Reimagining Our Realities through Storytelling

Racial equity work calls us to imagine new possibilities and different realities from our own because what we need and require does not yet exist – we need to create it, together. It calls us to disrupt mainstream narratives and present more dynamic and vibrant stories of the Black and brown communities we aim to serve. Therefore, storytelling should be crucial to any racial justice organization’s mission.

Over the past several years we’ve been able to shift our strategies to create more space for the equity, reimagination, creativity and agency required to shape and share dynamic stories that disrupt the false narratives of white/dominant culture and present a shared vision for what a “new normal” can be. Below are some lessons we’ve learned about what it takes to do so in a way that honors the people we aim to serve and the values our work is grounded in.

Storytelling for reimagination

We’ve been fortunate enough to use storytelling as a tool for reimagining at Living Cities. An example of a story that we’ve been able to share that encourages us, as Living Cities staff, but also our audience to reimagine an America with closed income and wealth gaps, is A Day In a Life: Imagining a Country without Racial Gaps Infographic. In the infographic, readers are invited to follow Sasha and her family through their day while interacting with “historical truths” that highlight why her story isn’t yet our lived normal. When I was creating the infographic, I went through several iterations of the storyline. Initially the story fell very flat– I had trouble pushing myself to imagine what the most fruitful life for Sasha could even look like. Collaboration with colleagues and asking for input from diverse staff at the organization helped identify how I could create a life for Sasha that was thriving, equitable and safe. For example, I initially pictured Sasha as an employee at a tech firm because there is an underrepresentation of Black women in the STEM field. A brainstorming session with a colleague called me to consider: Why not give Sasha a position in leadership? Suddenly, my blindspots were showing. It was difficult to imagine prosperity that is not often showcased or given attention. The single story and image of C-Suite professionals is usually that of white men. How many Chief Technology Officers (CTO) in our country are Black women? [A quick Google search can prove that there aren’t enough.] I decided to intentionally give Sasha the CTO position in the storyline because in a world without racial income and wealth gaps, Black women would have enough equal opportunity that there may be more representation of Black women in the STEM field.

Addressing blindspots in our narratives and storytelling

It’s our responsibility as storytellers to address those blindspots and make sure that as we evolve in our work and storytelling– we are checking for those blindspots at every turn and pushing ourselves more, each time to reimagine and think bigger because the solutions we need do yet exist and won’t unless we create them. And those solutions have the power to be brought to life through the visions and stories we put forth.

Since then, I’ve been working to be intentional about all of the content I produce and publish– asking questions like:

  1. Are the images and metaphors we’re using representative of diverse populations we serve?
  2. What narratives are we trying to address in our work?
  3. Is our content leading with our shared values? And are we bridging those values specifically to race?
  4. Does our content explicitly link to systemic obstacles and ultimately racial economic justice?

Using your agency to put forth dynamic stories.

For people of color especially, it can sometimes feel like a risk to present a story that disrupts the norm or even presents a different version of what normal could be. In my experience, I was very nervous putting out an infographic that is based upon a Black same-sex couple. Not because I thought it was wrong or too different, but because our dominant culture does not embrace those differences. However, I came to the realization that those differences will never be embraced as long as we continue to present a narrative that is more palatable and in line with that dominant culture. Take the risk and use the bounds of your role to challenge our dominant cultural narratives that are one-dimensional. Do not silence yourself. At the same time, employers should also be aware that it is necessary to give creators and storytellers on your staff the creative space to put these practices into action in a way that feels safe.

Storytelling has the power to shape the narratives we hold true; if this tool is used irresponsibly – it can exclude narratives and create single, one-dimensional stories about groups of people which may actually be harmful. Furthermore, as storytellers if we don’t feel we have the agency to put forth these powerful stories that disrupt the problematic narratives that permeate our dominant culture, we can be doing a disservice to ourselves, the audience we aim to move and the communities we aim to serve. Storytelling at the intersection of racial equity has the power to shift our narratives if we allow ourselves to be courageous enough to disrupt the status quo.

In the next blog on our internal learning, storytelling and results work, we’ll be offering tactics for being more vocal in storytelling.

Banner Graphic: Change Now! by Pete Railand

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Bringing Heart to Data: How to Measure the Unmeasurable

How can we connect team or project activities to larger organizational goals? And how can we be sure our actions are having a measurable effect on ourselves, our partners and the world? In this blog, we share aspects of our performance measurement process so that readers can understand how we answer these questions and connect our day-to-day work to our theory of change.

Data—quantitative or qualitative—helps answer the question, “Are we having our intended impact?” Data is also a tool for holding ourselves accountable to our mission and vision, and it allows us to make informed adjustments to our approach along the way.

To determine what information matters to us as data, we work backwards from “ends” (desired results) to “means” (strategies and programs)—a practice drawn from the Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework. With the guidance of Erika Bernabei of Equity & Results LLC, we have married the RBA framework with anti-racist principles. All of our intended results, performance management processes, and strategies are rooted in how racism—be it structural, institutional or interpersonal—as well as power and privilege shape our world and our own efforts.

These activities are part of an ongoing learning journey for us, and we still have more questions than answers, but here are a few elements of our process that may be useful:

Develop team- or project-specific performance measures, rooted in the Theory of Change

If we’re going to achieve long-term systems change, it’s important that each of us be equipped to track how our everyday actions and their results are potentially creating change. It can sometimes be difficult for core operations, like our finance or accounting teams, to connect the dots between their work and the overarching mission of the organization. We developed individual sub-theories of change for each body of work, so that every team could see the relationship between their team-specific performance measures and our overarching shared result. Developing theories of change for each team also helps visualize and reinforce how their mission-critical work is directly linked to our results. And it shows how the organizational operations performance data (e.g., staff engagement, hiring and departure data, procurement spending, and more) are critical for decision-making, particularly as we embed anti-racist principles in our operations.

Gather qualitative data at every opportunity

Some of our activities can be easily quantified. We can track how many events we hosted for partners and how many resources we created. But because our ultimate goal is building and applying skills to uproot racism in ourselves and our institution, and equipping partners and grantees to do the same, we must track and measure subtle shifts in behavior that aren’t easily quantified. Things we track include changes in the quality of our relationships, the culture of our organizations, and our personal capacity to take risks and use our power in strategic ways.

To capture these things with discipline, we’ve had to treat anecdotes and stories as invaluable forms of data, and draw patterns and themes to understand how changes are taking shape over time. For example, a central part of our theory of change is challenging and replacing harmful elements of white supremacy culture in our relationships and working dynamics. Whether we’re achieving that result is only captured by tracking peoples’ experiences. Did people actually feel something different because of our actions? Over time, these anecdotes can be threaded together into larger stories of impact that connect our efforts to outcomes, as we’ll discuss further in a future piece.

Another way we’ve captured qualitative data is by using a “check-in question” at the start of a meeting to source participants’ attitudes or experiences of something. For example, in a conversation about our results over a quarter, we might open the meeting by hearing one word or phrase from each participant about how they’d describe our impact. The resulting “Word Cloud” can illustrate the intangibles around how we’re working. Comparing Word Clouds over time can reveal interesting qualitative changes.

When we’ve presented or reported on data to all staff, we’ve asked people to share one word that captures how they feel about performance management work at Living Cities. Then, we’ve compared the resulting “Word Clouds” over time to see how sentiments change.

Track relationships at all touchpoints

Closing racial income and wealth gaps will require undoing harmful power dynamics, and changing the way that we relate to one another. Therefore, building relationships that allow us to connect to one another’s humanity, grow, and challenge and be challenged by partners is one of the most important things we can do in service of our results.

But we quickly realized that nurturing relationships over time can be hard to boil down into metrics without losing the richness of human interaction. To help meet this challenge, we developed a system to more easily allow staff members to share experiences from events, important meetings and conferences, where much of our relationship-building occurs. Staff can submit a Google form that asks them whether key relationships were formed or deepened, whether their results were achieved, whether they gained any important insights, and if they noticed any examples of our organizational influence. These takeaways become data that all teams can use.

Our performance management is an ever-evolving process. But we know that remaining grounded in our theory of change, and seeking ways to increase our accountability to our intended results, will ensure that we are continuously moving closer to our vision of a better world.

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A Public Sector Guide to Talking About Race

If the echos and chanting for equity haven’t rang clear in the last seven years since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2013, we are rest assured that they have now been heard across America. The recent protests emerging in hundreds of cities across the country have made it impossible for local and state governments to ignore the rallies for justice dominating our streets. I’ve had countless friends and colleagues (and some strangers) reach out to me, now desperate to have the right words and subsequent action to support one another during this intense racial reckoning.

For those public sector partners who are looking for guidance on how best to approach this moment with the commitment it will take to answer the calls for justice in our streets here are some suggestions on what comes next:

Develop your own language and capacity

So you’ve just realized that race is a major factor in the lives of your colleagues and constituents. It’s important to first question what privileges you may be afforded that have made it so that you haven’t had to be aware of the implications of race and oppression in people’s lives. It doesn’t make you a bad person to have these privileges, but it is our responsibility to shift our consciousness to acknowledge what advantages we have within the systems we exist in so we can shift power to those who are stripped of it. Take time to familiarize yourself with key concepts, build your own capacity to recognize how race shows up in the systems you are part of and in the lives of people around you, namely the communities in which you may serve.

Below are some resources that might get you started:

What is Systemic Racism, Race Forward

Talking about race without talking about power is useless

Three Personal Practices for Racial Equity

Organizing for support

This shift in thinking is a great place to start but that must also be followed by action. Next you must find your people. It is important in this work to find allies who are willing to carry the torch with you because it’s difficult work to carry alone. Anything worth doing is best done in community. It’s important for racial equity work to be cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary because you need various lenses, perspectives and access to power to move this work forward. Organizing means finding those who are in the coalition of the willing and engaging those who are in the waiting room of the hesitant. Mobilize and energize your community. Give direction to the coalition of the willing through developing a shared analysis and resource sharing, mobilize the hesitant and band together to push against those who want to maintain the status quo. Organizing is crucial so there’s people at the party who can celebrate our victories and joy because it’s not all suffering. It is about moving forward towards collective liberation.

Below are some resources that might get you started:

Organizing for Racial Justice History Timeline

Everything worth doing is done with other people

Lessons on Anti-Racist Organizing Across Government and Community

Getting organizational support

Understanding how to navigate power or structures of authority and accountability that exist within your organization is essential to move this work from an idea to reality. It’s critical to do an analysis of who you need on your side versus who you need out of your way to make that happen. Understand the motivations and limitations of those who might want to benefit from the world as it is or the “status quo” so you can create strategies to move past their opposition..

Below are some resources that might get you started:

Connecting at the Crossroads: Alliance Building and Social Change in Tough Times

Practices of Accountability

The important thing is to do something. Start small and let it grow. Use your power with your people to ask critical questions at key decision points on how you can use your role and authority to respond and advance the demands for racial equity. It is not about doing the biggest thing but it is about our collective ability to advance a movement.

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Building Stronger Relationships Between Governments and Nonprofits

After the tragic killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, protests have swept across the United States. This has led to a wide-ranging discussion about how to reform policing in the country – from a push to hold officers accountable to a fundamental reconsideration of how cities should address crime, mental health, and many other issues that are too often left up to police departments.

It’s clear that the nonprofit sector has a major role to play in this shift. Nonprofits have boots on the ground in communities across the country, and they are often focused on the problems that can lead to crime: joblessness, poverty, a lack of affordable housing, educational disparities, substance abuse, and so on. Many nonprofits also combat racism, which perpetuates systems of inequality and leads to the breakdown of trust in communities.

Although nonprofits have the expertise and infrastructure necessary to help cities develop more proactive and productive responses to the problems listed above, they also have to come up with ways to work with local governments more efficiently and transparently. If nonprofits are going to take on greater responsibilities in their communities, it’s all the more important for them to be as data-driven and accountable as possible.

How governments can strengthen their relationships with nonprofits

According to a 2019 report from the National Council of Nonprofits, almost a third of nonprofit revenue comes from government grants and contracts. Governments clearly recognize the value of working with nonprofits to increase their capacity to deliver critical services, but they often impose unnecessary costs and constraints on the organizations they work with.

For example, there are several persistent problems with government-nonprofit relationships: the full cost of services isn’t reimbursed; grant application and reporting processes are convoluted; contracts are often changed mid-project; and late payments are common. These problems are particularly acute right now, as many nonprofits are operating on thinner margins than ever amid the COVID-19 pandemic even as demand for their services increases. Meanwhile, as cities focus on implementing innovative solutions to crime, poverty, and inequality, nonprofits need robust support from local governments.

There are several solutions to the most pressing problems that hinder government-nonprofit partnerships. First, the full cost and scope of projects should be outlined in the development phase so governments and nonprofits can plan accordingly, payments can be delivered on time, and there won’t be any surprises. Second, the application and reporting processes should be centralized, digitized, and streamlined – there’s no reason for nonprofits (or governments, for that matter) to waste resources tracking down and generating needless paperwork. And third, there should be ongoing open communication between nonprofits and local governments.

How nonprofits can be effective facilitators

While there are plenty of ways local governments can treat nonprofits more fairly and increase the impact of their programs, nonprofits themselves have to take responsibility for driving these changes. For example, consider the fact that the most disruptive problems that nonprofits face in their partnerships with governments – from payment discrepancies to messy reporting and application processes – are a result of inadequate communication. This is a stark reminder that nonprofits need to set expectations and establish channels for unfettered communication right at the outset.

Nonprofits need to set expectations and establish channels for unfettered communication right at the outset.

This is where technology comes in. Nonprofits have never had more access to data about the implementation and performance of their programs, nor have they had more tools for making those data actionable or communicating their findings and strategies with grantors. These are all tech-enabled advances, but just 20 percent of nonprofits consider themselves leaders and innovators when it comes to the adoption of new technologies. Two of the top reporting challenges nonprofits cite are the inability to gather statistics on the impact of their programs and the lack of a consistent framework for measuring and recording outcomes.

As the founder and CEO of Resilia, I happen to know that any nonprofit (no matter its size) is capable of overcoming these challenges. There are digital platforms that can help nonprofits track and report outcomes, maintain consistent communication with local governments, and build healthier relationships based on clear, data-driven objectives. It’s true that city governments need to do a better job making payments on time, addressing logistical obstacles, and so on, but nonprofits also have to be advocates for themselves and their work.

Building joint capacities between nonprofits and governments

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that $75 million in Disaster Relief Assistance funds would support immigrant workers who have been affected by COVID-19. The press release notes that the funds will be “dispersed through a community-based model of regional nonprofits with expertise and experience serving undocumented communities.” The California Immigrant Resilience Fund has simultaneously raised almost $40 billion (of a $50 billion goal) to supplement the state funds.

This is an example of how nonprofits can help governments build capacity on multiple levels: with fundraising, the deployment of programs, and intergovernmental cooperation. While Disaster Relief Assistance is a statewide initiative, the state government is using the nonprofit sector to ensure that the resources are being efficiently distributed to communities around California. This should be a reminder to city governments that nonprofits can help them allocate state and federal resources to where they’ll do the most good.

As cities explore new ways to deal with problems like poverty, crime, and racial discrimination, nonprofits will be under a microscope like never before. Nonprofits already face public perception problems when it comes to providing services that are typically administered directly by local governments. For example, they aren’t subject to electoral accountability, which can lead to the view that nonprofits are superseding elected officials. Moreover, there will be increasing political pressure to demonstrate that their efforts are having concrete outcomes in the coming months and years.

Nonprofits need to make it clear that their efforts complement and support the work of local governments. They should also use all the resources at their disposal to demonstrate their effectiveness, which will make a stronger case to local officials and other stakeholders that they deserve community support. When local governments and nonprofits focus on setting clear norms and expectations for projects, increasing operational efficiencies by focusing on what they each do best, maintaining consistent communication, and rigorously tracking outcomes, they will be far more effective than they ever could have been on their own.

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Centering Healing and Humanity

Two years ago, we began to prioritize healing justice in our racial equity journey. The desire for this work came from many things. Racism, specifically anti-Black racism, has created real, deep-seated structural harms that are manifested in our institutions, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our bodies.

This includes our need to grapple with our organization’s history of practices and policies that have harmed Black and brown staff as well as our partners and communities. We believe that healing and accountability are inextricably connected – that we cannot do the work of healing and moving through harm if we don’t work to be accountable in acknowledging the harm.

Last March, a global pandemic brought our organization, like many others, to a halt as colleagues of color grappled with immeasurable losses, uncertainties and the realities of a system that neither loved nor cared for them. Then summer came, with another stark reminder of the violence that Black people in this country face every day. Now in September, we are still in a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black and brown people, and across the country the uprisings have continued. These two national epidemics—the conditions leading to higher mortality rates for Black and brown people from Covid-19 and the conditions that allow police to kill Black people with impunity—are interconnected. Racialized trauma is ever present in our bodies. And in so many institutions, the expectation to show up and be productive amid all this is compounding that trauma. Our healing justice practice uplifts the toll of systemic oppression on our bodies and spirit, and works to address it, with the understanding that the foundational work is to dismantle white supremacy and work towards an organization and world that is pro-Black.

Our healing justice practice uplifts the toll of systemic oppression on our bodies and spirit…

Our practice is guided by the work of Black, Indigenous, People of Color organizers who have refused to operate under white supremacist culture and who are actively building towards healing and resilience. The healing justice framework was developed by Cara Page & Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective. Kindred was organized shortly after Hurricane Katrina in the South as a “response to the crisis of trauma, violence and social conditions” in that region.

According to Page,

  • Healing Justice is a framework that identifies how we can holistically respond to and intervene on generational trauma and violence and to bring collective practices that can impact and transform the consequences of oppression on our bodies, hearts and minds. Through this framework we continue to build political and philosophical convergences of healing inside of liberation movements and organizations.
  • Healing Justice means we all deserve to heal on our terms, and we confront oppressive systems that get in our way. We honor the trauma and resilience of generations that came before us and use interactive, daily practices that anyone can do. Healing Justice is a reminder to social movements that the concept of action should be expanded to support the self-determination, interdependence, resilience & resistance of those most impacted by oppression. Healing Justice is revolutionary in confronting the capitalist, colonial, individualistic paradigms that tell us we are alone when we seek out healing.

Our healing justice practice must aspire to a real shifting of power to the communities to whom we claim to be accountable.

As an institution, we know that a healing justice framework requires a transformation that continues to be aspirational to us. In working towards that aspiration, there will be many dissonances that we have to hold. As such, we look at our healing justice practice as a way to hold those dissonances, acknowledge and repair harm, and to name the ways that we are complicit in the systems we are trying to change. We will not be able to fully live healing justice principles because of the interconnectedness to structures of oppression and harm that our institution is built upon, but in practicing healing justice we can interrogate those interconnections, and shift our practices, decisions and behaviors. Our healing justice practice must be in service of transforming and responding to current and generational violence and trauma. Our healing justice practice must aspire to a real shifting of power to the communities to whom we claim to be accountable.

We are sharing this report on healing justice and centering humanity to give our network a window into what we feel is fundamental in our racial equity work and our work to close racial income and wealth gaps. Some of the practices we will share in this report might feel small in light of systemic and structural oppression, but we believe in small shifts that can ripple into larger cultural shifts. Healing justice is not just about healing spaces, or weaving in art and poetry. Rather, it is creating a culture of care and accountability to each other. We again must caution that we cannot practice healing justice without practicing accountability to each other, to our grantees, to our partners and to our communities.

In this moment, we ask of ourselves and of you: What might our healing justice practice look like in solidarity and in rage with Black people all over the country who are demanding justice and freedom?

Read the “Centering Healing and Humanity” report here.

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Katy Milani

Katy Milani is the Senior Policy Advocate for ILSR’s independent business program where she works closely with coalition partners and policymakers on antimonopoly and small business policy and advocacy. Previously she was Director of Advocacy and Policy at the Roosevelt … Read More

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Cross Sectoral Partnerships Can Fight Human Trafficking

Dedicated anti-trafficking actors across the nation are trying to build better systems in big jurisdictions like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and in smaller but scrappy jurisdictions like Waco, Texas and Boaz, Alabama. They all share the same need, for stronger interconnectedness as an anti-trafficking field, and more collaboration.

The Forging Freedom Portal is a one-stop shop where a police officer planning a victim-centered operation can connect with their law enforcement counterparts, and the right service providers ahead of time, collaborating to make sure they’re planning for the language skills, social services, and legal support that victims may need. The portal is a place where the people who care most about ending human trafficking, who are doing the hard work every day on the ground, can learn from each other and share best practices to raise the collective standard of this work.

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