How Do We Get to Equity: Reflections on Systemic Change

Jessica Kannam, AYPF Policy Associate

How can you be an agent for change? This is a question I have been asking myself a lot more. My personal, academic, and work experiences have clearly demonstrated the incredible amount of social inequity in the United States, and the systems that often perpetuate inequity rather than address it. Yet, trying to understand where I fit in and how I can contribute to reforming our education—and other public—systems to better serve children and families can be confusing and daunting.

Over the past few months, I’ve been exposed to a few different ideas, resources, and presentations that have challenged me to think more critically about the role and impact that AYPF and I have in creating and improving systems to ensure equitable educational opportunities for all. As the summer winds down and the school year begins, it seems like a perfect time to take stock and reflect. Here are a few of my reflections and lingering questions on the intersections of equity, agency, inclusion, and systems change.

While attending the 2018 Ready by 21 National Meeting back in April, I got the opportunity to hear Karen Pittman, CEO and President of the Forum for Youth Investment, present a keynote about re-conceptualizing the way we think about the “odds” that youth are up against. She challenged participants to think through what it means for youth to “beat the odds” versus what it could mean if as a youth development field we could “change the odds” for youth and families. Rather than supporting youth through the systemic barriers they face, how could the barriers be eliminated so they do not need to be faced in the first place?

This is a slide from Pittman’s opening plenary presentation. Click here to see the full deck.

This tension is something my colleagues and I come across in our body of work focused on improving postsecondary education and workforce opportunities for youth in foster care and the juvenile justice system. There are many incredible programs that support systems-involved youth by providing a multitude of comprehensive supports and transitional services as well as space for youth to share their voice, advocate, and organize around issues they care about. Yet, what would it take for these programs to not need to exist? How can the systems that these youth come into contact with be easier to navigate and provide more support? This is not to suggest that there needs to be an either/or – I think there is a benefit to having both programs and systems that support youth. Given that youth are facing the odds and systemic barriers every day, it is important that we support those youth, while also asking ourselves, as Pittman encouraged, to consider how we can also collectively address and change systems.

I was also intrigued by a graphic that Pittman included in her presentation (see on left). I have seen numerous variations of Craig Froehle’s original graphic, which demonstrates the difference between equality and equity. The boxes symbolize resources and the fence represents structural barriers (which is tilted given how various aspects of a person’s identity – race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, etc.—affect the systemic barriers they experience). Pittman’s graphic goes beyond equity and equality, as it also represents what opportunity and agency would look like. What would it take for systemic barriers to be removed altogether, and just because they are removed, does that mean that youth will feel ready and have the agency to participate in the opportunities now available?

In June, while at a conference focused on school and district improvement, I was exposed to Jason Clarke’s Tedx Talk Embracing Change. The talk delves into why people resist change, and presents tools for how that resistance can be addressed. While the talk is focused on organizational shifts and changes in the workplace, some of Clarke’s points were useful in thinking about how AYPF, and I, can continue to push more broadly for systemic change.

Clarke touches on the point of transition, and how change can be difficult if people are not clear on how processes will change and what the expectation will be. This was a great reminder of the importance of understanding that changing systems and behaviors can take time. While I don’t expect social change to be easy, it’s hard to not want changes to happen quickly. How can I push and encourage systemic change, while also acknowledging the time it might take? At AYPF, we’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about how the Every Student Succeeds Act can be leveraged to hold alternative settings and juvenile justice facilities accountable. As states have submitted their ESSA state plans, which will go into effect this year, how can we (as a field) support states through this transitional period?

Both Pittman and Clarke discuss how process matters in how change comes about. An integral part of understanding how to reform systems, policies, and practices to better serve youth is asking youth for their perspective. As one of the primary stakeholders impacted by educational policies and reforms, providing the space for youth to share their perspective and participate in decision-making processes is important and necessary. While including more voices and perspectives at the decision-making table can add time and complexity to the process, I believe it allows for more just and effective change.

While these reflections might leave me with more questions than answers, these resources have definitely pushed me to think about how our education system can and needs to be changed, the opportunities that I have to make this change, and my own agency. I leave you with a few questions that I plan to continue thinking about, that you can ponder too.

  • What opportunities and agency do I have to improve systems to more equitably serve all children and families?
  • How can I incorporate youth voice and perspective into my work at AYPF?
  • How can I be more concrete about how systems can change to better serve youth and families, and the process it will take to get there?
  • When have I been resistant to change? Why?


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.