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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:
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:
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:
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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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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We have been working to open source social change for about a decade now, and one framework continues to be foundational to how we share our lessons in real time: the Emergent Learning approach. Emergent Learning is a framework for on-going, rigorous learning about complicated and complex challenges. The framework was introduced to Living Cities through our work with 4QP, which pioneered the approach. The framework is best represented through one of the tools in the approach, called an “Emergent Learning Table.”
The Emergent Learning Table, like the overall framework itself, uses a big-picture framing question to guide a facilitated conversation about lessons learned and performance. (A framing question could be something like: “What does it take to accelerate change in cities through supporting public sector practitioners?”) The conversation moves from a discussion of what has happened in the past (data and stories), to what we can learn from the past (insights), to what those learnings mean for the future (hypotheses), to what we can do about these learnings to improve our work (opportunities). Going through this process can help make sense of complex happenings and distill the lessons down to core ideas that can directly improve our operations and lead to results.
Four years into this process, I’ve seen the evolution
of the lessons learned from past work that are being built
into our current portfolio. Our learning process is not
separate from our racial equity practice, in fact it
supports our accountability practice.”
Emergent Learning is particularly useful for organizations working on systems changes or with cross-sector collaboration. Because systems change and cross-sector work is inherently complicated or complex, and involves multiple partners, it’s hard to understand or “make meaning” of what is happening in the work.
“Not only does [Emergent Learning] make my thought process richer and help me get deeper in my own analysis,” said my colleague, Alyssa Smaldino, Senior Associate, “it also strengthens my understanding of my colleagues’ reflections and experiences, improving our ability to collaborate.”
For example, we saw that community engagement was a consistent challenge across cross-sector collaborations involved with our Integration Initiative. By using the principles of Emergent Learning, we were able to distill the data and stories from what our partners were learning into core concepts that help others work with community members more effectively.
How we’ve operationalized Emergent Learning at Living Cities
The folks at 4QP have several different tools to help you implement Emergent Learning in your operations. We have adapted the framework and applied it to our work in several different ways:
Practice Emergent Learning at regular checkpoints: One of the early criticisms that we heard from staff about the Emergent Learning framework was that it took up a lot of time. For some facilitated Emergent Learning conversations, we used up the whole workday–sometimes two! In certain cases, spending this time on learning is warranted and necessary, such as at the end of a program or at the beginning of a fiscal year. But spending that amount of time quarterly or even every-other month is not recommended. Instead, we developed a stripped-down version of the Emergent Learning framework that a small subset of staff walk through each month. This way, key staff understand the most important lessons learned as we go, and they can apply these lessons directly to their work as needed. We save the bigger, time-intensive conversations for things like annual retreats.
Track learnings through standardized templates: One big challenge we had through implementing Emergent Learning is regularly tracking and recording our learnings. Teams did this in different ways–everything from compiling meeting notes to doing regular blog posts on major lessons learned. We developed a standard Excel spreadsheet that consolidates the major items we want to track over time–insights, specific stories of impact, important learning questions, and performance measures. This allows information to be standardized across teams and to be included in a central location.
Apply the rigor of Emergent Learning both internally and externally: Emergent Learning was first brought to Living Cities as a way to make sense out of what we were learning in our work in cities across the country. But we realized that this level of rigorous learning was important to apply to our internal processes as well. We asked questions about how we were operationalizing racial equity within the organization, which led to several major insights and resources that we’ve been able to share with others looking to do similar work.
As my colleague, Hafizah Omar, Senior Associate, said, “Four years into this process, I’ve seen the evolution of the lessons learned from past work that are being built into our current portfolio. Our learning process is not separate from our racial equity practice, in fact it supports our accountability practice.”
- Integrate Emergent Learning with racial equity practices: Emergent Learning is a tool we have used on our racial equity journey. While it was not developed as a tool for racial equity organizing, there are many elements of the Emergent Learning framework that are useful for racially equitable decision making. An Emergent Learning conversation encourages the sharing and validation of all perspectives, which helps cut against traditional white institutional culture that prioritizes hierarchy and technical expertise. Emergent Learning also centers work around big-picture questions, rather than metrics or benchmarks, creating a more nuanced and more human understanding of issues. Emergent Learning allows for “lived experience” to sit alongside quantitative data in equal measure.
“[W]e leverage our learning process to… identify the ways in which we, a white-led organization, continue to share our anti-racist journey publicly, while deepening accountability to Black and brown people in the places we serve,” said my colleague Santiago Carrillo, Senior Associate.
In our next blog reflecting on our internal learning and results work, we’ll be discussing how we use our performance management process to translate the information we collect into usable, actionable data points.
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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?
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At Connect the Dots, it is our mission to build better cities, towns, and neighborhoods through inclusive, insight-driven stakeholder engagement. We help community, private, and public sector partners to develop creative solutions that move projects and cities forward. Engagement is at the heart of this pursuit, which is why we are sharing our practices with you.
When you decide to take your engagement activities online, we encourage using tools that are functional on a wide range of devices including basic smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. We have also developed remote but non-virtual options to bridge the digital divide.
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