Living Cities has learned that to do racial equity work with authenticity, we have to embrace a new way of working. It has to start with us, at the level of individual staff and project teams. As we set about creating a new network to advance anti-racist practices in local government, we are seeking to intentionally defy the norms set by white supremacy culture through our process. Through a series of resources, we are sharing the ways we are practicing antidotes to white supremacy culture so that we can continue to learn as we support your capacity to also design work in defiance of white supremacy culture.
Over the years, Living Cities has documented various practices on community engagement, from community engagement in cross-sector partnerships, to what it takes to engage community in cities’ racial equity plans. The lessons uplifted in these resources were learned from the cities we have funded, whereas Living Cities has long thought that the “community” we serve as an intermediary is public sector practitioners working inside governments.
As we evolve our work, we are also reckoning with our relationship and accountability to community by practicing the value, When we say community, we name what we mean. This demands that we acknowledge if we are working to close racial wealth gaps, our accountability must be to low-income communities of color.
In the last few months, we had a series of internal conversations on community accountability so that we can begin to understand the different relationships communities may have with the city governments we work with, and to acknowledge that many people working in city government are part of the communities they are working to serve. We do this to understand where and with whom we will be working, which is foundational to mapping power dynamics and truly shifting power to communities of color.
Some of the questions and reflections that guided our process are below. We hope to share our accountability strategy with you in the coming months.
Guiding questions to understand our institution’s history and role with community:
- What is your understanding of your organizational history with communities? Has the organization harmed people and/or communities in ways that are important to name?
- What shifts do we need to do internally, individually FIRST, so that we can undo and repair past harms? And how can we show up the way we want to show up for community?
- What do we mean by community now, in this moment of our work?
Guiding questions to move towards our vision of community accountability:
- What have you learned (as a person, in your community, in your organizing, in your work at Living Cities, etc.) from recent events (COVID-19/racialized experiences of the pandemic, growing Black Lives Matter movement/institutional responses, or lack thereof) and Living Cities’ role that you would like the organization to grapple with as we develop strategies and work plans?
- Consider the “critical friend” role that Living Cities has played with local government. What have we learned from that role about accountability? How might we think about accountability when it comes to CTG? To whom are we as a team accountable?
- How might we think about communities of color holding us accountable/playing a “critical friend” role to us?
- When we say “community organizer” who are we envisioning? What kinds of groups are we talking about? How might we move toward a shared understanding of what groups we want to partner with and why?
Our reflections on moving towards accountability:
We have built competencies around community engagement through our cohort work, but we haven’t really practiced community engagement. There has been internal resistance in the past about Living Cities directly working with community because of our role as an intermediary. As we reckon with our past as a race-neutral organization, we also know that our lack of accountability to community likely contributed to decisions that have harmed communities of color. It will take more than a reckoning to be able to repair past harms, but our accountability must go beyond acknowledgement of harm. As an institution, we don’t know yet what that will look like but it is part of our commitment to anti-racism work.
As we evolve our work, we hold these tensions, learn from them, and feel genuine gratitude to folks like The Integration Initiative leaders who had deep community connections and pushed Living Cities to center community in our work. We are grateful for our partner and teacher, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, for constantly pushing us on how we might create accountable relationships with community.
As a team, here are some shifts we are committed to:
We are working towards an aspirational goal and a different way of being and doing in partnership with community. This work is ongoing, and we want to make sure that our measurement and evaluation work reflect that. We must be clear on what metrics we are pushing for and why. As we undertake this new work, how do we use metrics as a way to support our growth and learning, not to name success or failure?
Our role is not to create the solution. The reality is that finding a solution is not creating a solution, but this reframing can evoke fear because people’s livelihoods have rested in creating solutions. We have to be vigilant in recognizing the sense of urgency to move towards solutions, and we have to understand whose urgency we are privileging.
We cannot assume that work isn’t happening or that the work happening on the ground is not strategic. We need to be actually challenging the ways we have worked and the results we’re used to seeking. If the result is to deeply partner towards transformation in systems, there needs to be an openness to being challenged.
Respect the fact that grassroots organizations may not want to work with institutions like ours. We want to go beyond the usual suspects like big non-profits that already have relationships with city governments, but smaller grassroots organizations may not want to work with city governments. To do this, we need to reflect deeply on the impact of the nonprofit industrial complex on nonprofits, community organizations and movements. What are ways that we can learn from grassroots organizations and movements without co-opting or disorganizing?
Depth over breadth. Values should be the driver of our choices and decisions. There’s a lot to learn from those who might say no to us. What are the sets of questions we can use to interrogate whether or not our values align with community organizations that we want to work with?
We have to center Queer, Trans People of Color, young people, and those who have long been at the margins. Our accountability must include the people within communities who sit at the intersections of many systems of oppression. We believe this will make it more possible for us to untangle the roots of the interwoven systems we’re trying to dismantle.
For some of us, it is hard to reconcile our role in our community and being part of an institution that has harmed the communities we are part of. Yet, we cannot deflect our accountability because we are still part of this institution.
We reflected on what we might want to shift in our individual practice:
- Intentionally build trust and infrastructure to hold a community engagement process internally
- Get comfortable with power sharing and be okay with negative feedback, knowing that we will make mistakes
- Acknowledge our own role as being part of an institution, and how individually we can make the space for trust building that we want to bring
- Create spaces where we can push the boundaries of what is strategically possible
- Balance carrying bold vision and deep listening
- Get out of our head and stop over-intellectualizing things
- Come from a place of building real relationships
- Reflect on our tendency to take over spaces where our presence can be harmful
Image Credit: Dave Lowenstein, accessed from JustSeeds