What Equitable Quality Improvement Systems and Star Trek Have in Common

When I joined the Forum’s Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality as the Director of Equitable Quality Improvement Systems, I brought a deep understanding of what quality improvement systems consist of and several years of having been on my own racial equity journey. To support quality at scale within a network or system, we know that we need shared definitions of quality that are evidence-based and resonate with the communities in which we are working. We know that we need measures to see how we’re doing against those standards and how we collect data matters immensely from an equity perspective. We also need to be able to use the data we collect to identify the types and depth of resources and relevant support needed to help providers engage in cycles of continuous quality improvement. Standards, measures, supports, and cycles are the components that make up a Quality Improvement System that seeks to ensure organizations and programs can provide high-quality learning environments for all young people. However, when we examine a quality improvement system with an equity lens, too often, we focus our attention mostly or solely on who has and doesn’t have access. We focus more on what the system is producing than on how the system is operating. Our Framework for Equitable Quality Improvement Systems, detailed below, seeks to address this issue head-on.

I have a special place in my heart for certain musicals and TV musical episodes. Most recently, I fell in love with Star Trek Strange New Worlds’ musical episode, Subspace Rhapsody. In my obsession with the episode, I learned more about the making of the musical, and I couldn’t help but see connections to our quality and equity work. You might be wondering what connections could exist between a Star Trek musical and a framework for more equitable quality improvement systems. Whether you love musicals, Star Trek, both, or none of the above, continue reading to learn more about our recent work to build more intentionality and explicit focus on equity as we continue to ensure all young people have access to high quality programs.

Identify and Design with All Who Need to be Involved

For the making of Subspace Rhapsody, the Executive Producers had long envisioned the idea of making a Star Trek musical episode, but it wasn’t until they engaged the cast of Strange New Worlds that they were able to make the vision a reality. Instead of building out the musical episode and songs on their own (or rather just with writers and musical composers), they took the time to introduce the idea to all cast members, learn the vocal strengths of each member, and then develop songs that aligned to both the broader vision and cast members’ strengths and vocal ranges. Further, the episode did not represent a random, one-off plot, but rather built off the storylines, deep relationships, and character development that had been growing from the beginning of the series.

Our Framework for Equitable Quality Improvement Systems starts with examining who is involved in the system, who bears responsibility for implementing it, and how everyone has been involved (or not) from the beginning. In the design of new systems or programs, we often get input from young people or families at single points in time. We might conduct a survey to gather young people’s interests or broadly conduct a needs assessment or landscape analysis. However, that is often where the involvement of the folks who are intended to benefit from the system stops. The next time youth, families, partners, or communities are involved tends to be at the very end of the process when we evaluate and collect feedback to hear how the process went. By then, it can be too late to correct mistakes or rectify inequities and/or unintended consequences of the system. To build an equitable system, we need to be more intentional about who we are bringing to the table and how we meaningfully engage them throughout the entire design and implementation process. This requires fundamentally shifting our criteria for what counts as youth, family, and provider engagement. Input alone is not sufficient. Our call is to identify new ways of doing system design and system building work so that there is truly shared leadership among all stakeholder groups, but most importantly, among youth, families, and programs.

Build Trust and Identify Guiding Principles

In the Subspace Rhapsody episode, the crew is trapped in a reality where their innermost authentic feelings manifest as songs due to a subspace fold and experiments with music as a form of communication. Despite sharing emotions in song form being initially deemed a security threat, the crew discovers that singing in unison with genuine emotion is the key to sealing the fold and returning to normal. The success stems from the crew’s alignment with Starfleet’s mission and principles. For the making of the episode, producers, writers, actors, and others adhered to shared principles, prioritizing character storylines and arcs. Drawing inspiration from past musicals, the creators crafted original songs, maintaining a serious and emotionally powerful tone for the episode. These principles were ingrained in every contributor’s role, fostering trust and collaboration in bringing the episode to life.

This leads to the second part of our Framework for Equitable Quality Improvement Systems: Guiding Principles. While individual organizations often have values to reflect the ways they commit to doing their work, we rarely spend time to identify values or guiding principles for how a system—with multiple organizations, partners, and roles—will commit to engaging in work collectively. Although it’s important to establish shared goals, often the alignment stops there or moves to focus on the operational aspects (e.g. the resources, supports, timelines, etc.) without intentional reflection on whether those pieces align with how everyone involved wants to be in community and do the collective work. We rarely think about how we want to be in space with the folks we’re trying to serve, how we want to engage in the work with our partners, how we want to navigate disagreements, or how our decision-making processes will be reflective of everyone who will either be involved with or benefit from the system.

I recently attended the It Takes All of Us – Expanded Learning Workforce Summit in Los Angeles, California, which included a panel featuring ExpandLA, Boys & Girls Clubs of Carson, Playworks, and Partnership for Children and Youth. During the panel discussion, the programs outlined how they worked to build trust and buy-in for transparency as a guiding principle (though they didn’t refer specifically to guiding principles) for building a system that truly supported the expanded learning workforce. Committing to transparency required folks to shift their ways of being (e.g. don’t trust outsiders, hold your data close to you) and doing the work (e.g. compete for the same resources, accept funding even it doesn’t cover true costs). Each partner committed to sharing their “secret sauce” and even salary ranges and budgets so they could collectively advocate for the true cost of running high-quality expanded learning programs. Committing to transparency supported organizations within the system to be able to better negotiate contracts and have a shared voice to explain how certain proposed compensation models by funders were not going to be sufficient to support high quality. Further, transparency in wages supported new programs or organizations seeking to provide expanded learning programming to better prepare and ensure they had adequate resources to provide high-quality programs.

Examine and Reimagine Your System

A musical had never been done in the history of the Star Trek franchise. Subspace Rhapsody proved that no matter the history or how well-established something is, there’s room to try something new. The creators ensured there was time for true collaboration and shared understanding of the vision among all stakeholders, and they strived to stay true to established guiding principles throughout the process.

As we think about quality and equity, now is the time to closely examine the systems we have built. We can start by asking a few key questions (and examining who is answering those questions):

  • How is quality defined in your system and by whom? Who was involved in the beginning? Who is involved or should be involved now?
  • When and how are youth and families engaged in the quality improvement system design (beyond needs assessments or feedback surveys)?
  • Who allocates resources? How is the allocation of resources determined?
  • What pathways exist for staff to advance positions within organizations or the broader youth-serving field?

If we really want to ensure all young people have access to high-quality programs, we have to utilize a systems approach. Systems will continue to operate as they were designed and if our current systems continue to show inequities, then our work must shift to redesign and reimagine our quality improvement systems with greater intentionality and in true partnership with youth, families, programs, and communities. Even as we do this broader collective and systemic work, we each have individual roles we play in our current systems with unique opportunities to shift policies and practices right now. Check out our new series of workshops, Building Racial Equity into Youth Program Quality Initiatives, or reach out to our team of Equitable Continuous Quality Improvement Specialists for consultation and technical assistance. We’re excited to join you and support you on this journey, once more, with intention.