At Living Cities, our vision for cities is as places that create opportunities to grow income and reduce economic inequality, prepare people for 21st century employment, and connect people to opportunities. As our nation faces growing economic disparities and inequitable outcomes in education, employment, mobility, health, and housing, it is clear that achieving this vision will require new approaches. We are not alone in acknowledging this need: Around the country leaders are asking themselves how change actually happens. Our old assumptions and interventions will not be sufficient. From collective impact efforts like our Integration Initiative and the Boston Fed’s Working Cities Challenge, to Pay for Success, to the creative application of new technologies for public good; we are in the midst of an experimentation and innovation moment. We have great optimism for what this energy can do to transform systems and achieve better outcomes. But, as we work to build a better future, we believe that we must both learn from the past and understand the present.
Last year, as people and institutions reflected on our progress in the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech; and more recently; the 50 years since the declaration of the War on Poverty, a multitude of studies were released that illuminated how dramatic a role race continues to play in determining people’s life chances in America. This data, along with events of national significance such as the Trayvon Martin case that sparked a huge amount of conversation, debate, and media coverage of issues of race registered intensely with our staff. We began to pore through the data and to explore the issues on our blog, through social media, and in internal meetings, including examining how systems have been built to create and sustain inequities. As we did this, the growing attention being paid to our fast-approaching shift to a majority non-white population– a shift that has already taken hold in our cities–signaled to us that we needed to dig deeper and think about these issues in the context of our work. Now, when we tackle race as a barrier to opportunity, we are not talking about a small minority group. We are talking about what will soon be the majority of our citizens. As an organization that is focused on fighting inequality and creating lasting systems change to improve the lives of low-income people, what does this mean for our work? How might we change? How might we double-down on some of the things that we are already doing? How can we learn from and work with others grappling with these questions?
We are nowhere near having answers to these questions, but every December at Living Cities, we gather as a full staff at our annual retreat to reflect on our work, and to bring all of our collective knowledge, experience, and ideas to bear on issues important to the organization. This past December, facilitated by Frontline Solutions, we focused this reflection on taking the first step towards embedding a racial equity and inclusion lens across our entire portfolio in intentional and meaningful ways. We are addressing racial equity and inclusion at different levels and in different ways through a lot of the work that we catalyze and support in cities around the country, but we began to ask ourselves where this can be strengthened, how we can harness and share what we are learning through this work towards accelerating it, and where we can incorporate new thinking and approaches.
As we tried to learn from the past, understand the present, and look towards the future, we brought our own experiences, both professional and personal to the table. We shared maps of places that we know well and told stories of how race has played a role in shaping them and their opportunity landscapes. We created and shared case studies from our work and the work of others in our problem-solving network. We brainstormed and we sketched out the beginnings of an institutional change process to support further inquiry. Did we solve anything? Not yet. But, we as a staff committed ourselves to the work, acknowledging that the process might, as many conversations about race do, get difficult and messy. We believe that it will make us a stronger organization: One that dares to acknowledge the weight of history, to confront what is today, and to imagine what could be.
_Stay tuned for an upcoming piece or series that will use the maps that we created to explore how racial inequities and disparities have shaped our cities and patterns of opportunity within them. _