Through our Racial Equity Here initiative, we learned that there are "spark plugs" everywhere, at every level, who are working to normalize, organize and operationalize racial equity in institutions.

At Living Cities, we are committed to advancing racial equity and inclusion (REI) in our institution and partnering with others to operationalize REI in the public and philanthropic sectors. We continue to learn from our partners, cities and network about what it takes to operationalize racial equity in institutions. Racial Equity Here (REH) is an initiative we launched in partnership with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a project of the Center for Social Inclusion and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Through REH, which supported five U.S. cities committed to improving racial equity and advancing opportunity for all, we learned that it is essential to focus on transformation at both institutional and individual levels when measuring progress in REI work. Individual changes are subtle advances that tell us the work is moving us forward. It’s not enough to focus solely on policy changes; individual stories of breakthrough moments, and progress are vital data. Our work with REH also revealed that there are REI spark plugs everywhere, at every level, who are working to normalize, organize and operationalize racial equity in institutions.

Who is an REI spark plug?

Anybody who fiercely advocates for racial equity in the workplace is a spark plug. Just like the spark plug in a car, they are delivering an electric current to ignite progress in the system.

Our Racial Equity Here evaluation partner, Community Science, found that spark plugs are essential for promoting and advancing racial equity. Spark plugs are compassionate, patient, trustworthy, courageous and naturally inclusive of people who are different from them. They understand how their institutions work and how to navigate and break down barriers. They build relationships with decision makers, community leaders and others without aggression or judgment. Spark plugs create a safe environment for people to talk openly about how their work can advance racial equity.

This blog highlights the experiences of spark plugs from different workplaces and sectors to capture nuances and lessons from their REI progress. If these stories resonate with you, join our Racial Equity & Inclusion in Practice group and let us know. We’d love to hear about your REI journey.

What are the challenges that spark plugs face?

In 2018 we spoke to people leading REI work at the Equity in the Center and Facing Race conferences. We heard themes around a feeling of being alone in REI work, and related discomfort in always being the one to start conversations about race with colleagues. Many spark plugs find it hard to remain patient; REI work is long-term work and sometimes that reality is overwhelming.

Living Cities staff members at Facing Race conference

Living Cities staff at the Facing Race conference.

Another big challenge relates to the ways that spark plugs come up against their own internalized oppressions, and their colleagues’ internalized oppressions, regardless of race. We live in a world where white culture is the status quo, so how can we create education and training programs that help our colleagues of all backgrounds navigate and transform their internalized oppressions?

What are the opportunities and signs of progress that REI spark plugs see in their work?

It is critical to celebrate small wins in this challenging work. Many REI spark plugs are seeing their colleagues find the will to transform, whether that looks like increased tolerance of conversations about white supremacy and anti-Blackness, or diverse groups working through – not around – conflict when it arises. One person brilliantly shared with us that they are acknowledging conflict as “the change trying to happen.”

Other opportunities for actionable change look like multiracial hiring teams, internal processes built with a racial equity lens, and staff-nominated design teams to guide REI work. What might it look like to harness and scale these kinds of opportunities across an institution or a sector?

What does true racial equity and inclusion look and feel like for you?

One of the most difficult aspects of being a spark plug is envisioning and communicating the possibility of a new norm. The spark plugs we spoke to are truly inspiring visions of a new norm, where everybody is free, no matter who they are. Where people feel connectedness–to each other, their colleagues and their communities. Where organizations are accountable to communities of color, engaging in authentic community partnership. And, most importantly, where the feeling of joy is abundant.

If you have any questions or want to share your story on your racial equity journey, please email racialequity@livingcities.org