Cities today are grappling with rising income inequality that more often than not boils down along racial lines. So if we’re serious about tackling the root causes of urban inequality, we need to intentionally examine and address the policies, practices and structures that together lead to poor outcomes for communities of color.
One step towards this vision of racial equity and inclusion is better engagement of communities in the problem-solving infrastructure of a city. One approach for doing this is the Head, Heart and Hands framework, which emphasizes developing an understanding of racial inequality using both logic and theory (the head) as well as the feelings and emotions from personal experiences (the heart) before moving to action by identifying solutions (the hands).
We recently engaged with Dr. Frank Mirabal, Director of Collective Impact in the Office of Albuquerque, NM Mayor Richard Berry, to learn more about how they applied this framework to engage young men of color as a part of the national My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) effort. Here are some highlights from our exchange.
Q: What problem are you trying to address?
The My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Communities Challenge is a nation-wide effort, spearheaded by the White House, that encourages communities (cities, rural municipalities and tribal nations) to implement a coherent cradle-to-college-and-career strategy for improving the life outcomes of all young people to ensure that they can reach their full potential, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or the circumstances into which they are born. In Albuquerque, our MBK Action Forum focused specifically on the issues of college and career readiness among young men of color and what we could do better to create a supportive environment to improve life trajectories for this demographic.
Q: Why did you decide to apply the Head, Heart & Hands (HHH) approach?
We used the Head, Heart & Hands approach in the MBK Action Forum to explore the issue of racial equity in our community. Racial equity is a very complex, multi-faceted issue that can elicit deep emotion. We have found that some young people struggle to name racism when they experience it. For this reason, we needed a framework that could lift up the personal stories of youth in our community to provide context around this complex issue. The framework also gave youth the vocabulary to speak out about the discrimination and injustices they have faced in their lives when the terms racism and racial equity seem out of reach. It also encourages action by activating “The Hands” to build the type of supportive environment that works for students who are often at the margins of prosperity.
Q: How did you apply the HHH approach?
Historically, youth-voice is often muted in community conversations related to the “gaps” (racial, achievement, gender, opportunity). Our MBK Action Forum focused on the voices of youth as the primary instrument at our gathering. Adult leaders were allowed to participate in dialogue with youth, but were asked to not drive the conversation.
Practically speaking, we began our morning session with youth by asking them to participate in a gallery walk, where infographics using local data showed racial disparities in education filled the walls of the venue. To engage “The Head,” youth facilitators asked students to draw meaning from the data they had just seen. What did the data mean to them? From their perspective, why do such disparities exist? Next, to engage the “The Heart,” students were asked to share their personal stories of times when they felt like they didn’t “fit in,” or when they felt like outsiders in their school community. In a so-called “post-racialized” world, it was disheartening to hear firsthand testimonials from youth about the segregation they have experienced in schools, the discrimination at the hands of teachers and administrators because of race, and the sentiment that they were never going to be “good enough” in the high-stakes game of standardized testing. These powerful narratives served as a backdrop to engage “The Hands” to mobilize towards action. The remainder of the day focused on youth-led, youth-driven solutions to these seemingly intractable problems young men of color face.
Q: What were the outcomes of the day and what are your next steps?
The Albuquerque MBK Action Forum was a true collective effort. We engaged multiple stakeholders, including city government, school district leaders, teachers, community leaders and over 200 students. The day yielded some promising recommendations to help young men of color thrive in our city. For example, youth recommended more career exploration opportunities and encouraged local school leaders to reform school discipline policies that disproportionately impact young men of color. However, there is still significant work to be done. From here, we will begin to examine local, state and institutional policies that serve as levers for social change in our community. We will also look at promising practices in our local community and abroad to inform an agenda focused specifically on improving life trajectories for young men of color in our city.
Q: How was the HHH useful in more effectively engaging youth of color?
Communication and PR experts always say that a good story lives at the intersection of compelling data and personal narratives. Without data, you have “anecdotes.” Without narratives, you have no context for the “numbers.” In New Mexico, storytelling is a rich cultural tradition among our indigenous populations. This storytelling tradition truly makes our state unique. The HHH framework activates this rich storytelling tradition by fostering an environment where youth speak from “the heart.” More importantly, these personal narratives emerge from a critical analysis of the local data. In other words, the HHH framework gives youth the tools to better understand how their personal experiences and narratives fit into a broader conversation about racial equity.
We’re encouraged to see positive results from the application of the HHH framework. We see this approach as a promising way to engage community members in productive conversations to understand the many facets of racial inequalities and to surface potential solutions. Reflecting on the broader goals of this work, Dr. Mirabal left us with three insights about what it takes to advance racial equity:
Engage local organizations and community leaders early and often in a conversation about racial equity. There are well-established groups in your community that focus on racial equity work every day. Tapping into these local assets helps build trust and relationships with local communities, especially when a government entity, like a Mayor’s Office, is leading an effort. These boundary spanning organizations help build rapport between government and local communities, and can sustain the efforts beyond changes in leadership and administrations.
Youth can be better contributors to a conversation on racial equity when there is a common analysis/understanding of race and racism. Without a fundamental understanding of racial equity, youth often equate race and racism with overt discrimination and/or bigotry. A nuanced understanding of the institutional, structural and power dynamics that privilege a few and marginalize the many can deepen a community conversation with youth. Anti-racism training is one example of how you can give youth a “primer” on racial equity prior to engaging them in dialogue.
Racial equity as a framework has its limitations. A focus exclusively on race does not fully capture the stories of large segments of the community that lie outside the boundaries of race. We found that youth at our gathering often felt marginalized because of gender and sexual orientation. A broader social justice framework that incorporates the voices of other historically marginalized groups (women, LGBTQ, recent immigrants) can provide a deeper analysis of equity, which in turn pushes groups to think more holistically about solutions.
Image source: Flickr user, L'Nard Tufts. Under CC by 2.0.