From Harm Reduction to Structural Well-Being: Understanding the Limits of Reform

Moving from Harm Reduction to Transformation Through a Community-Driven Holistic Approach

For over 25 years, the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) has partnered with communities nationwide to address racial and ethnic disparities in human service systems. Across the country, government and civic leaders have spent decades searching for reforms to address issues such as disparities in arrest and sentencing rates of people of color and children separated from their parents.

Yet, these traditional reform efforts have failed to produce a fundamental change in outcomes for people of color. Thus, the question remains: after years of reforms, why are so many communities of color still plagued by disparate rates of incarceration, growing economic inequality, educational achievement gaps and disparate suspension rates, and the same over policing of communities of color? We believe systems reform in its greatest potential can only reduce the harm that is baked into these systems from their foundation and thus we refer to reform as harm reduction. Traditional system reform strategies have repeatedly proved insufficient in promoting well-being for people of color. We believe what we need is transformation rooted in values that produce our collective well-being and belonging.

In this article we explain our journey to understanding our reform work as harm reduction, and the framework we have developed to help communities advance transformation.


Historically, efforts to reduce disparities are rooted in a “harm reduction” framework. Harm reduction does not require the fundamental and radical change of a thing. It is a compilation of strategies to reduce the harmful effects of a behavior. In most systems reform work, harm reduction strategies, by design, focus on tools and technological responses that fail to account for the fact that all institutions of human service and governance were founded with the specific notion of advancing racial hierarchy and white supremacy.  Therefore, tools and technological strategies applied to existing infrastructure simply do not offer the capacity to achieve racial equity.

For example, in the justice sector, a growing awareness of mass incarceration in the United States has led to programs from ending the cash bail system to eliminating mandatory sentencing practices. While these efforts have helped lower the number of individuals in prison, Black, Indigenous and people of color  are still incarcerated at higher rates than white offenders, according to The Sentencing Project. Harm reduction strategies are often focused on one singular system rather than the ecosystem that produces the disparate outcomes we continue to see and does not intentionally address the underlying values and mental models that keep institutional racism in place.

The Burns Institute believes that systems, such as the prison industry, that were designed to provide social control and cheap labor will, by design, perpetually produce disparate outcomes. Consequently, a law enforcement system rooted in a history of slave patrols will always disproportionately target black and brown citizens.

Tshaka Barrows, one of BI’s co-executive directors often highlights this paradox of addressing a fundamentally-flawed system.

“Was it possible to make slavery more equitable,” Barrow often says rhetorically.” We have to call the irrational notion of reforming something horrific and remind ourselves that we must push to radically reimagine what the very notion of justice means in this country with our shared history of racial hierarchy.”

In considering how to achieve transformational change for communities of color, the BI has identified The Four Pillars of Failed Justice Reform – major barriers or obstacles that have traditionally hampered government and philanthropic-led efforts to achieve true transformation and equity:

The Four Pillars of Failed Justice Reform:

  1. The notion that justice is colorblind and race-neutral thereby negating the necessity for racial and ethnicity-specific policies and practices. Our experience in every jurisdiction is that there is always a collection of justice practitioners such as prosecutors, judges, probation etc. that believe they rarely make race-conscious decisions. So, work that focuses directly on race, ethnicity and equity is seen as unnecessary. 
  2. The needed investment in communities that most populate the justice sector is outside the justice sector’s purview. Disinvestment is a structural issue that is larger than the justice sector can handle alone. The well-documented legacy of marginalizing indigenous and communities of color through the theft of Native land, the enslavement of African people, the exploitation of Chinese and Latinx labor, lynching of African Americans, the redlining and undervaluing and physical destruction of African American residential communities has inevitably led to the overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal legal system. Significant public resources are dedicated to policing and surveilling these neighborhoods and communities, while the public will to advocate for investment to transform these communities remains a fleeting sentiment.
  3. Government is not structured to promote flexible cross-sector responses to complex human services problems that involve public safety. Racial and ethnic disparities exist across all human service sectors, and are exacerbated through siloed departments, funding streams, mandates and programs. Budgets are independently formulated and advocated for with little coordination. Desired results are determined by those furthest from the presenting problems and accountability measures are usually about process and not improved life outcomes. This obstacle involves examining the willingness of jurisdictions to engage new ways of doing business to reduce race effects in the administration of justice and other human services. We must disrupt this way of doing business to reduce race effects in the administration of justice and other human services.
  4. It is very difficult for elected and appointed officials to share power with each other and communities most in need of human service interventions. Many jurisdictions work hard to create programs or interventions that hope to address the needs of justice involved people. However, often those services are funded with certain parameters, governmental departments operate them, etc. That structure over the years has resulted in marginal gains with no chance of achieving the transformational change needed. Power must be shared to establish true partnerships to engage equity.

These conundrums have led the BI to continue to evolve its approach to directly address structural racism and to push for transformation toward structural well-being – its direct opposite.


At first blush, transforming the accepted structures of our society may seem impossible and unrealistic to many. The alternative, however, to maintain a status quo founded on our nation’s history of structural racism, is unsustainable. That should be an untenable stance to anyone that truly believes in equal opportunity.

Much of the work in the field of racial equity, through philanthropy and government reform, has been centered in the belief that we can achieve better outcomes for people of color by “tweaking” how existing public and private systems and institutions operate. Unfortunately, these strategies have failed to achieve fundamental change in the overall well-being of people of color who are engaged with human services systems.

Instead, what’s needed is an openness to the idea that new systems that intentionally support the wellbeing of marginalized communities need to be designed collaboratively.


BI defines structural well-being as a system of public policies, institutional and inclusive practices, cultural representations and other norms that establish a sense of belonging and work to strengthen families, communities and individual well-being for positive life outcomes.

To start, achieving transformation requires system and community partners to establish a shared historical competence regarding how the history of structural racism has impacted the development of human services systems. The BI believes that anchoring equitable transformation in the truth of shared history is imperative to eliminating structural racism and taking steps to radically reimagine and redesign community-centered solutions for well-being.

Implementing the Structural Well-Being Framework is characterized by two fundamental principles:

  • Communities must consider the entire ecosystem in order to make substantive change and improvement. Cross-sector planning and communication between human service agencies and with its constituents is imperative and should be incorporated into every process.
  • Communities must center the well-being of people of color as a foundational value. New and improved community institutions must reflect the health, safety and culture of people of color in policy and practice.

BI is using this framework in transformational efforts across the country. Longtime community organizers in southern California have pushed Los Angeles County to invest in a community-driven, new youth justice system rooted in restorative justice, youth development and healing.

Similarly, in Ramsey County, Minn., community activism and county government foresight has led to a county-community partnership to reimagine county services and investments in wraparound services that center community, youth and family well-being at its core.

Requirements to begin implementing a Structural Well-Being Framework:

  • Examining the fundamental values, purpose, configuration and investments across agencies,
  • Intentionally building deep trust between participants from public agencies and impacted communities,
  • Rooting collective work in clear values to inform redesign and
  • Establishing historical competency in structural racism.

To learn more about the Structural Well-Being Approach, watch the video below:

If you would like to learn more about how the Haywood Burns Institute is advancing transformation for a new future of wellbeing, please reach out to us at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *