Moving Mountains Together: Strategic Community Leadership and Systems Change

By Nissen, Laura Burney; Merrigan, Daniel M. et al. | Child Welfare, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Moving Mountains Together: Strategic Community Leadership and Systems Change


Nissen, Laura Burney, Merrigan, Daniel M., Kraft, M. Katherine, Child Welfare


Traditional leadership practice frameworks to guide systems change often fall short in today's practice environment. Reclaiming Futures is a national initiative to create an integrated, comprehensive, seamless system of care for teens with substance abuse problems involved in juvenile justice. It uses leadership and systems reform strategies to improve public health institutions. The premise is that interruption of the destructive cycle of drugs and delinquency can only be attained through the cultivation of shared strategic leadership. This article presents the limitations of traditional practice frameworks of leadership, describes the theory of this new approach to leadership development, and clarifies collaborative leadership and system change. The article includes an example of the framework in action, a discussion of lessons learned, and recommendations for community leadership development initiatives.

The systems that serve troubled youth in the United States are, themselves, in trouble. Despite legions of committed community members, professionals in juvenile justice and treatment, and judges and court personnel, systems have not yet fully adopted the growing number of evidence-based solutions for intervening in the lives of youth caught in cycles of drug abuse, delinquency, and other complex challenges (Drug Strategies, 2003; Kraft, Vicary, & Henry, 2001; Mendel, 1999; Nissen, Vanderburg, Embree-Bever, & Mankey, 1999; VanderWaal, McBride, Terry-McElrath, & Van Buren, 2001).

The most vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice system need more comprehensive, more effective systems of care. Meeting this need requires new kinds of leadership and partnerships. To make youth-serving systems meet their own goals, leaders must operate in staggeringly complex areas. They must solve problems and be capable of connecting those solutions at local, state, and federal levels; with public and private community stakeholders; and with researchers and practitioners. By collaborating, leaders and the communities they serve can reduce fragmentation and inefficiency-and replace it with coordinated, comprehensive, effective services for youth and families. Yet most leaders in youth services have received little in the way of education, guidance, or support in state-of-the-art leadership frameworks that can offer them the tools and professional development opportunities that amplify their existing strengths to meet these challenges.

Overview of the Practice Context and the Leadership Challenge

During the past 20 years, a movement in child advocacy has become increasingly concerned with youth services that are fragmented, inefficient, uncoordinated, and of poor quality. Members of the movement believe it is time for innovation and change to meet the challenge for providing comprehensive services that are coordinated among providers and delivered reliably to youth and families (Holden, Friedman, & Santiago, 2001; Kagan & Neville, 1993; Pumariega & Winters, 2003; Stroul, 2001). This is called the "system of care" model. Its goals are guiding policymakers, practitioners, and community members through a transition from complex, discrete, monolithic, institutional ("silo") approaches to funding and administering a coordinated, holistic system of care. This movement has been widely described in the literature (Pires, 2002). A system of care has been defined for children with serious mental disturbances as "a comprehensive spectrum of mental health and other necessary services which are organized into a coordinated network to meet the multiple and changing needs of children and their families" (Stroul & Friedman, 1994, p. 3).

To advance the system of care model in a particularly important area of youth services, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invested in a demonstration initiative, Reclaiming Futures: Communities Helping Teens Overcome Drugs, Alcohol and Crime (RF). This effort emerged in response to the public health crisis of rapidly expanding numbers of youth with unaddressed substance abuse and related behavioral health issues entering the juvenile justice system (RF, 2004). …

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