The Participant Experience in their Own Words
At the height of civil rights movements in the United States, Bayard Rustin, a visionary activist and organizer, and a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., laid down an insight that broadened the fight for civil and economic rights: “Dignity and self-respect are not abstract virtues that can be cultivated in a vacuum. They are related to one’s job, education, residence, mobility, family responsibilities, and other circumstances that are determined by one’s economic and social status in the society.”
Rustin’s vision was a centerpiece for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and spawned an array of ideas for policy and systemic change in the United States. In many respects, the Next Generation of Human Services Organizations initiative (NextGen) furthered this vitally important work of lifting-up dignity for individuals, families, and communities.
The NextGen cohort members, supported by the Kresge Foundation, invested two years in designing and implementing innovations within their respective organizations, but also ideating and capturing insights to help other human services leaders improve outcomes and impact. Throughout this journey, the cohort focused on a North Star of racial equity in social and economic mobility, and how human services systems can improve respect, autonomy, agency, power, and dignity of people we work with.
The cohort rigorously grounded its work in the modern definition of dignity as a universal value – that dignity is an inherent right as a human, and if we don’t protect that right we deny it. And we learned about the transformation of human services through lifting-up values such as dignity, autonomy, agency, and power. We learned how society historically protected basic rights through “negative policies and practices” that enforce freedom from coercion or interference in the pursuit of dignity and happiness, such as the Bill of Rights and labor laws. We also looked at “positive policy mechanisms” that proactively support full rights – such as The New Deal, Social Security, healthcare, housing, etc. And we looked to the future of designing new policies and practices that increase values such as dignity – like universal basic income, customer co-creation of solutions, and community empowerment.
The central question from the initiative became: To advance human services outcomes, what are we doing today to not only bolster and safeguard current rights and values, but also design and launch new policies and practices that affirm those expanded rights?
To take on this challenging work, the initiative leveraged and built on the Human Services Value Curve. The case studies on leading change and the action steps the cohort designed around the “Curve” are a great place for you to start planning your journey to improving not only human services outcomes, but also lift the dignity of individuals, families, and communities.
I’m excited for you to take the lessons learned and build on them and implement them. But before you get to work, I’m hoping you’ll join me in gratitude to the Kresge Foundation, the Next Generation of Human Services Organizations Advisory Board, and the Leadership for a Networked World team. This initiative would not have been possible without their vision, resources, ideas, and energy.
Thus, on behalf of the entire NextGen cohort and learning team, we are grateful for your interest in the ideas and actions of the initiative and your time, energy, and commitment to improving outcomes in human services.
As we lean into this work, we can be inspired by the words of civil rights activist Pauli Murray: “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind.” My sincere hope is that the energy and ideas emanating from this initiative propel you through this endless march toward freedom.
Now, let's get to work!
Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie
 To learn more about these principles and ideas, the books Economic Dignity, by Gene Sperling; On Justice, by Mathias Risse; and Justice, by Michael Sandel, provide a solid foundation on the philosophy, history, and polices of distributive justice, economic and human rights, and organizing society for equitable outcomes.
Allegheny County Department of Human Services
WA State Dept. of Social and Human Services
Hispanic Unity of Florida
Metropolitan Action Commission
Maricopa County Department of Human Services
Root & Rebound
We’d like to expressly acknowledge and thank all of the individuals who worked to support this Initiative. Without their dedication, inspiration and commitment, this important work would not have been possible.