Thought Leadership

Living Cities’ Racial Equity Journey: Organizing Within an Institution

On February 26, 2012, a seventeen-year-old Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman. Martin’s death ignited a national debate about racism and justice. It was on the nightly news and in the editorial pages. We heard from legal and criminal justice experts, historians, artists, Martin’s parents, and President Obama. And, across the country, people were having their own conversations. They were having them at dinner tables and at real and metaphorical water coolers. They were having them on social media and in the streets as a protest movement took hold.
At Living Cities, a grantmaker and investor dedicated to improving the lives of low-income people and the cities where they live, we were having them, too. The days following the Zimmerman verdict were tense at our office, as staff members found themselves in reflective and sometimes emotional conversations about Martin’s death, Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the pervasiveness of racism in America. Several staff members felt that a robust and collective interrogation of the impact of racial inequity on cities was noticeably absent— and also not encouraged— in Living Cities’ work. How was it possible, we asked ourselves, to achieve our mission without intentionally addressing the intersections between poverty and race?
These conversations eventually set us on a course to radically reconfigure the way the organization works around race. Along that road, Living Cities has redefined our mission and identity as an organization, while also surfacing what it takes for grantmakers, nonprofits, and impact investors to center racial equity in practice. Below are key lessons we have learned so far:

Create Space for Dialogue and Distributed Leadership

As conversation about how Living Cities needed to change spread, junior-level staffers took the lead on moving it from the hallway to a conference room. We applied “inside organizing” — strategies of community organizing to build coalition and move people within an institution— to spark the organization’s first steps towards transformation.
This kind of distributed leadership benefits from a receptive environment. For example, Living Cities’ CEO, Ben Hecht, had already worked to create a culture that encouraged all staff to speak our minds and bring our best ideas to the table. We had also gone through training in adaptive leadership, including leading in environments with trust issues, political sensitivities, resistance, and conflict. That training proved to be extremely valuable, as there was an emphasis on considering core values and how different stakeholders might perceive the same proposals or decisions in very different ways. It was with Ben’s support that a task force of Living Cities staffers drafted a memo outlining how we might work to understand and address racial disparities with more intentionality.

Develop A Shared Language, Reckon with America’s History

Many of our early conversations about why it was imperative to center race in our approach focused on reckoning with our collective history. To do this, Living Cities engaged Frontline Solutions, a consulting firm with deep expertise in helping organizations develop and apply a critical understanding of how race, place, class, and gender intersect and affect economic opportunity. Frontline Solutions helped engage us in a conversation about racial equity and inclusion at our annual all-staff retreat. The goal was to create a safe and brave space for staff to grapple with issues together and begin to develop shared language and knowledge.
Through those first discussions, Living Cities staff began to internalize that racial income and wealth gaps were not the result of inadvertent flaws in our systems. Rather, they have been created and perpetuated by our governments and society. Although many overt acts of discrimination were outlawed during the Civil Rights Movement, the consequences of history are not sufficiently interrogated and have not been undone. From systematic discrimination in housing, to health care, to education, and much more, racism has shaped American society in pernicious ways.
In order to even begin to move forward, our team needed to understand the magnitude of injustice and how intrinsic a commitment to racial equity was to our mission of ending poverty in America. Without addressing the racial wealth gap, which continues to widen, we would never end intergenerational poverty.

Move Beyond a Program Lens

Institutions, including ours, often focus on their external work when they begin their journey to become centered on racial equity. For example, Living Cities’ first steps included developing guidelines for written content that supported discussion of race and racism and auditing our programs and impact investments. But, too often, when staff members, particularly people of color, named how racism showed up in relationships and work processes, they were told that it was not the “right time or place” for it. Alternatively, academic, data-filled exercises were seen as the right path to a solution.
Thanks in large part to inside organizing, leadership recognized that this needed to change. We began to create time for conversations about interpersonal, institutional, and structural racism. We had conversations about anti-blackness and white institutional culture. As individuals and as an institution, we’re now more able to engage in conflict, share personal experiences, and break down white institutional norms of politeness and silence. We are also more able to name power dynamics and structures that, even if unintentionally, preserve such norms and perpetuate oppression within our own walls.

Normalize Everyday Dialogue on Race

Today, all Living Cities staffers go through the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s (PISAB) “Undoing Racism” training, which focuses on key anti-racist principles: analyzing power, developing leadership, reflecting on how we practice gatekeeping (the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to information and resources), identifying and analyzing manifestations of racism, learning from history, maintaining accountability, networking, sharing culture, and undoing internalized racial oppression. As part of our daily practice, every member of Living Cities staff also engages and reflects on our individual biases, preferences, and habits and considers how they may be contributing to inequitable systems.
Thanks to PISAB’s transformational training and our own efforts to shift daily habits and culture, we were able to see the impacts of normalizing conversations about race relatively quickly. We came to know that we must welcome hard truths and conflict as a crucial part of our work. Speaking regularly and honestly about racism has also opened the door for staff to bring more of themselves to the work — and to speak honestly about issues beyond race and racism as well.

Reframe Understanding of Racial Equity as a Core Competency

Racial equity work couldn’t be a “nice to have,” but rather had to be the work. We had to see racial equity as a competency that was as critical as other competencies we use to evaluate performance, like leadership, lending, grantmaking, and data analysis.
To support our staff, we started hosting affinity groups and book clubs where we share experiences, offer feedback, and foster solidarity. We also made coaching available for all staff. To hold ourselves accountable, we developed a new team called CORE (Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity). CORE helps each program consider how best to build racial equity competencies and apply them to their work. For example, our impact investment team wrestled with how to center racial equity within the existing loan portfolio, given that the loans pre-dated our new commitments. The team realized, however, that they could ask borrowers to disaggregate data by race and about how their work impacted communities of color. This shifted the conversation about what success looked like.
As staff documented their journeys, we’ve begun to develop an evolving rubric of skills that help us define and evaluate progress. The rubrics help us assess: knowledge, fluency, and comfort in racial equity discussions and ideas; capacity to self-reflect on personal biases and evolve behaviors; and the ability to apply that knowledge in one’s individual work. It also includes assessments that help staff regularly consider racial equity in their decision-making processes. Here is an example from our impact investing team.

Through our racial equity journey, all staff at Living Cities must ask questions about ourselves, our identity as an Institution, and our society. We must question how decisions get made; where our money goes and who it goes to. And we must work, in an ongoing way, to shift our practices to better align with our values and treat racial equity as a concrete and critical competency for all of our staff.

Living Cities’ racial equity journey is far from over. We know that we still have a long way to go. There are moments of dissonance and pain. But we remain committed to staying the course, as people, in our roles, and as an institution.

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