Living Cities is laying the foundations for a new network, Closing the Gaps Network, which will engage city governments in the long-term work of closing racial income and wealth gaps. As we co-design the network with our partners and stakeholders, we will be uplifting stories of how our values and approach to partnership, program design, and racial equity work have evolved. Through these stories, we hope our readers will get a peek into what the Network will look and feel like when we launch in 2021, and gain insights into what we’ve learned in our racial equity work to help inform your own work. Please find more context and information about how you can engage in our co-design process in this blog post.

As Living Cities deepened its internal racial equity work in recent years, we set out to intentionally build partnerships with philanthropic and public sector support organizations that were also working towards racial equity. Within these partnerships, we have focused on creating a different way to engage with each other, where we can practice trust, vulnerability, and our racial equity values, but we have had missteps. This post, which includes an interview with one of our partners who has been impacted by our missteps, is an attempt to get honest about what we could have done differently and share our lessons in the hopes that they can help others engage in more intentional partnerships for racial equity.

The Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE), a joint project of Race Forward and the Othering and Belonging Institute, has been a long-time partner of Living Cities, and we have seen our partnership grow as we embarked on our racial equity journey. In 2015, we worked closely with GARE to support five cities through Racial Equity Here.

A few years later, as the Racial Equity Here program was winding down, our partnership with GARE was approaching a transition point. During this time Living Cities did not communicate the evolution of our thinking about what should come after Racial Equity Here, leaving our partners feeling blindsided.

Once Living Cities recognized its missteps, thanks to GARE leaders’ willingness to be honest with us, we knew we had to rebuild trust and repair our relationship. We redirected the focus of our conversations to set values and operating principles for our partnership. We agreed that our shared values are: honesty and candor, engage early and often, drive towards co-design, value of the highest impact, leverage our different positions with intentionality, going for depth, and value mutuality. The operating principles that we agreed upon are:

  • Establish clarity on what we each bring to the relationship and what we would like to get out of it.
  • Develop shared goals, work plans and roles.
  • Determine clear decision-making processes and accountability structures.
  • Express appreciation of each other’s expertise and attribute work appropriately.
  • Recognize it takes time to build a solid partnership – at the pace of trust. Building a healthy synergistic relationship will require time, even while the urgency of our work causes us to feel pressed for time.

To check in on how this accountability process has been playing out for both organizations, we recently interviewed Julie Nelson, Founding Director of GARE and Senior Vice President of Programs at Race Forward, who was part of the Racial Equity Here work and is currently contributing to the co-design process for Living Cities’ new Closing the Gaps Network.

Can you talk about the journey of being in partnership with Living Cities? The use of the word partnership – a lot of people use it without putting a lot of thought into it. The thing that’s tricky around partnership is when you have differential power, as is the case with our relationship with Living Cities. In 2016 when Living Cities was thinking about Racial Equity Here, you were thinking about it and working with funders. After I left the City of Seattle, and was going around to meet with organizations who might be interested in housing something like GARE, we actually went to speak with Ben [Living Cities’ CEO], and at the time it was clear Living Cities was not prioritizing racial equity. When Living Cities decided to create Racial Equity Here, and were talking to funders, GARE got calls from funders even before getting a call from Living Cities. To me, that was a challenging way to initiate a partnership.

What makes a partnership, a partnership? How have you seen this shift?
What makes a good partnership is having a shared vision, clear roles, and understanding power differentials. When thinking about co-design, it is hard to do when you have multiple organizations at the table and we’re working on an idea that came from a single organization. I have seen relational culture has shifted a bit at Living Cities, where the spirit of partnership is more embedded in how we work together. Some questions that remain: how do you actually co-design when organizations have different power and you’re trying to do it in a true partnership? With the commitment to learning and growing together, I have been struck by some of the things Living Cities has been doing and experimenting with (like engaging others in design and using poetry to frame conversations in meetings). I have appreciated your willingness to try new things and push yourselves, and in doing that you’ve had an impact on other organizations, including GARE.

What does it actually feel like to move to relational culture and transformative relationships? How are they different from transactional relationships? Thinking about organizational culture shift, sometimes where we fail is that it can be seductive to talk about how bad things are. It is easy to be a critic; we have to push ourselves to embody the changes we envision. It is really hard to find stories of organizations that are actually creating transformative relationships and moving towards relational culture – we need to be specific on what that means. Organizations will think about it from a values perspective that most of the time just become words on paper – we have to be able to operationalize those values in really clear behavioral terms and build in mechanisms for accountability.

How do you see your work with governments shifting? Within GARE, we often talk about breadth and depth, both as a membership network and within jurisdictions; we need more jurisdictions working on racial equity and we need jurisdictions that are going deeper. GARE membership has been doubling in size just about every year. As we grow in numbers, there is increased pressure for those at the forefront to dig deeper, to go further, to shift power, to have real impacts. I am struck by the number of jurisdictions with whom GARE has been doing deep dives. They are able to do what it took Seattle a decade to do in a quarter of the time. That is about building a field of shared practice and growing a movement for racial equity. This, however, puts pressure on the Seattles of the world. We need those at the forefront to keep making progress. When you look for an actual power shift, institutions can sometimes come out to maintain power. It’s so important that we figure out how to support those jurisdictions that are at the forefront so they can keep making progress. I also worry a bit about how racial equity can become a buzzword. The good news is that when jurisdictions use racial equity commitments, it provides a mechanism for community to hold them accountable.

How do you practice radical reimagination in your work and in partnership? In order to have radical reimagination, it’s essential that we move beyond scarcity. But scarcity is such a dominant frame. The other thing that’s critical is finding common ground – because of scarcity, a lot of people tend to think that the conversations are polarizing. For us to actually get to the world we’re radically imagining, we have to be able to find common ground, and approach our work from a base-building perspective with expansive organizing as our focus. How can you engage people who are beyond the typical circles of influence so you’re finding common ground with more people to actually create change?

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.