Lessons on Anti-Racist Organizing Across Government and Community

Living Cities works to create systemic change grounded in the understanding that systems and institutions are made up of people. Whether operating on the inside of institutions, or demanding change from the outside, the work of advancing racial equity is all about mobilizing people.

Throughout our work we have seen the impact of people organizing to shift power from a variety of platforms. We recently had the opportunity to talk to two women of color, Maya Wallace and Giovania Tiarachristie, about what it looks like to serve as organizers working both inside and outside of government institutions with the shared focus on advancing racial equity. Maya Wallace currently serves as a Performance Manager for the California Department of Justice and Giovania Tiarachristie, currently a Senior Consultant at Daniel Lim Consulting, previously served as Deputy Director of Neighborhood Planning at New York City Housing Preservation and Development. Below are key lessons that emerged from our conversations.


Wallace

Lesson 1: Ground your work in history.

Both Maya and Giovania emphasized the importance of grounding in their personal histories to inform how they show up in rebuilding the future. After growing up across many cities and countries around the world, Giovania spent many of their early years of life in Pennsylvania. It was there that they became an organizer. Because they had experienced so many ways of living, they showed up to organizing with a recognition that it was important—and possible—to work “differently than a lot of white-led organizations working in communities of color who did not meaningfully engage residents.”

Whether operating on the inside of institutions, or demanding change from the outside, the work of advancing racial equity is all about mobilizing people.

Maya also came to organizing work from a place of deep reflection on her personal history. Growing up as a biracial kid in a conservative-leaning California county that was experiencing demographic shifts, she can recount many personal experiences of racism. Rather than responding with spite, she “learned to focus on trying to build alliances, friendships and relationships with people across the board, and trying to see beyond [the racism].” This tactic has enabled her to be a very effective organizer today.

Lesson 2: Covid-19 is an opportunity for action.

As Maya and Giovania reflected on the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis in their communities, both emphasized the ways that the voices of low income communities of color are ever critical in public sector decision making. In the case of Sacramento, Maya is seeing the city engage communities in ways she hoped they would for some time, but the pandemic elevated it as a priority. Giovania’s experience in New York City suggests that this is an opportune moment for communities of color and allies in government to push elected officials to be more accountable and develop transformative, anti-racist policies and practices.

Lesson 3: Relationships are the currency of change.

Across all aspects of their work, Maya and Giovania recognize the essential nature of building relationships at all levels of the systems they are trying to change. “It’s about understanding the entire network system that you’re working in and maintaining good relationships with as many elements of that network as you can,” Maya said. And that requires organizers spanning government and community “to work on both the systemic and interpersonal levels,” Giovania reflected. While this relationship building work can be complex, Maya and Giovania reminded me that it is also what makes it all worth it.

As they have moved this work forward, both leaders have evolved their understanding of success. “I’m happy if at the end of a process I look around and there are different people at the table than there were when I started,” said Maya. By partnering with folks both inside and outside of the public sector they are working towards a shared vision of government working on behalf of all people. Giovania reflected in conclusion that they have intentionally decided to work in the public sector in order to “transform the way government works with communities of color, in a way that allows them to identify their vision, support them in achieving collective goals, and co-develop policies and practices that work towards equity and justice.” Our hope is that our network of public servants can emulate these approaches to advance policy and practice that shifts power and creates more racially equitable communities.

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Connecting Communications and Learning for Results

If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, you may already be familiar with the concept of “open sourcing social change.” It’s a decentralized, collaborative way of learning; sharing lessons; and communicating about our work. At its core, open sourcing social change is about solving complex, multidisciplinary, and seemingly intractable issues at scale by sharing knowledge and lessons with our partners and the broader field in real time. The hope is that by sharing what we are learning, we can help others do their work better by not making the same mistakes we made.

We’ve been operating under the open sourcing social change model for about a decade now, and we have learned a lot about the approach. One thing we have learned and invested in recently is the tight connection required between learning, communications, and our performance management processes. In most places, these functions would be separate entities, but we have intentionally created a unified team that serves these functions. We saw that by bringing together our learning work with our communications team, we can make sure our content meets the immediate needs of our network. And overlaying performance management with these functions helps ensure that our initiatives are contributing to the results we wish to see, through their content strategy and learning processes.

The combination of these functions has been challenging at times, as most people do not have all of these competencies at once. Typically, organizations are really good at data analysis or really good at storytelling, but not usually both. But we have seen the value in this combination and want to share our lessons on the process in a true open-sourced fashion.

Marrying Functions for Stronger Results

We call our unified team “Learning, Storytelling and Results.” We believe that marrying the learning function with our storytelling as well as performance and results work produces stronger results in the real world. With the support of a singular LSR team, Living Cities initiatives take the time they need to discuss what they’re learning, evaluate their programs, and codify and make meaning of those lessons. With those lessons codified, LSR can then help package those lessons into content that’s compelling and accessible to an audience of practitioners working to close racial gaps. We have created infographics, guides, and interactive timelines based on these learnings. And through that content and storytelling, Living Cities can see what resonates with the field, gather additional interesting practices from others, and feed that information back into our learning process.

Ensuring a Strong Feedback Loop

Fine-tuning those processes and ensuring a strong feedback loop took an entirely new approach to how these formerly separate teams worked. We had to start with a team vision, as well as norms and values that would guide how we work together and how we collaborate within the organization. We set up regular reflection sessions across teams to ensure that everyone understood what each team was learning, and why. We developed new tools and resources for teams, like quarterly data dashboards and a list of learning-oriented check-in questions for meetings, plus the processes to go with them.

Central to this process was also an internal culture-building plan. We created a new “Learning, Storytelling and Results” internal newsletter that highlights major learnings each month, and we established templates that would allow teams to plan both their learning agendas and their related content strategies. Additionally, we have regular open office hours that give staff an opportunity to pose relevant questions to LSR team members and find support. Finally, we deeply support our “learning liaisons,” a unique role within the organization.

Supporting Our Learning Liaisons

Essential to all of this work is the role of “learning liaisons” – point people to the learning process on each Living Cities initiative. Learning liaisons are deployed strategically across our initiatives to “hold” the connection between communications, learning and performance management and ensure their teams are upholding the procedures and processes that more tightly connect the functions. They also make connections across teams. If one team learns something that is relevant to another, the right people can benefit from that learning.

Without the learning liaisons, we couldn’t produce more than 150 discrete pieces of content each year. While we do have core communications staff to issue organizational-level guidance, support our digital platforms, and share best practices, it’s the learning liaisons that support the distributed learning, results and communications model.

Centering Racial Equity in the Process

In addition to supporting the learning liaisons in their work, LSR considers itself a crucial operational partner when it comes to racial equity and inclusion. From the sample agendas we create for teams and our creative briefs to our regular racial equity pause points and special campaigns, LSR is constantly looking for ways to infuse racial equity into learning, storytelling and results processes so that teams do not need to treat racial equity as an add-on but rather a central value and driving force in these important bodies of work.

In the coming weeks, we will follow up this introductory blog on LSR with more specific posts that dig into storytelling with a racial equity lens, racial equity-centered emergent learning tools and strategies, our learning liaison role and processes, and our theory of change and performance measurement procedures. All are designed to help our network more tightly connect their learning, monitoring and evaluation, and communications work for maximum impact.

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Model Minority No More: Towards a Model of Mutual Struggle

We’re at a turning point in American history. More people are waking up and understanding that we have never had a fair and just system that served everyone. People of color, especially Black people, have always been left out. Now more than ever, we need to all have frank discussions on how we can continue supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

At Living Cities, one way we do this is through our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), where staff can come together across self-identified categories to reflect on their collective history and support each other to be anti-racist. Our Asian ERG has had multiple gut-wrenching discussions on how we’ve internalized white supremacy in our culture and how we have to actively fight against anti-Blackness within our communities. We believe that in these extraordinary times, a racist system that has tricked a large percentage of the Asian community into complacency, has finally been exposed. Now is the time to come together with other historically disenfranchised groups to combat white supremacist culture.

The complacency began around the 80’s when it seemed like racism against Asians disappeared and the group became the “model minority.” The community as a whole was being praised for keeping their head down, working hard and studying hard– it was the “Asian success story.” However, this sudden change in the system was for a nefarious purpose. That term was coined in 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement, to drive a wedge between Asians and Blacks who were fighting for equal rights. Specifically, the term suggested that Asians were succeeding because of their strong cultural and education values without the help of the system, even though they experienced discrimination as well such as the Japanese internment camps. In actuality, Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger said in his 2016 research paper that “Asians used to be paid like Blacks but between 1940 and 1970, they started to get paid like whites.” Because white people were a little less racist against Asians, they gave Asians more opportunity in the workplace.

While some touted the pandemic as a “great equalizer,” it is readily apparent that all is not equal, and that uprooting an inequitable system must be our mutual struggle.

Fast forward to today. From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asian community has been reliving the past when they were considered the “yellow peril”. The community became a target for our President, who incited discrimination and xenophobia by calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and “Kung-flu”. The “model minority” was no more, and a rapid rise in hate crimes targeted the entire Asian community. However, as the COVID-19 death toll rose, we saw even more the entrenched impact of systematic racism, as non-white communities were shown to be especially hard hit. As of June 24, APM Research Lab found that the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.3 times as high as the rate for Whites, and 2.2 times as high as the Latinx rate. When we disaggregate the data for Asians, we see that the Filipino community, as a result of American imperialism during the 1900s, has a high percentage of healthcare workers and in some states medical personnel account for as many as 20% of known coronavirus cases. So while some touted the pandemic as a “great equalizer,” it is readily apparent that all is not equal, and that uprooting an inequitable system must be our mutual struggle.

Being in true solidarity is an ongoing practice, not just during moments of crisis.

Solidarity is a verb. It means taking action and being in daily practice. Building solidarity must first begin with building relationships. Being in true solidarity is an ongoing practice, not just during moments of crisis. However, when you are in a relationship with each other, during moments of crisis, you can mobilize quicker because there is already the trust. We both live in Queens and have seen mutual aid networks established quickly in response to the pandemic, in part because communities have been building relationships prior to this crisis. When the uprising happened in response to George Floyd’s brutal murder, the same networks and community organizations were able to come together and do ongoing political education, jail support and mobilizing people to be out in the streets. For Asian communities, witnessing the Hmong officer standing silently as George Floyd was murdered by a fellow officer, we are reminded of the very real violence of aligning with whiteness instead of our mutual struggle for liberation.

Our ERG hosted a space for our non-Black POC colleagues to continue talking about how we might stand in solidarity with Black people in this moment. We discussed the questions laid out in this post and reflected on how an allyship model takes away from being in solidarity towards our mutual struggle. What came out of the conversation underscored the importance of building transformative and trusted relationships.

We want to share two models of solidarity that resonated with us:

This is the time to come together, understanding that the struggles we all face is rooted in white supremacy and a racist system that targets us all. Rather than giving in to the hateful rhetoric that is meant to divide us and pit us against each other, let us lift up each other and continue on this journey together. There are many ways to be involved:

  • Organize, organize, organize! Talk to your family and friends about how white supremacy and anti-Blackness shows up in your community.
  • Interrogate the networks and circles you are part of and build transformative relationships with your co-strugglers
  • Learn more about the history of indigenous people and Black people in this country
  • Support Black owned businesses
  • Share stories uplifting Black and Asian solidarity.
  • Challenge hateful rhetoric between our communities.

We all need to do our part. Just like anti-racism is a daily practice, solidarity is a practice too.

Resources:

Title art by Landon Sheely, from Just Seeds

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Telling Black Stories Inclusive of Joy

This year’s Juneteenth was one of the most anticipated and celebratory in recent history. For the first time, Juneeteenth was honored on a national scale. Organizations nationwide edited their handbooks to recognize the day as a company holiday; philanthropists such as Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings, donated to historically Black colleges and offered funds and resources to Black causes and businesses. City officials like San Francisco Mayor London Breed redesigned policing policies that center the San Francisco community and in D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser unabashedly proclaimed Black Lives Matter, paying homage to the movement with a colossal mural artfully painted in a prominent city space and renaming the former 16th Street NW, Black Lives Matter Plaza. Several cities would follow this act of leadership.

Juneteenth 2020 was perhaps the first time in our nation’s recent history where Black people will remember a national effort to recognize Black humanity beyond our pain and adversities – a practice that has long been absent from philanthropy and the public sector. Philanthropy often celebrates the stories of Black people, but only in a self serving way that convinces donors that their plight can be overcome through grants and donations. This toxic practice relegates an already marginalized person to a box outlined by that single experience. Black people deserve to have stories told about the Black experience in a humane and holistic way. The coverage of Hurricane Katrina, where Black people were called looters and others were finding resources for survival, is one example.

Black people deserve to have stories told about the Black experience in a humane and holistic way.

As the digital strategist for Living Cities, I am intentional about capturing the plight and resilience of Black people in our work while also sharing stories of Black self-preservation, achievement, and joy. As a Black woman, I well-understand how Black narrative is multi-dimensional. Unfortunately, most strategic communicators who do not share this identity generally lack this understanding, showcasing perpetual stories of Black trauma with imagery reflecting the Black experience to the likes of a Great Depression – as if moments of happiness are fleeting.

While supporting the storytelling of more than a dozen major U.S. cities through our City Accelerator initiative, I noticed that some cities could not even name Black, and therefore failed at capturing the fullness of the Black experience. The cities’ narrative about Black people used limited terminology such as ‘diverse’ and ‘minorities’ in their messaging. This practice has precedent in the public sector. In 1989, the J.A. Croson v. City of Richmond decision required that government procurement programs establish a compelling interest to enact race-conscious programs. This Supreme Court decision was designed to stop the wave of local governments’ preference for Black people receiving state and city contracts in the 1980s and language of that era is still widely used today.

Philanthropists and public sector communicators must practice storytelling that is a humane representation of the Black experience. One way I have practiced holistic storytelling is with a campaign I self-asserted as ‘Black Joy Week’ that preceded June 19, 2020. That week, I posted stories on social media that were a reflection of Black resilience, progression and of course joy. View the Twitter thread here.

High-production storytelling efforts are great, however there are everyday tactics to implement that share Blackness authentically and fully. If you want to make a shift in your communications, here are four ways you can reflect Black joy when sharing stories related to the Black experience:

Publish Photos of Black People Smiling…and celebrating…in confidence…in peace…in joy.

Black people are humans, like anyone else, who experience a range of emotions beyond just sadness, seriousness and anger. Digital storytelling in philanthropy and the public sector should embrace diverse images representing the range of emotions experienced by Black people, inclusive of happy and empowering emotions.

And, your stories should exhibit variations of Blackness in hair texture and styles, eye and skin colors and abilities. My suggestion to combat the form of erasure that Croson laws enforced, is to show the faces of the group you speak of through photos.

Progress is a significant part of the Black narrative and is far too often omitted from stories of economic development centering Black people.

Incorporate Positive Statistics in Economic Development Stories

We get it. Racism has caused a deficit in Black wealth–and yet–the Black community has prevailed against all odds. Progress is a significant part of the Black narrative and is far too often omitted from stories of economic development centering Black people.

When talking about Black economy, it is imperative to source stories of advancement to accompany the statistics that highlight the disparities Black people face. Philanthropists and the public sector communicators might emphasize how:

Support Black People in Sharing Their Own Stories.

Black voices are necessary. It is imperative that philanthropists and the public sector empower members of the Black community to narrate their own stories. For example, orgs might produce a video through the lens of the person. Black people are the experts of their own experiences. By providing a platform to elevate Black voices, Black storytelling is made more equitable and resonates with the audience in a more compelling way. To support a Black narrator, you can prompt them with a question like “What brought you joy this week?”

Encourage Authenticity in Stories.

Check your biases and times when you are attempting to censor a story to fit your organizational voice/brand/goal/intentions. It is common for a Black person to understand the necessity of code-switching when integrating in groups of non-Black people. There is an understanding that acting less Black, white people are disarmed thereby making the Black person safer to be around. This action can create/surface internalized ideals about Black people that white people come to subconsciously subscribe to.

While Juneteenth inevitably highlights some of this country’s egregious mistakes it is nicknamed “Jubilee Day” to center the resilience, aspirations, and joy of the Black experience. Just as there have been calls over the last few decades to recognize Black history and futures beyond Black History Month in February, Juneteenth 2020 has brought awareness to bringing humanity into these stories and uplifting Blackness.

Philanthropy and the public sector take heed.

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Black Futures Matter: Bet on Black

The fourth industrial revolution is upon us, and it is characterized by the modern technology and internet-enabled business. Similar to the previous industrial eras, the financial sector will be largely responsible for backing the iconic companies that define this century’s wealth distribution – whether that is equitable or otherwise. This flywheel of entrepreneurship and the financial backers that enable them are the keys to achieving racial equity in our lifetimes.

However, Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) are underrepresented on both accounts: receiving funding and managing funds throughout the entire capital stack of the US financial system. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in venture capital, which is specifically designed to back founders that will build the companies of the future. Yet Black founders and funders alike receive less than 1% of capital. Worst still, the racist financial system is costing America money. This continued underinvestment deprives our society of the superior financial returns BIPOC fund managers yield and the potential racial equity obtained through wealth generation for the founders and early employees. These disparities mirror the other racial injustices that have been laid bare in 2020: the documented effects of the pandemic on the lives of people of color, the heightened mainstream attention to police violence against Black people, and the mass demonstrations that were sparked in response to these crises.

The Ally Continuum: Welcome To The Party

Moving beyond knee-jerk solidarity gestures and social media posts, some institutions have taken an encouraging anti-racist stance, committing to fund BIPOC fund managers and recognizing the pivotal role they play in achieving economic racial equity. Even without equitable funding, the median net worth of Black founders not only exceeds that of Black non-business owners by 12 times, but is generated faster than the employment income of their peers. As technology journalist, Web Smith, founder of 2pm, coined, “Make the Hire, Send the Wire” – today’s call to action for those with a platform to make anti-racist, active choices and reshape who is empowered to build the future.

The recent announcements by PayPal – with its $500M Economic Opportunity Fund commitment to Black VC GPs – and Google, via its $150M commitment, are welcome additions to the fight for economic justice and steps in the right direction. Google’s move serves as a model for doubling down on an existing commitment to the alpha-driven “fund of funds” that Plexo Capital, which has an established pipeline of BIPOC fund managers, built through long-standing relationships.

These new entrants to the party fighting for racial equality have two vital components:

  • Some of the most meaningful work will be done without fanfare or broad recognition but based on a true long-term commitment to the flywheel created by investing in BIPOC fund managers.
  • There is a need to work through existing channels to adequately manage relationships and speed up distribution of the capital.

Double Down: Amplify Those Already Doing The Work

The work is not new; the concepts are not novel. Many organizations have pioneered the work of channeling capital to BIPOC fund managers, like JoAnn Price of Fairview Capital or Mona Williams of Progress Investment Management or Renae Griffin of GCM Consortium, which largely serves corporate and public pensions. There exists no shortage of tireless champions of emerging BIPOC fund managers:

Co-conspirators Wanted

As your corporations, foundations, family offices and other institutions consider how to align your capital with your anti-racist aspirations, I urge you to practice radical collaboration with the economic justice warriors around you. This is the time to double down and super charge these existing efforts to the scale of the challenge faced. While there is certainly room for new models and partnerships to achieve strategic objectives, this is a call to action to partner with those already well versed in betting on Black. There isn’t a moment to waste on relationship building or process formulation – it’s that part of the dance where you select your partner and simply just “Make the Hire or Send the Wire.”

Chinedu Enekwe is the General Partner at Aux21 Capital and a member of the Builders & Benefactors network, a community of principally Black fund managers and investors using their power to shift how the capital systems work. In the Context of the Capital for the New Majority strategy, this community of innovators informs our exploration into new ways of using capital for addressing the country’s racial wealth gaps.

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Attacking the Gap: How Blackstar Stability is Investing in Black Homeownership

In the context of the Capital for the New Majority strategy, Blended Catalyst Fund (BCF) made an inaugural investment in The Blackstar Stability Distressed Debt Fund, which seeks to promote wealth building for people of color through homeownership, and to undo the harm of predatory lending practices and products that have rendered such wealth accumulation by brown and Black communities difficult.

In many ways, the protests that have swept the nation since George Floyd’s murder have been focused on securing rights that are but table stakes in the pursuit of the American Dream. Civil rights, voting rights, and indiscriminate access to health care and financial opportunities are fundamental building blocks to the members of any thriving democracy. Yet the yawning, ever-widening gap in wealth between Black and white Americans serves as a reminder of the disparate outcomes in our communities. In our increasingly plutocratic society, solutions that neglect to confront the structural issues driving this gap ultimately focus on losing slower rather than winning.

Black homeownership and the wealth gap

Homeownership is the largest driver of the racial wealth gap in the United States , yet few policies advance equitable and inclusive strategies. Nearly two-thirds of the household wealth for middle-income families is comprised by their principal residence. While about two-thirds of all Americans own their homes, that proportion camouflages a troubling gap where only 41% of Black families are homeowners, compared to 73% of white families. Moreover, as owners and buyers, Black families are significantly more likely to have a subprime loan (even if they qualify for a prime mortgage) or another, more predatory form of home financing.

Although attitudes shift as housing markets cycle, owning a home remains critical for middle-class families to build generational wealth. Health outcomes improve for children of homeowners, students who move less often are more successful in school, and the ability to shelter in place is now an unexpected necessity. Black families understand and crave these benefits, but over time have only consistently managed to exchange one set of predations and discriminatory practices for another. From redlining to racialized subprime loan targeting, Black homeownership rates have declined almost every year since 2004 – essentially negating the gains made since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. One very specific (and preventable) cause of the homeownership and concurrent wealth gap is the historically insidious, and surprisingly still prevalent practice, known as “Contracts-for-Deed (CFDs).”

From redlining to racialized subprime loan targeting, Black homeownership rates have declined almost every year since 2004 – essentially negating the gains made since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

History repeats itself

A CFD is a legal agreement for the sale of property in which a buyer takes possession and makes payments directly to the seller, but the seller holds the title until the full payment is made. These transactions are generally unregulated and almost always at predatory interest rates and prices above the actual value of the home. Buyers are responsible for taxes, maintenance, and insurance but do not accrue any equity until final payment and cannot deduct interest from taxes as with traditional mortgages. If the CFD buyer misses a single payment, they can be evicted, losing their home and all the work they put into it. For those buyers who beat the odds and secure title to the home, the economic benefits are a fraction of what they should have been.

Ta-Nehisi Coates concisely describes CFDs as “a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting – while offering the benefits of neither.” His seminal piece details how racially explicit housing policies from the Federal Housing Administration and other government agencies excluded Blacks from the middle-class homeownership boom of the 20th century. With the legitimate paths to homeownership blocked, Black families en masse turned to CFDs. To illustrate this, in Chicago during the 1950s and 60s homeownership wave, 75-95% of the homes sold to Blacks were as CFDs. It is estimated that those CFDs, in Chicago alone, cost Black families between $3.2 and $4.0 billion dollars.

It gets worse. After an encouraging span that led to a historical peak in 2004 of Black homeownership at roughly 50% (still just 2/3rds of the majority rate), the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 obliterated those gains. Over 6 million homes were foreclosed in the years following the recession and millions more sold at a loss, with many of the remaining owners underwater, particularly in communities of color. Black families lost their homes to foreclosure at nearly twice the rate of other groups. When a glut of devalued, vacant homes needed to be resold, the market reinvigorated an old tactic – Contracts-for-Deed.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Government Sponsored Enterprises or “GSEs”), freshly bailed out by taxpayers, sold houses in bulk to corporate and individual buyers who tripled or quadrupled the price and quickly resold them to unsophisticated or desperate families, often using CFDs. In Detroit, CFD sales outnumbered traditional mortgage-financed transactions during 2016. History repeated itself, and with the economic turmoil of COVID-19, it could happen again.

Envisioning post-pandemic Black homeownership

There is a clear and better path. Looking forward, if the pandemic leads to another wave of foreclosures, the GSEs must prohibit the use of CFDs or comparable instruments from being used by resellers of foreclosed property. They should also make better efforts to prevent foreclosure, and when it is unavoidable, to more aggressively incorporate community-minded buyers in sales processes. Consumer protections must be enhanced and enforced.

There may be more than $200 billion in CFDs currently in place in the US, significantly larger than the private student loan ($125 billion), payday loan ($90 billion), or car title loan ($4 billion) industries. Our company, Blackstar Stability, has created a fund that purchases those CFDs and converts them into traditional mortgages at reasonable interest rates. It is a simple, effective approach that earns an attractive risk-adjusted return for our investors while providing life-changing stability and lower payments to families. With the inaugural investment from Living Cities’ Blended Catalyst Fund, Blackstar Stability plans to grow the fund to serve thousands of families and communities.

Our company, Blackstar Stability, has created a fund that purchases those CFDs and converts them into traditional mortgages at reasonable interest rates.

Current market conditions afford a unique opportunity to effectuate this change. State Attorneys General and regulators are putting pressure on some particularly egregious issuers of CFDs. Other issuers are simply looking to realize gains by liquidating their holdings in a buyer’s market. Blackstar Stability buys CFDs in bulk, then works with the families to originate a new, more affordable mortgage that gives them title to their home. Once the new mortgage is established, Blackstar Stability sells or refinances it and recycles the capital. In this context, with Living Cities as a strategic partner, Blackstar Stability is creating for CFD buyers, who are disproportionately Black and brown, the type of financing that is available to everyone else. Fair and equitable access to the housing finance system is both good policy and good business. More stable, economically strong homeowners benefit everyone while tangibly lowering the wealth gap.

Blackstar Stability is a Black-owned firm that is currently accepting qualified investors for our Distressed Debt Fund. If you are an impact investor and are interested in learning more, please contact John Green at jgreen@blackstarstability.com.

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Zine-making as storytelling and healing

One practice that we try to include in our healing justice practice is to create physical healing spaces for our staff. Our Timeout Tuesdays are reserved for internal meetings, all-staff meetings and a space for reflection. Before the pandemic, we would use one of the conference rooms to open up a healing space with poetry, art making, soothing music and engage in reflection questions.

One of the things we bring into the healing space is zine-making!

Zines have a long history in building networks, sharing knowledge, collaboration, expression and art. And for Black, Indigenous, People of Color and other historically marginalized folks, zines have been a practice of resistance as well. Zines are usually self-published or published by small presses.

Cities

For our Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity (CORE) team, we see zines as a way to disrupt the white supremacist culture that values only one way of being and knowing. We acknowledge that in professional settings, published white papers and academic reports are almost always prioritized over stories and lived experiences of people of color.

The same way that breathing and body work practice is one of the practices we have incorporated in our anti-racist practice to resist white supremacist culture, we hope with zine making, we can honor stories and knowledge that our staff hold. It is also another way to get out of our head, and connect with our heart!

At a recent session at the Unity Summit hosted by CHANGE Philanthropy, we introduced zines as a body, storytelling and processing tool for participants at our session to channel their reactions and feelings to activities we introduced to the group. Offering zines as a tool for deep processing helps our audience, be that staff or community at large, connect to the work through both personal reflection and then group reflection. Our session was geared around Employee Resource Groups and the zines offered a space for self-reflection where participants could channel and understand their processing thoughts and emotions before sharing out with their affinity groups and the group at large. This practice has served us as a way to create space for our audience to connect back to themselves much like our breathing and body practice does.

Some prompts for zines that we’ve used in our healing spaces:

Questions to reflect on silence (inspired by Audre Lorde “Transformation of Silence into Action”):

  • What are the words you do not have yet? (or, for what do you not have words yet?)
  • What do you need to say? (list as many as necessary)
  • What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own until you sicken and die of them still in silence?
  • Ask yourself, what is the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?

Questions to reflect on accountability (inspired by adrienne maree brown):

Think about a time when you showed up in a conflict with someone in a way you weren’t proud of…

-Write the narrative of the future you want with this person, where you’re at peace in the relationship
-Time travel to a place where this future is possible and ask yourself how you need to change to get there

Some zines for you to explore:
White People Hate Protest
Intersectionality zine
On Confronting and Resisting Anti-Blackness in Ourselves & in our Communities

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Shifting Mindsets: Scarcity vs. Abundance

We hear the terms ‘scarcity mindset’ and ‘abundance mindset’ a lot, but what do they really mean?

Shifting from scarcity to abundance mindset is the difference between assuming a fixed outcome and trusting that there are endless outcomes. An abundance mindset allows space for opportunities and scenarios that outweigh the limitations placed by fear. Having an abundance mindset is believing in all of life’s possibilities.

As part of our practice to disrupt white institutional culture, we are becoming more aware of the voice in our heads. Is it telling us there is only one way to achieve something, that there isn’t enough, or that someone else’s success will mean our failure? If so, how can we shift to more abundant thinking?
During this time of turmoil it’s especially easy to fall into despair, frustration and angst. The collision of multiple social crises has dramatically redefined what “normal” means for many of us. We may find ourselves feeling powerless, overwhelmed, terrified, or full of rage.

Within every crisis, however, there are seeds of opportunity. Cultivating an abundance mindset is about nurturing those seeds to grow.

Moving from scarcity to abundance mindset is a process to become aware of and change our thoughts and behaviors. Here are some practices we’re testing to help us in this work:

-When we feel overwhelmed, come back to focusing on our breath.

-Slow down the pace of our thinking and actions by breathing, questioning instinctive thoughts, and creating space for reflective pauses.

-Name or write down scarcity thoughts when they arise. As one of our muses for this piece says, “name it to tame it.”

-Reflect on what our bodies are feeling, versus what capitalism has trained us to think.

-Be transparent with people in our lives about how we’re trying to move away from scarcity mindset, and what they can do to support us in that process.

For more information on our breath and body work practice, check out our Breath and Body Work as Anti-Racism Practice blog.

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Breath & Body Work as Anti-Racism Practice

In reflecting on the power of breath work and body work as anti-racism practice, Living Cities staff member Lethy Liriano said, “I think that bringing meditation to white institutional cultures is a great step towards humanizing work spaces (which are microcosms of our society). Connecting to feelings and humanity is often considered unprofessional in the work environment, so modeling a connection to self during meetings begins to shift that belief and the culture of numbing staff (especially staff of color) emotions, experiences, and quite frankly, expertise. Breathing and meditation is a tangible manifestation of bringing the full person into the space. As folks are thinking about what actions they can take to support the Movement for Black Lives or the current racialized climate in our nation and globally, lifting up this practice in the work space can support those who historically have only experienced white institutional culture to reflect inwardly and deepen their own humanity, which can impact how they show up in the world, within and outside of the work space.

“Breathing collectively, normalizing this practice as an organization, and incorporating movement, art, or meditation, begin to affirm a practice alive and well outside of white institutions. In spaces where agendas, data, deadlines, and ‘professional’ distancing of humanity from the work environment are the norm, incorporating a connection to heart/spirit, and doing that collectively, begins to open a space for reimagination of what the work culture can include. It also acknowledges that staff across identity groups can experience feelings, acknowledge humanity, and connect in different ways. White people often lose culture and humanity in our racist system, and this connection can help them to heal and approach the work with more compassion and solidarity. It can also help Black people show up as more of their full selves in spaces where they have historically had to assimilate and navigate microaggressions to succeed, and not acknowledge the injustice, trauma, and grief they often hold simply because of their skin color at work and in the world.”

Our CORE (“Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity”) team couldn’t have said it better. This is why, when we made an intention to share how breath and body work have been incorporated into our racial equity practice, we made a decision to let our staff speak for themselves. Here are the testimonies of Living Cities staff in how this work has impacted them.

Cities

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Standing in Solidarity and Committing to Action

“I am writing today to demand a faster pace of change.
An accelerated pace is dependent on your leadership.
We have stood united in partnership but our partnerships must move to solidarity.
Solidarity requires deep, meaningful daily action in the places where business takes place.
Today, we are sounding an alarm for solidarity for racial and economic justice in the pursuit of an inclusive regional economy.”

Tawanna A. Black, Founder & CEO, Center for Economic Inclusion
Call to Action: Dismantle Structural Racism & Economic Disparities
in Minneapolis-St. Paul


We, at Living Cities, stand in solidarity with Tawanna Black, and the residents and local leaders in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and in communities across the country, from Atlanta and Portland, to Denver and Louisville, who believe that now is the time for all of us to commit to meaningful daily action:

White people must stop looking away. Police brutality in this country against Black men and women is not new. It is part of a legacy of centuries of dehumanization, systematic violence and structural racism that began when the first ship carrying enslaved Africans landed on these shores in 1619, and which white America has never fully reckoned with.

“Not looking away” means that we must educate ourselves about our nation’s true history, and acknowledge the steps that were taken over generations—from slavery to Jim Crow, to redlining and urban “renewal,” to the War on Crime and the 2008 financial crisis—to separate and divide us by race, to advantage white Americans and to devalue and exploit Black neighborhoods, communities and lives. We need to understand the history that brought us to today, because the past is very present. We cannot undo racism until we understand where it lives, at the roots of today’s disparities.

We must stop sanitizing the truth and call the toxicity that has poisoned our actions for so long what it is: racism. We must name it where we see it—not only in the recent killings by police officers, but also in the tens of thousands of Black and brown people who have lost their lives to COVID-19 at rates far exceeding that of their white neighbors. James Baldwin’s resonate so strongly today: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

We must decide to fully use our personal agency, and move others to use their power too. For white people like myself, that may mean mobilizing those within our spheres of influence—in our homes, organizations, and communities—to disrupt their numbness. Every single person has the power to protest racist policies, and to either advance, or stall, antiracist policies and practices that can help turn the tide.

Things will only change if we make it personal, and hold each of ourselves accountable for our failure to personally contribute to the change. I was heartened the other day to see Living Cities’ longtime friend and former Minneapolis mayor RT Ryback take that step in a personal message last week:

“Our country, and our beloved imperfect city, has tolerated two tiers of justice too long when we never should have tolerated it in the first place. We need to acknowledge that on some level, every one of us had a role in keeping this inequity in place. I’ll go first, because after 12 years as mayor of this city, I should. My own efforts to change a police department and its culture failed badly. That will haunt me for the rest of my life, and it should.”

We must start making different choices, not for a few days, but every day, that chip away at this madness. As Ibram X. Kendi puts it so clearly, there is no such thing in our world as being “not racist,” because “there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’ And being “antiracist,” Kendi explains, is not a fixed category but a daily practice that requires a radical reorientation of our consciousness; persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism and regular self-examination.

As a leader who went 25 years of my career with “rose colored glasses” on, I failed to see the role racism played in the issues I’d committed to addressing—from broadband access to economic insecurity—and how my own identity impacted my daily decision-making. I needed both the competencies to see manifestations of racism around me—in big and small ways—and the humility to understand that I was always going to have blind spots that others were going to have to call me on.

We must recognize the humanity in each other. Former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak also captured this beautifully in his recent post:
“…our eyes have to stay focused on one single image: A human being, staring calmly off into the middle distance, while his knee suffocates another human being. Our repulsion should boil over as we see this is a white police officer, who took an oath to protect and serve that person on the ground, who is a black man, who we know would not be treated like that if he was white. We should be shocked again when we see other officers doing nothing to prevent a death. And nothing should shock us more than the fact that we are no longer shocked, because this image is so familiar.“

This inhumanity shows up almost everywhere in our country, every day. We see it in police interactions, of course; but also in micro-aggressions like shopkeepers following customers of color around their stores; ongoing wage disparities between white employees and those of color; and even in our own private thoughts when white people decide to cross a street when approaching a person of color.

And as white people, we carry on this inhumanity when we explicitly or implicitly rely on people of color, especially Black people, to carry the burdens of educating others or fighting racism instead of us. As a boss, I have heard from my Black colleagues that it is both enraging and exhausting, to be confronted once again—and then again, and again, and again—with violent, graphic evidence that Black lives are not protected in this country—neither from violence nor viruses—and that our systems do not serve them. While we can’t know that experience, combating racism must be a burden that we as white leaders learn to shoulder, disproportionately, at work and in society.

We must prove that a different America is possible. As the protests that are sweeping the nation demonstrate, we know that no city in this country has eradicated racism, and that just as the public sector has played a major role in the creation of racial disparities, it must also play an outsized role in undoing them. In this moment, we are witnessing and speaking with mayors, elected officials, career public servants and community organizers across the country who understand that the past is present, that we need to reckon with and repair harms as we develop new ways of working together.

In response, we will be launching an effort to support between four and six cities who have the willingness, competency and courage to develop an analysis and vision for racially just decision- and policy-making, and commit to the daily practice of applying it to every decision and policy that gets made. The competencies and tools built through this effort—a “Year of Reckoning”—will be incorporated into addressing racial disparities across multiple mutually reinforcing systems (e.g. education, criminal justice, health, employment).

What are we going to do? For my fellow white Americans, can we feel the sheer grief, the rage, and the urgency, that right now is being channeled by people taking to the streets in protest in cities across the country—and take action in our own lives in response?

We have to distinguish between danger, fear and cowardice. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has so powerfully written, “Danger is real; fear is a choice. Cowardice is the inability to amass the strength to do what is right in the face of fear. And racist power has been terrorizing cowardice in us for generations.”

I hope that you will join Living Cities as we stand in solidarity with leaders like Tawanna and take up their charge:

“We will not return to the exclusive, antiquated power structures, partnerships, and economic systems of the past.” – Tawanna Black, Call To Action

We must make it so.


Photo by Joe Piette on Flickr

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