In this second installment of an interview with Julie Nelson, she explains how local government can help advance racial equity and offers advice for jurisdictions considering taking on this work.

With its vast authority and influence, local government can be a critical player in driving better results for low-income people and people of color in cities.

As Living Cities works to embed a racial equity and inclusion lens across our entire portfolio in both meaningful and authentic ways, we’re also learning about how local government can change the ways it works to more explicitly promote equity and inclusion. We hope to bring you along this journey of understanding with us.

An Interview with Julie Nelson (Part 2)

On Tuesday, we shared highlights from our exchanges with Julie Nelson, Director of The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (the Alliance). Julie walked us through the history of racial inequities in the United States, and why government is a potentially powerful force for driving structural change and advancing racial equity.

Today, we’re sharing some more insights from Julie about her experiences working with governments that have taken concrete steps to advance equitable and inclusive results.

Q: What are some lessons learned from your experience in Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative?

First and foremost, working for racial equity is to our society’s collective benefit. When we think about racial disproportionality, there is often a tendency to think about how inequities are hurting communities of color. While that is true, we also know that our systems are fundamentally failing us; they are producing the outcomes they were designed to produce, and will continue to do so until we interrupt the status quo. For example, improving our educational system will be beneficial to all of our students, and fixing the system of incarceration will be both more humane and cost effective.

Some of Seattle’s best examples of changed policies and practices were not planned, but the result of providing employees with tools and resources to do their jobs differently.

Second, sometimes we think that attitude drives behavior, e.g., we want people to “understand” racism and think that behavioral changes will follow. What we learned is that the opposite is true: behavior drives attitude. Giving employees a common understanding of racial equity terminology and tools to use to do their jobs differently leads to an increased understanding of institutional and structural racism.

And finally, although I am a big fan of strategic plans, some of Seattle’s best examples of changed policies and practices were not planned, but the result of providing employees with tools and resources to do their jobs differently. We trained 10,000 city employees on race and social justice (using a train-the-trainer model) and built infrastructure to support and encourage engagement (e.g., every department has a racial equity “change team” and does an annual action plan). By equipping employees with the right tools, they were able to make numerous changes to promote racial equity that we might never have anticipated (e.g. street lighting is but one example).

Operationalizing racial equity in this way builds on the passion and commitment of both elected officials and public employees who are firmly committed to being the best that government can and should be.

Q: What are the most common stumbling blocks local governments face in tackling structural racism?

The biggest challenge is the general discomfort many white people experience in talking about race or structural racism. This is a critical hurdle to get over. We will not be able to make a dent in racial inequities if we can’t normalize conversations about race. In Seattle, I knew we reached a key milestone when I started hearing employees asking about racial equity impacts outside of racial equity workshop sessions and across a broad swath of meetings and topics.

Avoiding race means there is a greater likelihood that we will not develop appropriate strategies.

There is also a tendency to want to talk about income or poverty instead of race. While economic inequality and racial inequality are inextricably intertwined in the United States, they are not the same. For example: when we hold income and education constant, we find dramatic differences in net worth and assets between whites and African Americans. These differences have actually gotten even worse because of the disproportionate impact of the housing foreclosure crisis on communities of color. We have seen too many facially race-neutral policies that perpetuate racial inequities. Avoiding race means there is a greater likelihood that we will not develop appropriate strategies.

Finally, we have to have a laser focus on our data, goals and strategies, and then measure our progress over time. If we aren’t getting our desired impacts in the community, we need to step-back and re-assess. Too many people have come to accept racial inequity as okay. The deep and pervasive racial inequities we see across the country should cause collective outrage. We must increase the urgency and priority of advancing racial equity. We have seen repeatedly that when something is a priority and there is urgency felt, change can take place amazingly quickly.

Q: How can philanthropy and local government better partner to advance racial equity?

To begin, government and philanthropy need to move beyond programs and focus on changing policies, institutions and structures. Both sectors have a tendency to want to fund programs and services. While services are often critically important for individuals, if our underlying institutions stay the same, we will only see a blip of improvement for those that receive services.

Once focused on institutions and structure, there are many opportunities for philanthropy and government to work together to advance racial equity. At the local level, government and philanthropy can partner to fund and support community - institution partnerships on structural racism. At the regional level, government and philanthropy can partner to create regional networks employing inside-outside strategies. And at the national level, philanthropy can work with the Alliance to support new jurisdictions engaging in racial equity, even launching a new cohort of jurisdictions just beginning, and to develop and implement a Racial Equity ScoreCard across jurisdictions.

I have been energized by the many people within government and philanthropy who are working to transform the very nature of government, with a vision of a true and inclusive democracy that serves the interests of all of our communities.


Stay Tuned for the third installment of this interview that proposes four key entry points for local governments interested in racial equity work. To find out more about the Alliance, please call or e-mail Julie at 206-816-5104 or julie.nelson@racialequityalliance.org.