Living Cities works to create systemic change grounded in the understanding that systems and institutions are made up of people. Whether operating on the inside of institutions, or demanding change from the outside, the work of advancing racial equity is all about mobilizing people.

Throughout our work we have seen the impact of people organizing to shift power from a variety of platforms. We recently had the opportunity to talk to two women of color, Maya Wallace and Giovania Tiarachristie, about what it looks like to serve as organizers working both inside and outside of government institutions with the shared focus on advancing racial equity. Maya Wallace currently serves as a Performance Manager for the California Department of Justice and Giovania Tiarachristie, currently a Senior Consultant at Daniel Lim Consulting, previously served as Deputy Director of Neighborhood Planning at New York City Housing Preservation and Development. Below are key lessons that emerged from our conversations.

Black and white headshot of Maya Wallace, smiling at a table Color headshot of Giovania Tiarachristie

Maya Wallace (left) and Giovania Tiarachristie (right).

Lesson 1: Ground your work in history.

Both Maya and Giovania emphasized the importance of grounding in their personal histories to inform how they show up in rebuilding the future. After growing up across many cities and countries around the world, Giovania spent many of their early years of life in Pennsylvania. It was there that they became an organizer. Because they had experienced so many ways of living, they showed up to organizing with a recognition that it was important—and possible—to work “differently than a lot of white-led organizations working in communities of color who did not meaningfully engage residents.”

Whether operating on the inside of institutions, or demanding change from the outside, the work of advancing racial equity is all about mobilizing people.

Maya also came to organizing work from a place of deep reflection on her personal history. Growing up as a biracial kid in a conservative-leaning California county that was experiencing demographic shifts, she can recount many personal experiences of racism. Rather than responding with spite, she “learned to focus on trying to build alliances, friendships and relationships with people across the board, and trying to see beyond [the racism].” This tactic has enabled her to be a very effective organizer today.

Lesson 2: Covid-19 is an opportunity for action.

As Maya and Giovania reflected on the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis in their communities, both emphasized the ways that the voices of low income communities of color are ever critical in public sector decision making. In the case of Sacramento, Maya is seeing the city engage communities in ways she hoped they would for some time, but the pandemic elevated it as a priority. Giovania’s experience in New York City suggests that this is an opportune moment for communities of color and allies in government to push elected officials to be more accountable and develop transformative, anti-racist policies and practices.

Lesson 3: Relationships are the currency of change.

Across all aspects of their work, Maya and Giovania recognize the essential nature of building relationships at all levels of the systems they are trying to change. “It’s about understanding the entire network system that you’re working in and maintaining good relationships with as many elements of that network as you can,” Maya said. And that requires organizers spanning government and community “to work on both the systemic and interpersonal levels,” Giovania reflected. While this relationship building work can be complex, Maya and Giovania reminded me that it is also what makes it all worth it.

As they have moved this work forward, both leaders have evolved their understanding of success. “I’m happy if at the end of a process I look around and there are different people at the table than there were when I started,” said Maya. By partnering with folks both inside and outside of the public sector they are working towards a shared vision of government working on behalf of all people. Giovania reflected in conclusion that they have intentionally decided to work in the public sector in order to “transform the way government works with communities of color, in a way that allows them to identify their vision, support them in achieving collective goals, and co-develop policies and practices that work towards equity and justice.” Our hope is that our network of public servants can emulate these approaches to advance policy and practice that shifts power and creates more racially equitable communities.