Living Cities learned that moving from talk to action with grantees around racial equity can be challenging, but missteps help find the right path

Over the last two years, we’ve been talking a lot about racial equity here at Living Cities. We have taken a journey as a team to explore the many ways that issues of institutionalized racism, white privilege and individual biases play out in our grantmaking work and individual lives. It was a helpful and sometimes challenging journey, and the conversation between staff still continues. In the last few months, though, we committed ourselves, through a series of ‘pilots’, to operationalize what we have been learning. One of those pilots involved moving from talk about racial equity to action with our Integration Initiative sites..

At least, we tried to move from talk to action. At the recent convening of eight cross-sector partnerships involved in The Integration Initiative, we spent the better part of a day with Just Partners, Inc. to introduce how racial equity influences urban and community development around the country. We discussed the historical legacy of slavery, how the practice of redlining created uneven and unequal development in urban areas, and the difference between personal bias and structural racism. We also introduced our site partners to the Racial Equity Impact Analysis as a way to bring a racial equity lens to some of their systems change efforts..

We were hopeful that this day of focus on racial equity would be well received by our partners and inspire them to be more intentional about issues of race in their work. Unfortunately, the content was met with lukewarm response.

Participants in a Racial Equity and Inclusion Training at The Integration Initiative Learning Community in June 2015.

Participants in a Racial Equity and Inclusion Session at the 2015 TII Learning Community.

Looking into our feedback surveys and listening to anecdotal evidence, we learned this dissatisfaction was not due to a lack of interest in racial equity from our grantee partners, but because they largely felt like what we presented was not deep enough or at the right level for their work. Just Partners facilitated a great conversation, and did it in an engaging way that allowed for shared learning, yet most of the participants felt that the day was not time well spent. Many wrote in their feedback surveys that they already knew most of what was discussed, and they would have rather spent time going deeper on particular issues. Others wrote that, while they appreciated a funder creating a space for these kinds of conversations, they wanted more from us.

As staff, we reflected on this feedback and wondered exactly what it meant. We knew going into planning this event that many of the participants would understand that racial equity influences their work–they see it every day in their communities. For this reason, Just Partners cautioned us to frame the sessions in the right way so that our grantee partners understood exactly what we were trying to achieve–namely providing them with a collective understanding of racial equity and a few tools on how to be more intentional about racial equity in their work. It was clear from the feedback we received that we were not successful in doing that. We were reminded that our site partners are likely to be further along in their understanding of and competencies around these issues than those of us who work in philanthropy because their work is more directly connected to the communities they serve. We would have done well to get a better sense of how sites were already doing this work so that we could have reflected that in our session design.

Participants in a TII Learning Community share notes on their day's work and lessons on a post-it board. A Poster Board with questions about the Racial Divide

Participants at the Learning Community Share Lessons Learned about Racial Equity and Inclusion.

Another conclusion staff came to after reflecting on this feedback was that we may have not gotten everyone on the same page about racial equity in the most time-efficient way. In retrospect, we wonder if we could have done a series of webinars or a set of required readings to ensure that we established a shared language and understanding of concepts, and then spent the time at the convening digging deeper. However, at the beginning of planning for the convening we were concerned about introducing the concepts outside of a convening setting because participants don’t always do the “homework” to the extent we would like them to.

One of the positive outcomes from this convening is that it is clear our grantee partners are hungry for tangible tools that can help them embed a racial equity lens in a way that helps to advance their work. We will be working with Just Partners over the next few months to build on what was discussed this summer and respond to the feedback we got from our partners. We will also take these lessons from this initial attempt to move to action on racial equity with our other networks, such as the Project on Municipal Innovation.

The big thing that we as a staff learned from our experience with our Integration Initiative partners has a nice parallel to the work of racial equity as a whole. During the day-long session, one of the Just Partners facilitators brought up the recent decision to remove the confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. She said that while this was a necessary step on the path to racial justice, it was not sufficient. In the same way, our introduction of the topic to our grantee partners was a necessary first step, but not sufficient. We have a long path to walk to fully understand how to embed racial equity and inclusion into Living Cities’ relationship with its grantee partners.

We ask for you to share your insights on how you’ve done this with your grantees, or how you’ve worked with funders around issues of racial equity, so we can learn from you as well. And we will be sure to share future successes and missteps on our path on the blog as well.