Part of what we’ve learned from looking at the evolution of work in our Integration Initiative cities is that everything ties back to racial equity. The root cause of so many of the inequities we see in cities around the country is racism. As an organization that takes pride in being at the cutting edge of solutions to address the economic disparities that plague American cities— we, Living Cities, had to get real about race. Our work with the Integration Initiative (TII) and more specifically, our relationships with the Initiative Directors (IDs) in Albuquerque, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, San Francisco, Baltimore and New Orleans was one of the catalysts for the racial equity focus that today, and going forward, cuts across our portfolio.
When we embarked on TII, we maintained a role as a backbone organization meaning that we supported the IDs in forming cross-sector tables in their communities to achieve systems change. We steadfastly encouraged IDs to focus on data-driven decision making and results based frameworks, which we anticipated would push the cross-sector tables to think deeply about identifying shared results, proxy measures and other elements of the collective impact framework that we deemed essential. But this role as consultants to our sites kept us from truly seeing and feeling the existing disparities to the same degree as the IDs who were doing this work daily, in their own communities. For a time, it kept us from recognizing the strong correlation between inequity and race that IDs were repeatedly encountering across the various issues they sought to address (e.g. access to capital, housing, transportation and unemployment). Living Cities–like many funders–was operating with the notion that supporting race-neutral solutions for low-income people could effectively change systems and create equity.
As the work evolved, co-creation and critical friendship became crucial parts of our approach to TII. Critical friendship describes relationships wherein there’s trust to ask provocative questions, engage in honest feedback about the work, and share and use data and frameworks with a fresh lens. These mutual, trusting relationships with and among IDs were ultimately central to the transformations that took place during our partnership.
In response to this relationship-building, the IDs candidly shared insights and feedback with us about the central importance of understanding race and ethnicity with respect to the challenges they faced in their cities.
Our relationships in TII cities pushed us to turn the mirror onto ourselves.
Although we were not yet publicly grappling with our race-neutral approach, the root causes identified by the IDs in their cities resonated with conversations happening among staff about our own mission, values, culture, and theory of change. Staff members were asking if we were sufficiently focused on the role of structural racism as a barrier to achieve our intended result: economic security for all. Our relationships in TII cities pushed us to turn the mirror onto ourselves. We began to further interrogate how we could be more effective in systems change work. When we interrogated our values around critical friendship, it became impossible for racial equity and inclusion to not become increasingly centered in the work.
Because of a combination of 1) our staff taking risks to speak up, 2) our conversations with partners like those in TII, and 3) external forces, such as police violence against boys and men of color, we set out on a course to radically reconfigure the way we worked around race:
- We began to create spaces for shared dialogue and distributed leadership, and to develop a shared language and analysis of history that grounded us in the root causes of poverty and inequality.
- We took steps to change how we worked in places. For example, we began working with our partners in cities, like our TII sites, to disaggregate data by race in their work.
- We provided funding to support our partners in undergoing racial equity training, and our staff joined them in those training sessions.
- We articulated shared results that spoke to how we were going to ensure that our programs served and benefited communities of color.
- We began using a racial equity impact assessment tool for decision making.
- And, ultimately, we elevated our mission from being race-neutral to being race-explicit, and specified our focus on closing racial income and wealth gaps.. .
Our societal problems weren’t created in a vacuum, and system change won’t come about in one either. In a world built on systems of racial inequality, we can’t ignore those realities and hope to have any real success. It will take all of us to look for real answers, to trust our neighbors, work towards shared solutions, and build a world we’re proud to live in.
As we look back, in the final report on our TII work, you’ll see various outcomes and learnings that inform those notions. It’s clear to us now how the evolution of our work through TII both challenged and strengthened us, and in many ways reflects our journey as an organization to center racial equity in all that we do.