Reflections and Impact

The Participant Experience in their Own Words

A Letter from Dr. Antonio Oftelie

Executive Director of Leadership for a Networked World


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.[1] 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

Executive Director, Leadership for a Networked World
Fellow, Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences


[1] 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.

Participant Reflections

“These last two years were really defined by the pandemic here in Allegheny County as it was across the country and the globe. Pivot and partnership became some of our favorite words. Communication across multiple stakeholders was key. A silver lining was that siloes broke down quickly, good ideas and innovation were embraced, and projects that might have taken months or years to launch in non-pandemic times were stood up within days or weeks. We showed what was possible as a community.”

Allegheny County Department of Human Services

“We encourage others embarking on this journey to celebrate the opportunities to fail forward – as well as the successes – along the way. Embrace the idea that when it comes to long overdue systems change, trying something and failing is better than never trying at all. There is so much to learn when things don’t go according to plan.”

Olmstead County

“Systemic change becomes possible when we recognize the “system” is us. We may not be individually responsible for the shortcomings in our institutions and programs, but we all have a responsibility to improve them.”

WA State Dept. of Social and Human Services

“Build organizational capacity and activate new strategies and solutions to address multi-dimensional community-wide challenges and opportunities to intentionally build equity for all families.”

Hispanic Unity of Florida

“Believe in the human capital and ability of the people you serve or work with as customers. Do not limit offerings to customers based on an impoverished notion of their aspirations or abilities. Focus on the systemic barriers that exist that keep individuals from being able to access opportunities and look to change the system while also educating the customer to minimize negative system impact where possible.”

Metropolitan Action Commission

“Identify a catalyst that will help you overcome inertia and get going.”

Mary’s Center

“We all have biases whether conscious or unconsciously and these can affect how we deliver services to the diverse groups of people that we serve every day. As an organization and individually, we need to be mindful of the language we use, our behaviors and our work ethic to ensure we are delivering quality services to our communities.”

Maricopa County Department of Human Services

“Being trusted by the community you serve is vital to performing quality services…. Gaining trust and buy-in with any community should be the very first step to approaching programmatic economic mobility work.”

Root & Rebound

“We must lead at this moment. We must rise to the occasion to disrupt the cycle of poverty and accelerate economic mobility. And we must do what we can to center in the humanity of our families and employees.”

Jeremiah Program


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.

Advisory Board

Jesus Gerena
Chief Executive Officer
Darrick Hamilton
Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy
The New School
Joe Jones
Founder and President & CEO
Center for Urban Families
Gena Lewis
Senior Fellow
Kresge Foundation
Kathy Park
Chief Executive Officer
Evident Change
Marjorie Sims
Managing Director
The Aspen Institute
wareing evans
Tracy Wareing Evans
President & CEO
Scott Wasserman
The Bell Policy Center

Research Partners

Ali Miller
Research Consultant
Engage R+D
Sonia Taddy-Sandino
Engage R+D
Eric Wat
Senior Consultant
Engage R+D

Leadership for a Networked World

Christopher DeAngelus
Director of Digital Initiatives
Leadership for a Networked World
Lauren Hirshon
Director of Research and Learning
Leadership for a Networked World
Karen Notch
Director of Operations
Leadership for a Networked World
Antonio Oftelie
Executive Director
Leadership for a Networked World

The Kresge Foundation

Anna Cruz
Managing Director, Strategic Learning, Research & Evaluation
The Kresge Foundation
Raquel Hatter
Managing Director, Human Services
The Kresge Foundation
Joelle Jude-Fontaine
Senior Program Officer, Human Services
The Kresge Foundation
Sonita Martin
Program Team Assistant, Human Services
The Kresge Foundation
Katharine McLaughlin
Communications Officer, External Affairs and Communications
Kresge Foundation