Amoretta Morris: Five Questions with Casey

Posted December 11, 2013
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Amoret­ta Mor­ris is a senior asso­ciate for Fam­i­ly-Cen­tered Com­mu­ni­ty Change, a new Foun­da­tion effort part­ner­ing with three com­mu­ni­ties to improve aca­d­e­m­ic and eco­nom­ic well-being for chil­dren by work­ing with par­ents and their chil­dren simultaneously.

Before join­ing Casey, Mor­ris served as direc­tor of stu­dent atten­dance for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia Pub­lic Schools, help­ing to cut the dis­trict tru­an­cy rate by 40 per­cent. She has also served as a youth and edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy advis­er for Dis­trict May­ors Antho­ny Williams and Adri­an Fen­ty and was the found­ing direc­tor of the Jus­tice 4 DC Youth! Coali­tion, which helped young peo­ple and adults pro­mote juve­nile jus­tice reform.

Mor­ris has a Bachelor’s degree in eco­nom­ics and African stud­ies from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis and a Master’s degree in Pub­lic Pol­i­cy from Har­vard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Q1. What is fam­i­ly-cen­tered com­mu­ni­ty change, and how is it dif­fer­ent from oth­er com­mu­ni­ty change efforts?

It means sup­port­ing fam­i­lies in low-income com­mu­ni­ties holis­ti­cal­ly by help­ing chil­dren get the resources they need to thrive while also help­ing their par­ents achieve eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty and suc­cess. Serv­ing chil­dren and their par­ents at the same time is essen­tial to help­ing both suc­ceed and pro­duces stronger results than serv­ing them sep­a­rate­ly. This is not a new idea, but part of the new­ness is bring­ing togeth­er mul­ti­ple orga­ni­za­tions and part­ners in spe­cif­ic high-pover­ty neigh­bor­hoods to adopt this two-gen­er­a­tion approach. Anoth­er key dif­fer­ence is that instead of being the lead fun­der and ini­tia­tor, we are com­ing into these com­mu­ni­ties as a co-investor and authen­tic part­ner in an exist­ing, local­ly-led com­mu­ni­ty change effort.

Q2. How did you choose the three tar­get com­mu­ni­ties: the Buf­fa­lo Promise Neigh­bor­hood; the Wein­land Park Col­lab­o­ra­tive in Colum­bus, Ohio; and San Antonio’s East­side Promise Neigh­bor­hood and Choice Neigh­bor­hood initiative?

It was impor­tant to choose sites that already had key build­ing blocks, like a strong back­bone orga­ni­za­tion; mul­ti-sec­tor col­lab­o­ra­tion among insti­tu­tions and orga­ni­za­tions; a com­mit­ment to res­i­dent engage­ment and lead­er­ship; and a focus on data to dri­ve results. We also looked for strong coali­tions around ear­ly learn­ing and a com­mit­ment to afford­able hous­ing. With­out sta­ble hous­ing, fam­i­lies move around so much that it’s dif­fi­cult to sus­tain and mea­sure change. The three sites also rep­re­sent a mix of fed­er­al and non­fed­er­al ini­tia­tives and var­ied size, pop­u­la­tion and demographics.

Q3. What do we bring to the table as a co-investor?

Build­ing on lessons learned in our Mak­ing Con­nec­tions ini­tia­tive and in our Civic Sites of Bal­ti­more and Atlanta, we bring some ear­ly suc­cess in imple­ment­ing an inte­grat­ed, two-gen­er­a­tion approach in a spe­cif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. It’s one thing to have good ser­vices in place, but we want to build the capac­i­ty and infra­struc­ture so that those pieces can be aligned in the ways most help­ful and sup­port­ive of the fam­i­ly. For exam­ple, if the school, ear­ly learn­ing cen­ter and adult train­ing pro­gram aren’t com­mu­ni­cat­ing, there isn’t the flex­i­bil­i­ty to think through all of the options and path­ways for spe­cif­ic kids and par­ents. We have also made exper­tise avail­able from across the foun­da­tion and with nation­al part­ners in areas like fam­i­ly eco­nom­ic suc­cess, res­i­dent engage­ment and inte­grat­ed data sys­tems. And we cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for net­work­ing and con­nec­tion with oth­er com­mu­ni­ty inno­va­tors in the field.

Q4. How do we know when a com­mu­ni­ty has changed successfully?

Of course there are the larg­er, con­crete indi­ca­tors about pover­ty, employ­ment and third grade read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy, but some of the hard­er parts are the qual­i­ta­tive mea­sures, such as how res­i­dents inter­act. Do peo­ple feel a sense of belong­ing? Are youth seek­ing belong­ing and con­nec­tion in pos­i­tive ways, for exam­ple through sports or clubs or com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment, rather than through gangs? Do adults feel like they are con­nect­ed and con­tribut­ing to a com­mu­ni­ty where they see them­selves and their neigh­bors thriv­ing? Some­times the chal­lenges are so huge and over­whelm­ing that peo­ple feel par­a­lyzed. We are build­ing evi­dence in these com­mu­ni­ties that there are things you can do in your neigh­bor­hood and that change is achievable.

Q5. Tell us about a book on your pro­fes­sion­al shelf that has real­ly influ­enced you.

When I was work­ing in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Mayor’s office and we were look­ing at ways to mea­sure progress in human terms rather than just look­ing at things like the num­ber of pot­holes that get fixed, some­one gave me Mark Friedman’s results-account­abil­i­ty bible, Try­ing Hard is Not Good Enough. This notion of deter­min­ing the strate­gies you need to turn the curve on issues fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the way I thought about data and per­for­mance. That book is still on my shelf, and I’ve flipped through it so much that it’s worn and dog-eared.

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