Urban Wire Five Questions to Create Systems Change in Your Community
Rebecca Dedert
Display Date

Two people working and looking at graphs on a computer.

In April 2022, more than 90 federal agencies released their first-ever Equity Action Plans at a virtual equity convening hosted by the White House. These nationwide plans follow on the heels of similar municipal efforts across the country because practitioners at every level of government are seeing the need to tackle the sources of deeply rooted disparities in our nation.

These disparities stem from structural barriers to economic and racial equity that are entrenched in our society. Many result from and are perpetuated by racist beliefs, norms, policies, and practices and have produced deep and persistent disparities, especially for communities with low incomes and communities of color.

Though federal actors have myriad resources at their disposal to tackle these issues, local practitioners may feel less equipped to take on this intergenerational challenge. Many local policymakers and practitioners are ready to begin the work of breaking down these barriers, but some may not know where to start. A new Urban Institute brief  provides the information needed to articulate the importance of systems change and the types of measures that can be used to track progress on comprehensive systems changes. To get started on this process, practitioners can answer five key questions.

1. What exactly is systems change? Why do we need it?

You may have heard the term “systems change” thrown around a lot lately but may still wonder exactly what it means. As part of the Boosting Upward Mobility project, we define systems change as “a fundamental shift in practices, underlying values, or norms by local actors that reshapes policies, processes, relationships, and power structures.” By engaging directly with the structural barriers that impede the best efforts of people with low incomes and people of color to rise out of poverty, systems change addresses the sources of deeply entrenched racial and socioeconomic inequities.

2. How may structural barriers be affecting my community?

Evidence shows that for most people experiencing poverty in the US today, long-standing structural and systemic barriers, not a failure of individual effort, are what block opportunities to achieve greater economic success, power and autonomy, and dignity.

Post–World War II policies like the GI Bill, the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, and the introduction of home-building subsidies through the Federal Housing Administration profoundly reshaped the American urban landscape, launching urban renewal projects, highway developments, and mass suburbanization across the country. Yet, despite their many benefits, each of these policies intentionally denied those benefits to people of color or actively destroyed neighborhoods of color to produce them.

Federally endorsed redlining, displacement, and segregation during this period fostered deep inequities across the country. Identifying the effects of these and other racist policies on your community is crucial to understanding both the origin of disparities in housing, education, and employment and the types of policies needed to address those disparities.

3. What’s wrong with the way our systems work now?

Though policies and programs aimed at helping people navigate existing systems and surmount structural barriers provide critical benefits to some, most leave those barriers in place and thus fail to substantially reduce racial inequities. And many programs target the results of inequitable systems while overlooking the underlying policies and practices that created and maintain structural barriers to mobility and racial equity—like applying a Band-Aid to a bullet wound. Unless a policy or program directly engages the structural barriers in a system that obstruct the path toward upward mobility, it will not substantially boost mobility from poverty for everyone.

4. So what does systems change look like?

Attempting to dismantle systemic barriers may seem daunting, but practitioners can center their efforts on several key tenets of systems change:

  • powershifting, or implementing inclusive processes to more equitably redistribute political and civic power (e.g., participatory budgeting)
  • greater investments in public resources to overhaul outdated practices and develop equity-engaged processes
  • narrative change, or overcoming mindsets more influenced by underlying biases than sociopolitical realities, to shift norms
  • crafting a long-term, holistic cross-sector approach and meaningfully engaging with community members living in poverty to understand the full scope of their challenges
  • tracking outcomes over time with a balanced slate of qualitative and quantitative measures that draws from diverse data sources

This chart illustrates how you can measure the current performance of systems in your community, identify needed reforms, and track progress over time.

What Should You Measure to Track Progress toward Systems Changes?

Types of Measures

Examples

Outcomes for people and population groups 

Economic outcomes, such as percentage of adults earning living wages


Political power, such as voting rates


Belonging, such asrates of social capital


Personal narratives of people experiencing poverty and blocked mobility

Conditions in places 

Historical records documenting causes of inequities and evolution of specific barriers


Number of living wage jobs within commuting distance of neighborhoods

Status of policies that support positive outcomes 

Administrative data that reflect the implementation and effects of local programs/policies


Qualitative analysis of process and relationship changes, power maps, linkages between programs, budget allocations


Existence of a local living-wage mandate

Prevailing narratives or norms 

Local surveys of attitudes/perceptions


Disparities in policy coverage/implementation

Source: Michael Deich, Martha Fedorowicz, and Margery Austin Turner, “Boosting Mobility and Advancing Equity through Systems Change” (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2022).

5. Where do we start?

Systems change is not an overnight process. It requires consistent, concerted effort toward a vision that may seem distant. Although this work is hard, it is necessary to dismantle the barriers that unfairly block people with low-incomes and communities of color from upward mobility.

Starting somewhere, such as by examining the historical and present-day policies and programs that have shaped conditions in your community, is an important first step. To learn more about these opportunities and deepen your systems change knowledge, check out our new brief.


The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.

Show your support for research and data that ignite change. 

 

Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality
Tags Inequality and mobility Mobility Poverty Racial and ethnic disparities Racial inequities in economic mobility
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
Related content