As a Working Cities Challenge participant, Cranston, Rhode Island is working to undo the city's longstanding racial divides. Two partners in the work reflect on efforts to build unity through collective impact, and share tools and resources that they've found valuable.

Uniting for OneCranston

Cranston, Rhode Island—like many of America’s cities, suburban towns and rural communities—is a place where the historical influences of systemic racism continue to live under the cover of good intentions. As deeply involved partners in the community, we set out to learn about the City’s history and how we got to today’s inequities. One of us, Ayana, is the Initiative Director for OneCranston, our cross-sector collective impact table; the other, Annette, is a member of the Civic Design Team and a long-time parent in the Cranston public school district. Through conversations with local residents, we captured stories of dynamics that plague all of our cities, big and small, but also heard a vision of a united city where all children thrive in school, all parents accomplish their professional dreams, and all residents are able to care for their families and community.

Like many cities in America split due to redlining in the 1930’s, Cranston’s historical divided lines live on today as East versus West. In the 1970s, the Western side became a destination for those escaping the urbanization and growing diversity of the Eastern side—the proverbial “white flight.” Income disparity and racial identity continue to feed this divide, and have kept us from fully integrating into “OneCranston,” focused on equitable results for all people. In a post- Brown vs. Board of Education America, nationwide our schools are proof points that segregation continues in America, supporting the continued oppression of students of color. Cranston is no exception—a small city with a great divide.

Our system is set up by historical policies and maintained by our discomfort with change and privileging the comfort of white people. But this is not a zero sum game.

In 2017, Cranston, RI joined the Working Cities Challenge, a cohort of cities designing a Collective Impact approach to create sustainable change with residents. Our goal is to create a different Cranston than the one we inherited. The work would not be easy and there is no silver bullet solution. The Cranston of tomorrow is one where we wrestle with the truths and lived experiences of East and West side residents. One where we have deep conversations about race and class and how our local policies, practices and status quo perpetuate our community’s divide along the lines of racial identity.

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Hard Conversations to Acknowledge Impact

Narratives that our nation perpetuates drive local and national divides along race and class identities. In Cranston, we were up against national narratives in a local context—as many of us are in social change work. As members of the 21st Century Community Learning Center and Cranston Educational Advisory Board, we both heard many of these narratives come to life in conversations about our schools, even with no intent for negative impact on our students:

The Cranston of tomorrow is one where we wrestle with the truths and lived experiences of East and West side residents.

Ayana: Many of our brown students and lower-income students grow up with the narrative that their only path is to get a local job that barely covers their cost of living. Our students often aren’t allowed the opportunity to see past living paycheck to paycheck, and to explore options for higher paying work. Such narratives perpetuate the outcomes we see too often. Cranston East graduates are disproportionately dropping out after their 1st year of post-secondary education, while Cranston West graduates are more likely to excel in post-secondary education due to more access to tutoring and college prep programs.

One might argue, is it the chicken or the egg? Are East students not equipped, or does the system ensure they will not succeed? It’s no question. “If you’re black, brown, or poor and white, you don’t have a future here” as one student blatantly expressed to me one day. As Cranston continues to grow and diversify to include Dominican and Cambodian families, it is critical to build a culture of inclusion within the community.

That student reminded me of the role I must play as a Black woman who grew up poor in an affluent community, feeling the need to prove myself time and time again. They reminded me that there is no way to address the disparities, the narratives and the systems in Cranston without coming together.

Annette: As a parent of a child who went through the Cranston Public School System and a white woman, I was quickly made aware of the disparities, well-known in the community, across the school district. While I was proud and excited to have my child in Cranston East, I saw the attrition of white students at each stage of schooling—from middle school to high school—as parents opted out of the public system to send their growing children to private and Catholic institutions. As someone who knew the socioeconomic data of my neighborhood, I understood what these numbers meant for the school district. My commitment to my child and community led me to join and later become chair of Cranston Educational Advisory Board to advocate for all the schools across the districts and ensure parity—regardless of incomes, race or ethnicity. I’ve been able to participate in a way I feel is critical and helpful by being keenly aware of what’s at stake for our district if we don’t begin to embrace the fact that we are an inner-ring suburb with a diverse school population.

Coming Together for Justice

We all come to the work of social and economic justice from our own places of lived experience, education, and view of the world. The collective impact approach for designing and implementing change—with its cross-sector focus and emphasis on centering residents—opens new opportunities and holds the power of creating a collective vision for community, rather than the divisiveness we often experience.

To build the relationship necessary for this work, it is critical to start with people, re-humanizing ourselves and others

To build the relationships necessary for this work, it is critical to start with people, re-humanizing ourselves and others as a community together. We did this by talking about our personal relationship to Cranston. The table shared which side of Cranston they grew up or worked in, and how the narratives and systems put in place before us continue to play a huge role in the lack of social cohesion and equity in the city. Simple check-in questions at the start of meetings, as Joanna Carrasco shares in this resource, are another way to bring the critical personal into the professional space.

As Initiative Director, Ayana wanted the collaborative to feel that they had a huge impact in uniting Cranston and creating opportunities for upward socioeconomic mobility. Having equity pauses and using toolkits, like “Making Community Partnership Work: A Toolkit”, helped us create authentic relationships between ourselves and community members.

Equity pauses are also a place to insert art—poetry, spoken word, paintings and even TEDTalks. Some of the TEDTalks we utilized in Cranston in order to move conversations forward were;

We are learning a lot throughout the process both from ourselves and others. We plan to continue to share resources we have found helpful in our journey, and hope you will engage and do the same with us.

In addition to the great achievements over the last year, we know there is still great work ahead for us. We are thankful to those who have supported us as people and thankful to the residents of Cranston, RI in trusting us in this work and joining us on this journey.


Additional insights, support and input from: Joanna Carrasco, Coordinator, Megan McGlinchey, Associate, and Hafizah Omar and Shanee Helfer, Senior Associates at Living Cities.