Weaving a New Blanket

One thing I learned early on about Snohomish County is that collaboration is highly valued and ever-present in community conversations and actions. This community cares deeply about its people and frequently works together in organic ways around shared interests. Over the last two years, United Way of Snohomish County stepped into a collaborative approach called CORE: Creating Open Roads to Equity, which builds upon the collaborative spirit of our county.

Attempts to solve complex social issues like poverty have taken many forms over the years. My grandmother’s afghans come to mind when I think about why United Way of Snohomish County has adopted our new CORE approach to address poverty in our community. Her afghans were always knitted together with love and care, adorning the back of her couches, displaying beautiful designs. When we were cold, my sister and I would quickly grab one and try to stretch it as far as we could (and before my grandmother could notice). But as we stretched to try to spread the warmth between us, we created giant holes that were big enough that my sister and I could stick our hands and arms through. The further the afghan stretched, the more it lost its ability to provide us warmth.

I think of United Way’s historic model as an afghan approach. Intuitively, we all want to spread help across as many people as possible, which, for the old United Way, meant funding as many programs as we could. Certainly, doing something about poverty is better than nothing at all, right? Yes, true.  But the unintended consequence of stretching resources in this way is that progress was wide but not deep. This way of working left holes in the system, making it hard for nonprofit partners to create lasting impact.

CORE shifts our focus from a widespread, loosely-knit approach to a more tightly woven, impact one. It combines two promising models: Collective Impact, which is intentional, measured collaboration and a 2-Generational Approach, which focuses on the well-being of the whole family. It’s an innovative model that gets to the core of the issue because it recognizes that we can’t keep trying to stretch the afghan; instead, we begin with the end in mind and invest in a new way to solve the problem of warmth.

In January 2018, we officially started to do just that by investing in CORE Collaboratives – groups of multiple cross-sector partners working together on shared goals around families with young children, prenatal to age 8 – because of the profound long-term benefits of supporting the first critical years of a child’s life. Each Collaborative focuses on areas of early childhood education; postsecondary and employment pathways; economic assets; health and well-being; and social connections like friends, family, and other support groups for both the children and the adults in their lives. We have already seen new jobs created specifically to help families navigate complex social service systems; deeper relationships and a feeling of shared responsibility between school districts and housing services that did not exist before; more frequent communications resulting in decreased redundancy between programs and agencies; and big shifts in thinking at a local food bank around success looking more like the quality of food and overall nourishment than simply the number of people served.

CORE weaves together a new blanket for our community. The approach was built upon the collaborative strength of Snohomish County and invests deeply with the goal of helping the whole family escape the traps of poverty now and for generations to come. To truly get to the core of poverty, intentional collaborative solutions are the fabric our community needs.

This was originally published in the Senior Focus Homage Newspaper on March 21, 2019.

Written By: Allison Warren-Barbour, President and CEO, United Way of Snohomish County