From Network to Ecosystem: Creating a Force For Equity, Innovation, and Improvement

by Leona Christy, CEO at Catalyst:Ed 

Leona reflects on the power and evolving role of our expert network as key partners in driving our work forward.

The source of Catalyst:Ed’s strength – our engine for impact – is our expert network. The power of this network derives from its collective expertise, its scale, and its diversity. The 650+ professional service providers in the network bring deep capabilities over a range of areas, varied experiences, diverse identities, and an enduring commitment to supporting leaders and educators in better meeting the needs of their students, families, and communities. 

So how are we leveraging the strengths of this network? Historically we believed our greatest contribution was in connecting providers to field leaders to increase their organizational capacity for equity, innovation, and improvement. While that is still the core of our work, we no longer believe that is enough. As we continue to grow, our understanding of our networks of providers and organizations has deepened. That understanding, along with our experiences from the last few months – where, for instance, we have seen providers actively collaborate and share knowledge and resources with each other – has accelerated our envisioning of the network as a dynamic and intentionally intertwined ecosystem that is capable of driving impact for the sector as a whole. 

How might the ecosystem of providers facilitate change and build capacity in the sector and shape our own work? We outline our initial hunches below along with some examples: 

  • Sense-making: Earlier this year, we brought together cross-functional teams of our providers to work on two tools for the sector: the Roadmap For Schools and Systems and the Intermediary Capacity Assessment Framework (ICAF). As schools shut down in the wake of COVID-19, the Roadmap was one of the first tools to offer leaders and educators a structured way to think about and prepare for school reopening. Likewise, the ICAF is the first tool to help entities interested in networked improvement understand what it entails and assess their own strengths and gaps. In both instances, providers came together and pooled in their diverse expertise to rapidly develop tools that offered clear, actionable, and equity-centered guidance to leaders seeking to navigate new and uncharted territory.
  • Amplifying and scaling up best practice: Our experience supporting schools and nonprofits during COVID-19 underscored the fact that when leaders are overwhelmed, it can be hard for them to keep up with emerging best practice. However, the providers who are actively supporting these leaders in building organizational capacity during these moments are well-placed to integrate these best practices into their work. Indeed, as schools grappled with school reopening plans and preparation, we saw providers actively connecting and sharing insights and resources with each other over virtual community calls and through our Resource Library and then applying best practices in different contexts.
  • Peer learning and support: We hear from providers that they are eager for peer learning and support, and we have seen some examples of how powerful this is in practice. In the wake of the racial violence following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Tyler Brewster put together a series of self-care workshops for Black women experts. Rasheeda Washington has spearheaded the design and execution of our Expert Resource Groups (ERGs), to create opportunities for experts to learn from one another and partner together. And Nicole Jarbo is the driving force behind a new fellowship for equity-focused providers of color (stay tuned for more on this!).
  • Embedding equity: The pervasiveness of inequitable norms and practices in organizations stands in the way of the best intentions of its leaders. Given this context, the ecosystem of providers can play an important role, by ensuring that their capacity building and change management efforts – irrespective of the technical area in which the support is offered – are designed and implemented with an intentional focus on equity. In order to do this, providers must first build their own capacity to be leaders for equity. We are seeing several efforts emerge in service of this goal: For instance, two of our equity-focused providers, Tracie Jones and Tyler Brewster, conducted a six-part workshop for the rest of the network. Similarly, the Allies ERG is an opportunity for white-identifying experts to explore their own whiteness and privilege, and progress on their antiracism journeys.
  • Developing norms: The professional service provider market in education is highly fragmented, offering up an opportunity for providers to collectively evolve a common set of norms and practices, so they can build their own capacity and ensure sustainability while also better meeting the needs of organizations. This might look like providers defining norms that, for instance, allow smaller providers to freely share resources or innovations, safe in the knowledge that their intellectual property will not be co-opted by larger, more well-resourced firms. It might also look like providers helping define what parts of our process look like. As an example, DEI providers in our network helped co-design the intake form we use to better understand what organizations are looking for when they seek DEI support. 

What does our role in facilitating the development of this ecosystem look like? Where do we create space and where do we step in to nudge action? These are questions that we are still engaging with. Currently, we see ourselves as setting the table for these provider-to-provider interactions to happen in a deep and meaningful way. We are facilitating the development of shared norms and values, providing the platform and creating structures that enable interaction, trying to minimize the frictions that get in the way, and elevating diverse voices. We are also leveraging our own position in the sector to bring in the information and resources that can propel ideas forward. We hope to share more about what we’re learning in future posts.

Interested in learning more about any of these initiatives or offering up additional ideas? Email Leona at [email protected].

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