As residents are demanding racial justice and city leaders increasingly recognize that racial equity is integral to all of their priorities, it has never been more important that local leaders have an intentional ecosystem of support to meet their full range of needs, from data and research to training and policy support.
In late 2018, Living Cities and four other national groups — Race Forward/The Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE); PolicyLink; NLC/Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL); and ICMA — recognized our shared focus on advancing racial equity in and through local government and committed to better understanding each other’s areas of expertise to strengthen the overall ecosystem. While most of us already had bilateral relationships with the others, they were inefficient for information exchange and did not allow us to think together about what it would take to reach our shared goal using the resources, expertise, people power and extended networks of all of our organizations.
After meeting in early 2019, we quickly recognized that the scale of our aspirations required field-level collaboration; together, we could go broader and deeper by leveraging each other’s strengths and could avoid confusion and duplication among local leaders seeking to support from national groups. We also wanted to challenge the idea that organizations working towards similar goals are in competition with one another, whether for grant dollars or the attention of city leaders. The result: a commitment to working together – regularly and intentionally — to build the field of practice of national organizations supporting racial equity in cities.
Recognizing that progress on building an ecosystem is only possible at the speed of trust, we invested time in getting to know one another – as people and as institutions – so that we could share honestly and vulnerably. We know that until we can name what we don’t know or what is not working as hoped, we cannot actually transform how we work with cities as a group.
The first phase of this effort has been to understand and work to our strengths, sharing information and filling in each other’s gaps by working with different audiences or addressing different needs. For example, we recognized that we each have different audiences we’re reaching. NLC’s membership is primarily elected officials, while ICMA works with city managers and Living Cities has deeper relationships with mayoral chiefs of staff and city staff who work on procurement, business support and wealth building. GARE is a membership network of local government jurisdictions making a commitment to advancing racial equity across the breadth and depth of their organization and often works with internal racial equity “sparkplugs” who are racial equity leaders within city government, while PolicyLink has worked to bridge internal and external organizers for policy change. This has led to different role-alike groups for these different types of leaders, and at times, collaborative efforts, such as a jointly led cohort of local chief equity officers. In spring of 2020, all five groups were working to have a presence at the GARE annual conference, co-scheduling other convenings at this conference to make it easier for city teams to attend and work together. While COVID-19 caused the conference to be cancelled, we have continued to support each other as speakers and participants for our virtual conferences.
Moving forward, the partners are starting to think and act as a field. The group is seeking to align around some common frameworks, values, tools and metrics. For example, GARE’s normalize, operationalize, organize, visualize framework resonated with the group. Similarly, the Policy Link/USC Equity Atlas and Racial Equity Index can be used across organizations. The group also is exploring how to shift the expectations of city governments so that racial equity is seen as a core piece of both how they operate and the results the city prioritizes, through everything from societal narratives to strong community accountability relationships.
Finally, just as it is important for our five organizations to deepen our work together, we need to continue to seek to understand, collaborate with and leverage the unique strengths of other players in the broader ecosystem, building a national movement to make it an expectation that cities make racial equity central to both how they operate and to what end – and together support them to live up to these expectations. The ecosystem map below offers a sampling of the other players advancing racial equity in and through local governments across this country.
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