Transform Rockford: Taking a Closer Look ‘Upstream’

Eyeing its mission of making a Top 25 community by 2025, this nonprofit is homing in on the strategies that will help to reverse some of the Rockford area’s most stubborn challenges.

Does a Top 25 community place its focus on reacting to problems, or does it instead “go upstream” and tackle the causes of its persistent issues?

Ask the leaders behind Transform Rockford, and they’ll tell you it’s the latter mindset that will lead to lasting change. After nearly a decade strategically improving the Rockford region, this nonprofit organization is directing its attention this year upon Rockford’s thorniest challenges.

“Education and safety continue to be areas of concern for individuals, families, employers and institutions in our community, and I don’t think anybody would argue that,” says Spitty Tata, program manager for Transform Rockford. “Those are huge factors to attracting talent, retaining talent and making sure we feel good about our community.”

Education and safety also are some of the lowest-ranking measures on Transform Rockford’s scorecard, available online at Compared with 100 similar American communities, Rockford ranks among the bottom quartiles on issues of safety, crime and educational attainment.

So, how does one begin to tackle these issues? Tata takes a cue from Dan Heath, author of “Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before they Happen.”

“I love this one particular quote of his, because it describes a lot of what we do,” says Tata. “It goes: ‘When you spend years responding to problems, you can sometimes overlook the fact that you could be preventing them.’”

For Transform, “going upstream” first requires a hard look at the factors behind crime and low educational attainment in Rockford. The process involves input from subject matter experts and individuals with lived experience. Once those “root causes” are identified, the discussion turns to strategies and tactics to address those causes. These lead to specific actions and projects. Once those projects are up and running, the work is handed off to a dedicated owner, typically a nonprofit or government agency that assumes ownership and accountability for measuring success.

This strategic approach may seem familiar in some ways, because it’s already helped Transform Rockford to bring other projects to life. The Family Peace Center grew out of concerns about domestic violence, which accounts for at least 30% of all police calls in Rockford. Research supplied by Jennifer Cacciapaglia, manager of the Mayor’s Office on Domestic and Community Violence Prevention, demonstrates many connections between domestic violence and crime.

The Mayor’s Office brings together the work of numerous agencies and organizations to collectively tackle problems related to domestic violence. The Family Peace Center opened in July 2020 to assist in delivering related services.

Tackling overall safety and education issues begins with some major players, including the City of Rockford, Winnebago County and Rockford Public Schools. Their expert insights on community safety, the education system, and potential intersections of the two will help to identify many root causes, says Christie Jarrett, Steering Committee Chair.

“It’ll be Spitty’s role to lead that discussion and make sure the City, the County and the school district are helping us to discover these root causes and then agree on them,” she adds. “Obviously, they are experts in the field, so we will rely on the information they’re sharing with us.”

Getting these players to the table is valuable, Jarrett says, and getting them to agree on causes, strategies and specific actions – amidst shifting political priorities, timelines and internal agendas – will be important for the community.

“It’s a natural part of the process, but it’s very much on our radar,” says Jarrett.

In the background, Transform Rockford will continue to play its role as a convener, helping to align organizations, ask hard questions and deploy volunteers. While the organization is shifting much of its focus to education and safety this year, it hasn’t forgotten about other priorities. Last year, the organization was homed in on five big ideas: workforce development, innovation ecosystem, quality places, thriving people and collective impact. Many related projects have already been handed off to permanent owners.

“There are many other projects that are going on in the community that we feel are in capable hands now,” says Tata. “They are with organizations or individuals who are really taking the work forward. The Family Peace Center, for example, is moving forward by itself now, and that’s just how it’s supposed to work.”

Tata and Jarrett expect early work on education and safety to happen this winter, with strategies and projects taking shape in the spring.

“I would say the goal is to have our scorecard metrics improve, and the hope is that we’ll see gains in more than just two areas,” says Jarrett. “If we can truly figure out how to go upstream, we can have a ripple effect on many challenges Rockford faces.”

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