and have made long-term commitments — both essential for the sustainability of national-scale initiatives. For example, The California Endowment’s Sons & Brothers initiative, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise initiative, and reinvigorated place-based efforts by the Kellogg Foundation are all focusing on Boys and Men of Color.
Along with the focus on Boys and Men of Color, what other trends are you seeing in the social sector?
Well, there’s growing attention paid toward the necessity of equity in the social sector. How we can create more opportunities for folks who have historically not had leadership opportunities in the social sector? It’s exciting to see the number of women and folks of color who have taken over leadership positions in philanthropy — and that’s in no small part due to programs like the Council of Foundations’ Career Pathways program, and other initiatives that were designed to look at equity in social sector leadership.
The sector has also realized that as we think about equity, we want to weave that directly into our work by building culturally responsive interventions. I’m proud that Equal Measure, in partnership with Duquesne University, led for five years the RWJF Evaluation Fellowship, which was designed to create a more diverse pipeline for evaluators practicing culturally responsive evaluation. I think all of these initiatives are producing the network of folks needed to inform these interventions, which will also be led by a more diverse group of nonprofit and social sector leaders.
Given the shifting demographics in the country, how do you see the social sector embracing those changes in its funding strategies and program design?
I think some of the recent research on labor and economics has helped the social sector to see some real gaps in our economy. What I’m thinking of here is the work that’s happening around opportunity youth, and this recognition that we’ve got millions of youth that are disconnected from the workforce and educational opportunity. These youth overwhelmingly represent youth of color, and are the fastest growing segment of the labor market. So I’m excited that the Aspen Institute and others have joined this work to invest more in opportunity youth.
Part of this conversation is around initiatives that aim to increase the number of folks who have postsecondary credentials, and recognizing that the only way to achieve that is to do it with folks of color who will be a major part of our future labor market. A good example is the Lumina Foundation’s Goal2025 initiative. However, it’s not just about getting more people to have four-year degrees. We also need look carefully at two-year degrees, vocational training, and credentialing as pathways to employment for youth.
I think we also have to acknowledge, though, that there is resistance to some of these movements. There needs to be much more communication that we as a nation are only as strong as our weakest link, and that investments in our vulnerable populations will only strengthen the nation as a whole.