Strategic Design Initiative

Our Approach

Kara Blankner, a public health expert at the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation, was the driving force for using this powerful framework in our community. A veteran of nonprofit work and community philanthropy for about 20 years, she refined what she learned working to reverse childhood obesity at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and helping to build the field of health impact assessments in the U.S. from her role at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The most important lesson was that successful community initiatives must have meaningful and authentic stakeholder engagement. The insights and voices of those impacted must be central to the strategies and interventions that are implemented. That became the guiding approach for Black Women Thriving East of the River. Kara had seen it be effective more than once.

As a member of the Washington Region Food Funders, a D.C.-area affinity funders group, Kara helped lead a team of collaborators tasked with creating more equitable and inclusive food system reforms in the Chesapeake Foodshed. For two years, she collaborated closely with partners to develop a framework for realizing these goals. The “Community Ownership, Empowerment and Prosperity Pilot” paid community members and food-system innovators for their time and expertise to develop solutions and recommendations.

The scope of their work and outcomes for the pilot were impressive. “It blew me away,” Kara says.

She tapped these experiences to imagine an innovative approach to finding community solutions to the challenges women face living East of the Anacostia River. She called it the “Strategic Design Initiative,” because, as the name suggested, it was an effort strategically designed to realize positive impact. For several months, Kara consulted with community leaders, refining the model with each new meeting.

Finally, she pitched the vision to Robert “Bob” Sloan, the founding chief executive officer of the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation, and the Foundation’s board of directors. Despite a significant departure from the traditional philanthropic grant-making approach, Foundation leaders approved this innovative vision for improving life outcomes for Black women living East of the River.

Put simply, the Strategic Design Initiative is a groundbreaking approach to achieving meaningful inclusivity, disrupting the status quo, and dismantling inequitable systems.

It uniquely centers us – the community members – in forging solutions that effectively address the systemic inequities we face. This model brings together community leaders and individuals impacted by the barriers and conditions that Black Women Thriving East of the River is addressing.

Specifically, the initiative developed a series of actionable interventions targeting root causes of our community’s most prevalent challenges. Leaders anchored in the community are encouraged, elevated, and resourced to champion transformational change critical to designing and implementing solutions that will lead to a more equitable and just society in Wards 7 & 8.

Further, the model called for a taskforce with issue-specific workgroups collaborating in a structured process to develop comprehensive plans for action. Our workgroups develop roadmaps to execute equity-focused strategies in the community.

The approach worked in partnership with Black women living in Wards 7 & 8 and the community-based organizations that serve them. The human-centered, place-based approach partnered with 28 women, nearly 80% of whom live in Wards 7 or 8, are native Washingtonians, share generational family ties to the community and/or founded grassroots organizations anchored in the community. This group of exceptional women represent 20+ non-profits located East of the River or serving residents there.

We are providing philanthropy leaders and others a model for taking community engagement to new levels, while pursuing transformational change that can build equity in communities and counter the effects of racism. It is an approach that can be replicated across all health, social, and economic sectors, and communities can adapt it to their own context. In short, it is a comprehensive framework that can bolster the success of racial equity work and be applied to any issue or geographic area.

The Strategic Design Initiative approach has arrived East of the River and is a major component in enhancing life outcomes for Black women here.

A New Model for Philanthropy

The Strategic Design Initiative means a new way of doing things for philanthropy, a model for increasing racial equity, balancing the power dynamics, and practicing intentional inclusivity.

It’s a way for philanthropy to walk the talk and invest in community-driven solutions that get at the root causes of the inequities that we see. Using this approach, the community designs the strategies and interventions that we collectively implement to improve mortality rates and career trajectories for Black women living East of the River.

2023 Path to Quality Jobs & Health Equity Report

Learn How You Can Implement the SDI

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