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

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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.


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.


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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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Centering Equity, Transforming Systems: A Profile on Joann Massey


Joann Massey has led Mayor Strickland’s Office of Business Diversity and Compliance in the City of Memphis since February 2016. “[Living Cities staff] are an extension of our team in so many ways,” she reflected as we opened our conversation about her experiences in the City Accelerator on Inclusive Procurement cohort, which focused on equity in procurement. When Joann was first hired, the office was brand new and its scope was limited. She knew, though, that to truly meet the needs of Memphis’s citizens, they had to expand their notion of what was possible. There is no one better suited to do this work than Joann, who has a vivacious, warm spirit and an attitude that makes it clear that once she has a goal, nothing will stand in her way to achieving it. “Anything can be done once we say we want to do it,” Joann told me. “If we don’t have it, we’ll go find it. Even if it’s not a tangible thing – a network, idea, etc. I don’t think city government has operated like that traditionally.”

Indeed, Joann and her team have proven that city government is capable of innovation and resourcefulness in a way that the public often hears it’s not. From where I sit, that’s due to the leadership that Joann embodies. She insists, though, that her partnership with Living Cities played a huge role in her office’s ability to innovate, so we dug into how exactly that worked and how Living Cities can replicate similar types of support in our future work.

At Living Cities we often reflect on our capacity to “give cover.” In Joann’s case, we were able to give her the cover she needed to innovate in her work. “When I first started in this role,” she said, “everyone around me was screaming: the city of Memphis is 63% African American and your numbers should match the demographics!” She knew that would be nearly impossible in the time frame she had. They were too far away from that rate, and the number of businesses available to contract with were limited. She looked to the Living Cities network, and reached out to folks she had met from Chicago to get their procurement data. Then she was able to go back to Memphis and offer a comparison. “That expectation reset was monumental,” she reflected. “What it did was it allowed the progress we were making to be absorbed by the community and elected officials. We garnered support because they said ‘you know what, [our progress is] actually good because we’re almost where Chicago is.” The Living Cities network offered “cover” for her by helping her team understand the national progress in this area and then put their local progress into context. “That support allowed us the breathing room to be innovative because we weren’t being pressured by expectations that were unreasonable to accomplish. Operating in that obtainable space allows us to stretch ourselves enough without breaking.”

The benefit that Joann and her team got from Living Cities cover didn’t come right away, though. Like many philanthropic and non-profit organizations, Living Cities has frequent internal shifts that inevitably impact our stakeholders. In Joann’s case, her first few months in the City Accelerator cohort were “very transactional.” The required quarterly reporting process was redundant and confusing. The first meeting was a lot of being “talked to.” Then, something shifted. Referencing Living Cities Associate Director Julie Bosland, Joann said “Julie took it to where we weren’t being talked to, but we were being talked with.” That’s when Joann learned of the people and offices nationwide against which she could measure her office’s progress. That’s when “it went from reporting to people.” That also happens to be around the same time that Living Cities was doing internal work to apply a racial equity lens to its philanthropic practices such as reporting.

Sometimes it can be hard for an organization going through a racial equity journey to recognize the impacts of that hard work in the moment, but as we look back and reflect with Joann’s help, we can see the significant impacts that relatively small shifts can make. Living Cities loosened the reporting process and shifted convenings to focus on participants connecting with each other, and suddenly Joann was “110% engaged.” Her experience then “went beyond the boxes and became authentic.” At this point she referenced the names of at least seven staff members and reflected, “It is sustaining. I feel empowered because of our relationships. When [my team and I] have an idea, a need, when there is a thought, we have a source, we’re not afraid. We are empowered to move and that’s because with Living Cities and even with [Living Cities member and partner on City Accelerator,] Citi Foundation, we actually talk [to each other].”

The engagement and authenticity in the partnership between Joann’s office and Living Cities has also impacted the ways that both of our organizations engage with other partners. “The power of collaboration that I learned through Living Cities has spilled over to local relationships,” she said. The signature initiative that’s come from Joann’s leadership is The 800 Initiative, which seeks to grow the ecosystem of businesses owned by people of color in Memphis. When getting it started, she reflected on what she learned about collaboration to “bring the right ingredients together,” resulting in a uniquely diverse set of cross-sector partners co-owning the initiative.

Further, Joann’s team has spearheaded transformation of the way people collaborate across departments of Memphis city government. The housing and community development offices now come together on a regular basis to ensure that their efforts focus on cultivating entrepreneurs and businesses in predominantly Black and people of color neighborhoods. This kind of cross-departmental collaboration with a focus on building Black wealth is very rare in local government. Joann attributes the possibility of it largely to two key factors: the trust that her team has been able to cultivate with a range of external and internal stakeholders, and a loosening of structures. “Strict structure isn’t the way of the world anymore, so allow for a more natural engagement. I think that would help people bond.” And the bonds are what make the deep engagement possible, which is what brings the work to life. As we design the Closing the Gaps Network, Living Cities is heeding Joann’s advice to cultivate trust with our stakeholders and advance authentic, relational approaches to closing racial gaps.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Racial Equity is a Marathon: Honoring Past Labor and the Work to Come

Across the country, we are seeing elected officials and career-long public servants rise to the challenges of COVID19 while centering the needs of their most vulnerable communities. Its important to reflect on their response and acknowledge the hard work that has happened pre-COVID to make an equitable response possible.

Mayors wasted little time in bringing attention to racial disparities of COVID-19’s impact on their community. In April, the 500 member African-Americans Mayors Association issued a letter to the President requesting race, ethnicity and supply chain data on testing and cases, PPE, and individuals losing company-sponsored health insurance due to job loss. In an interview with CNN, Philadelphia’s Mayor Kenney said, “Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.” The Mayor moved testing sites into Philadelphia’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods to do “everything we can do and shows like this hopefully will also impact people to understand that this is really serious, and we don’t want to lose you.”

“Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.”

Many mayors have been forming racial equity-focused taskforces. “In response to the shockingly disproportionate impact this disease has had on our communities, [Chicago’s] Racial Equity Rapid Response taskforce (RERRT) is working aggressively and in close collaboration with local leaders and partners to mount a public health response that addresses the specific and contextualized needs of our residents and families.” Mayor Lightfoot’s taskforce was first created to address the spike in cases among Chicago’s African American community. The taskforce is expanding their scope to address the surge of cases in Latinx neighborhoods with an equally potent response.

When Mayor Libby Schaff announced Oakland’s Racial Disparity Taskforce, she said in this news video “We must take this unprecedented pandemic to create an unprecedented justice for people of color and vulnerable residents.” Oakland’s taskforce is developing a COVID-19 Vulnerability Index measure to inform decisions. Meanwhile Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto has used a virtual bully pulpit to communicate his commitment to racial equity. This video is first in a series on COVID-19 and equity discussions with his staff. Recently, Pittsburgh’s council approved the creation of a racial equity taskforce.

[Similar Task Forces: Louisiana/Governor Edwards, Massachussetts, Greater Flint, Michigan and the state Michigan].

“People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are.”

Impressive as these commitments are, we must not forget to acknowledge that there are unelected leaders who have led many of our elected leaders to their current response. They are the career public servants who have been imagining what a racially equitable, just and prosperous society would look like, for the long haul. They are also the community organizers who have been trying to bring community needs and demands to the table for decades. “People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are,“ Christina Brooks, Chief Equity Officer of Fort Worth told us. Most equity officers have been working closely with community members who have proposed solutions in the past to racial disparities in health and economic opportunities.. They have also been working internally to train staff to apply a racial equity lens to decision-making and operations prior to Covid. Due to the work that was done prior to this crisis, public servants and their staff across the country are quickly discovering inequities in service delivery and are developing partnerships internally and externally to address them. In Minneapolis, the City has contracted with community health healers to support those who are “experiencing crisis and whose ability to receive in person help is either limited or not existent at this time.” The program manager for the City’s ReCAST Initiative noted in this Next City article that applicants who had been providing services to underserved communities “for a long time” were identified to receive the City’s Mental Health Fund which is focused on helping people of color, women, indigenous people, disabled people, and those who are undocumented. Other key partnerships across the country have also been with Chiefs of Staff who have been advising their mayors on operationalizing racial equity promises and championing strategies learned from their own teams and peers from around the country.

We have been learning from these policy and decision makers, sparkplugs, and programmatic staff as they respond to the pandemic and plan for an equitable recovery. They acknowledge that aspirations don’t become reality without a struggle and changes won’t happen overnight. Racial equity practice and promises are being tested as administrations around the country attempt to apply a racial equity lens to COVID-responses and recovery. Here are examples from three cities:

Through a partnership with the City of Austin’s Equity office, the Family Independence Initiative and 30 local community organizations, provided direct cash payments of $2000 to 1000 families. Recipients include undocumented residents who would not be covered by any other stimulus relief support.

San Antonio also created a Rapid Response Tool with a framework that encourages staff to “reach out to the City of San Antonio equity staff, the Community Health Workers, the organizers and activists who work with [BIPOC] communities daily, and pull them into decision making so that as we continue to make rapid-fire decisions, we know that critical voices are present in key roles.”

“Build Back Better Together: Now, Next, Beyond” plan is driven by the values of equity, compassion and trust. Metro Louisville is not only communicating with residents about what it is currently doing to help them and local businesses but they are soliciting input through a survey on what a complete and equitable economy looks like beyond the pandemic.

Covid-19 has opened a space for all of us to reimagine how to use our power and direct resources to directly affect the life or death of people of color. At Living Cities, we are using our convening and connective muscles to support public servants and their elected leaders who committed to closing racial income and wealth gaps: connecting them to one another, hosting conversations for them to consider centering race in their response to COVID, coaching them through challenging power dynamics, and sharing tools and resources developed by their peers, ourselves and our partners to support decisions they are making and programs they are implementing for an equitable recovery. This is the marathon we’ve been training for.

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COVID-19 Resources

The reality of COVID-19’s scope and impact is sinking in and in many ways is still unknown. At Living Cities, we are doing our best to hold the complexities that come with racial equity work, particularly in a time of global pandemic. While the realities and impacts of COVID19 continue to unfold, we are evolving to respond to this moment whose effects will inevitably be long-term.

This is a compilation of the resources we’ve been sharing around how public sector practitioners can embed racial equity in this moment, responses from our partners in the field and what local jurisdictions are doing to support Black and brown people in the midst of this crisis. We will continuously update this resource as we continue to release information.


Racial Equity is a Marathon: Honoring Past Labor and the Work to Come

Across the country, we are seeing elected officials and career-long public servants rise to the challenges of COVID19 while centering the needs of their most vulnerable communities. Its important to reflect on their response and acknowledge the hard work that has happened pre-COVID to make an equitable response possible.

Racially Equitable COVID19 Rapid Response from a Front-Line Public Servant

It is critical that the response to this pandemic be guided by an explicit racial equity lens in order to save lives and addresses the ways this crisis exposes the racial inequities in our system of health.

Disrupting Status Quo in COVID-19 Rapid Response

Delivering services, protecting residents and governing in the time of COVID-19 means local government has to become more nimble and human-centered, while making swift decisions based on ever-changing data about the impact of the virus in their communities. At Living Cities, we are hearing of the many ways that our colleagues and front-line responders are making sure equity is at the center of their response.

Ideas and Resources for How Cities Can Attack the COVID-19 Crisis

From Long Beach, CA, to Rochester, NY, we are hearing from local government colleagues about the how they are responding to COVID-19. Here’s what they’re telling us.

An Invitation to Center Race in Government Responses to COVID-19

The reality of COVID-19’s scope and impact is just beginning to sink in and in many ways is still unknown. At Living Cities, we are doing our best to hold the complexities that come with racial equity work, particularly in a time of global pandemic.


Covid-19, Difficult Truths and the Urgency of Closing Racial Gaps

The health crisis we’re experiencing is new and acute, but the crises of racial and economic justice that the virus has laid bare have long been brewing. The pandemic has exposed how the forces of structural racism and extreme economic inequality have shaped our country today, and illuminates the hard work that is needed to rebuild in ways that change that status quo.

How 18 of the Largest Foundations and Financial Institutions Are Responding to COVID-19

No one in this country–and few around the world–remain untouched by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like others, Living Cities and our members–18 prominent foundations and financial institutions working together to close racial gaps in income and wealth–have been seeking the best ways to respond to the public health crisis and resulting economic upheaval.

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Ending White Supremacy Culture: A Resource for Cultivating Abundance Mindset

Living Cities has learned that to do racial equity work with authenticity, we have to embrace a new way of working. It has to start with us, at the level of individual staff and project teams. As we set about creating a new network to advance anti-racist practices in local government, we are seeking to intentionally defy the norms set by white supremacy culture through our process. Through this post and a series of related resources, we are sharing the ways we are practicing antidotes to white supremacy culture so that we can continue to learn as we support your capacity to also design work in defiance of white supremacy culture. The first piece in this series can be found here: We’re All in this Together: Ending White Supremacy Culture Starts With Us.
The second piece can be found here: Ending White Supremacy Culture: A Resource for Reckoning with History.

The inequitable systems that we live under were designed by people, so it must be through the day-to-day choices and behaviors of people within the systems to change them. For us at Living Cities, this means practicing our anti-racist values. One of these values is working with an abundance mindset and an openness to possibilities. In the first co-design session we hosted with partners who are contributing to the design of the Closing the Gaps Network, we went through a collective process of imagining how resources could be redistributed in the future, and what work we would have to do to be equipped to influence the redistribution strategies. We hope this resource will allow readers to adapt our agenda to enhance your own ability to imagine abundant possibilities, particularly as you design new work or evolve existing work that seeks to close racial gaps in income and wealth. If wealth building is not the focus of your work, you can replace “Reparations Council” with a dream 10-year outcome in your field. We hope this resource will allow you to adapt our agenda to enhance your own ability to imagine abundant possibilities.


Purpose: The purpose of this exercise is to support an abundance mindset for thinking about our work by starting with the future we desire and building the roadmap to get there.

Timing: This agenda is designed to be about 1.5 hours, but can be adjusted based on the number of people and amount of time you have.

Grounding the Conversation: Prior to this imagination workshop, it is important to ground your meeting with a check-in that prepares the group to reflect on their personal and collective histories. We recommend you do this as an exercise for all such conversations. Check out this resource with the check-in we used to ground this exercise.

Start by breaking people into groups of 3-5.

Start with the Future: Invite the participants to imagine that it is 2030. The philanthropic community has decided to pool their $1 trillion of resources to give reparations to Black people in America. Your organization has been invited to join a Reparations Council that will decide how to disburse reparations.

Each group is being asked to write a pitch as part of the process to join the Reparations Council. In your pitch, tell the story of what you’ve done over the past 10 years (2020-2030) to make you eligible to create a reparations plan, as well as the story of what you want to do going forward.

[15 min] Groups develop their pitch

[3 min each] Groups make their pitch to each other about what they have done between 2020-2030 to make them eligible to join a Reparations Council.

What Had Happened Was…: Once pitches have been made, participants come together as a larger group, assuming they are the people who make up the Reparations Council.

[~20 min] Group discussion: Now we’re a council responsible for co-designing a reparations plan. Tell the story of how we learn to leverage our individual and collective power to make the following visions a reality by 2040:

  • A reparations plan is implemented
  • Our council is considered legendary
  • Our council has led to the normalization of deep partnership between communities of color and public sector
  • Our council has created leadership opportunities for community members to be active in government decision-making roles
  • Our council has sparked regional collaborations that are beginning to disburse reparations locally

Some questions to consider in the creation of this plan include:

  • How should we create norms in this council to prepare us for the next 10 years?
  • What activities should we do to prepare us for the next 10 years?
  • In 2040 once our plan is executed, how will America feel? What will we do with our powers then?

Dreams Become Reality: After you go through this activity together, give people space to process how it applies to their work today. If you knew a Reparations Council would exist in 2030 and you were preparing yourself for having the power to radically redistribute resources, would you change the way you’re working today? How might this exercise inform the ways you can make those changes and lean into the possibilities?

This resource is a template that you can adapt to your organizational needs. We hope that it helps you build your practice of defying white supremacy culture. If it does, or if you want to learn more about anything we’re sharing, let us know by emailing

Image by Favianna Rodriguez, from Just Seeds

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An Inside Organizer: Brian Smith

At Living Cities, we’ve been interrogating what it means to organize for racial equity and how we and others can leverage that strategy to close racial wealth and income gaps. Lucky for us, we have a wealth of folks in our network that we can learn from – like Brian Smith, Director of Performance & Innovation for the City of Minneapolis which serves as an in-house consulting team focused on helping city leaders drive bold innovation, change culture, and create an ongoing ability to tackle big problems and deliver better results for residents. In this role and broadly in his life, Brian has been able to leverage the power he holds as a public servant to help bridge information across communities in service of closing the gaps in racial disparities that he, his team and community are confronted with, daily.

We sat down with Brian to learn more about how he bridges his roles as a member within his community and as someone sitting within city government. We were proud of what Brian has been able to accomplish.

How would you describe yourself?

On any given day it could be different. I’m a father, big brother and uncle in the community and at work. I care about people. I think that care was developed in me because I was raised by a mother who was affiliated with the Black Panther Party and a step-father who was a Black Hebrew Israelite. I was raised to be this way; it’s in my DNA to be a servant to my community and to find a way to help people.

Would you consider yourself a community member, public servant or both? And Why?

I would say I’m both. There’s an inextricable link there. I don’t think I can be the public servant I want to be and need to be, without understanding what the needs and the desires are in the community and not just from afar. I have the same wants, needs and desires around justice and equity that the community that I live in and am from have. I wouldn’t be able to be an effective public servant without that understanding and experience.

As a child, I grew up poor and witnessed extreme violence regularly. My story is not very different from many of my brothers and sisters in my community. However, I recognized at a very young age that factors like colorism gave me different opportunities than those afforded to my own brothers and sisters. My mother, step-father and grandmother helped me understand that I had to fight for my liberation and that of my people regardless of the slight advantages that colorism afforded me then, and would also afford me later in life in some ways.

I was given access to opportunities to see how people were making an impact on different levels; whether it was big or small. That made me think, what can I do? After college I worked in several industries including the public sector. Across those different roles, I began to understand who got to shape how resources were being used and the policies that shaped people’s daily lives, that they weren’t even aware of. I quickly realized that it was not some great and powerful OZ that were dictating how our lives worked through policy and practice; instead , it was people like me but with different experiences and hue for the most part. I, then, wanted to be the person that made the rules, gathered resources and decided how those resources would get distributed. I wanted to get an opportunity to be able to shape things for the benefit of my people and other marginalized people in this country. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get into those spaces, learn enough about how they work and get as much as I can out of those spaces to improve the lives of the communities I love so much; before being found out and dismissed of course. (More about that inevitable consequence later perhaps.)

Talk to us a little bit more about what it has looked like to organize in your community.

Organizing has been my life. It’s taught me to apply pressure, not be afraid to push. It taught me behind the scenes making resource and policy moves. You have to be and do both to win. I’m not a person who believes that you change a system just by being in it. You need to be ready to take risks because if you just go along to get along, it’s not enough. I need to know about what the community wants, to know what needs to change. For the community to be successful, they must be armed with the norms that are written and unwritten. I equip the community with the tactics they need to push for the change they want.

I did a lot of work as a consultant around juvenile justice reform in my area. Within a 5-year period of working across the community, government system, and our county– were able to decrease the number of children in the juvenile detention system by 2/3. Over that time, we were able to put millions of dollars that were being used to hold children in detention centers, into community alternatives to have our own community members work with our kids, which created jobs and produced much better outcomes for our kids, families and communities.. I’m proud of this work that not only saves the system money that can be used in more equitable ways but also keeps our communities safer. Quick shout out to the Annie E. Casey Foundation for supporting and being at the forefront of this work nationally for well over 20 years.

How have you leveraged your activism/organizing to move policy?

My number one priority is always Black, brown, and native folks. Here in Minneapolis, Black, Brown, and Native folks suffer from disparate treatment and disproportionate outcomes in EVERY measurable quality of life measure that we can think of. Yet Minneapolis is also regarded as one of the best cities to live in and raise a family in the United States. Ponder that.

For anyone who takes offense to my priorities, you must understand that by improving the lives of the most marginalized, we improve the lives of everyone. Unfortunately, this is a difficult concept for many white people in any and every sector of our society to comprehend, because they’ve often been socialized to believe that “others” are only deserving of what they have in words but not practice. We’ve been doing work to get the city to take economic development more seriously, so that Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises (MBEs or WBEs) can have more access to help start, sustain and grow their businesses. We were able to develop a tech solution for city processes that were previously cumbersome and hard to get through. It was difficult for small businesses to do this process while simultaneously wearing the many hats required to run their business. In response, we helped to create a small business team which now has a team of 5 people dedicated to helping small business owners manage the city process. Now that we’ve established this small business team, we’ve been able to address some of the other concerns that we know this population of our city is concerned with.

We’ve also been able to expand access to capital which took about two years. We worked tirelessly to change policies related to how people in the community are able to access capital. The city had a program that offered 2% rate interest loans for small businesses, but to qualify, MBEs must first be able to qualify for a loan from a “traditional lender,” which we know is a barrier for many people. We couldn’t change the system in the city, so we, Jim Terrell and myself, decided to create our own financial institution Fortis Capital, to meet the needs of the community that we had worked with for so long and promised to help. I approached the Living Cities Blended Catalyst Fund about establishing a loan fund that could circumvent this barrier. The idea was conceived to blend public and private capacities for this purpose, and we even partnered with banks because by pushing funding through our loan fund as equity equivalent (EQ2) investors, it would fulfill investment and lending tests required to receive Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) tax credits. So now, we can act as traditional lenders and extend small business owners the loans they need, while also helping them qualify for the city’s 2% loan program which has been very hard to access for small business owners that are minorities.

What advice would you have for other public servants/community organizers in this work?

The following is a quote from the Great James Baldwin “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it”. Be a doer otherwise you have no right to call yourselves public servants or an organizer of any sort.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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