Supporting Complex Networks Through Equity-Driven Practices

Complex network of people

By Andrea Venezia
September 19, 2022

The imperatives facing public education right now—given all the issues laid bare by the pandemic and centuries of barriers systemically rooted in racism and White supremacy—require complex equity-and relationally driven partnership approaches.

In recent years, the education field has turned to network-based efforts to bring a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, knowledge, and skills to try to radically change complex social problems.1 These large-scale efforts often include multiple school districts or postsecondary institutions, community-based partners, and research/evaluation and technical assistance providers.

To quote the National Equity project, “There are no ready answers or solutions to the complex and unpredictable challenges we face. Equity work requires “host” leadership—engaging multiple perspectives, learning with and from one another—rather than “hero” leadership of planning the work and working the plan. By supporting meaningful relationships with others in a network, we contribute to and sustain the well-being of people in their work, while supporting leaders to do the same in their partnerships with families and communities.”

To support network-based approaches, it’s critically important to utilize equity-driven practices and strategies. This post focuses on unpacking what equity can look like in practice. I’m writing this blog from the perspective of being a former educator, a co-developer and facilitator of two statewide networks in California, an intermediary in others, and currently a co-lead for NSF INCLUDES, a national STEM equity initiative that is one of the National Science Foundation’s 10 Big Ideas.

Having clarity and intentionality are key when using equity-based practices. It’s important for networks and individuals in those networks to be very clear and intentional about their approach and consider the following issues.

  • Why you (collectively) are doing this work. This has at least three facets. Understand the sense of purpose that drives the individuals working within the network, be clear about the purpose of the network, and ensure that individuals know the purpose of their work within the collective. Put time into getting to know each other to learn what drives each person to do the work, and in the service of the whole; this work is relational and not transactional.
  • With whom you’re doing this work. It’s important to move from a conception of serving communities to working in partnership with communities and creating deep relationships.
  • How you anchor this work in values. The co-creation of collectively developed foundational documents, such as the vision, values, principles, conversational practices, and community agreements anchored into definitions of justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility provide the underpinnings for this work. Operationalize those foundational documents transparently and with intent in daily practice and support the group in holding itself accountable for embodying them, with clear indicators about progress. This takes time and likely multiple iterations as you learn. Establishing clear processes is important, but centering process rather than purpose can veer groups away from the reasons why we do this work, which can have a deleterious effect on a network’s ability to make marked improvements.
  • How you define and operationalize terms. Terms such as diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, systems change, culture change, and institutionalized barriers need clear definitions. Going through definitional processes ensures that everyone is on the same page, and it allows for teams to be clear about how to operationalize them and measure impact. Maintaining a focus on identifying and removing institutionalized barriers that hold inequities in place, while keeping an assets-based focus on students, are important components of this work.
  • How you do this work. Rethink power structures and utilize distributed leadership. Power lies with people who create agendas, bring people together, facilitate, and make decisions, so those are key areas in which to open up space for people whose voices have not been heard. People cannot be empowered to do their work without clarity, space, time, good communication, and trust—And distributed leadership requires people who have traditionally held power to release some of it and people who have not had access to power to gain it.
  • What your interim milestones are and how you will reach them. When you look 5 or 10 years down the road, what would you like to be different based on your work? How would you know if anything changed? Working back from there, how could you create an interconnected set of milestones and indicators, with scaffolded supports for the team to reach those milestones? Which strategies will you experiment with to reach them?
  • How you measure the effects of your work. A learning agenda centered in equity requires a developmental approach to support adjustments along the way, as opposed to a summative evaluation approach. Conceptually, measurement needs to find a balance between compliance-based approaches that can stifle innovation and approaches that do not embed enough accountability. Qualitative data collection to understand the needs of those affected by the work, in addition to co-constructing short-, medium-, and long-term indicators with partners can help support that balance. Disaggregating data will ensure that you’ll know who the work is supporting and where you need to adjust.

There’s no special formula to supporting complex networks with equity-driven practices. Finding joy together, building relationships, adhering to clear equity-driven values and principles, and listening and reflecting carefully will support the work culture in being healthy and functional – which then drives the changes you want to make.


1See for example, the National Network for NSF INCLUDES and the funded projects within it:

Topics: Access and equity