Reflections on Leading Racial Equity Work in Collective Impact

OneCranston’s story has many similarities to the stories of those leading racial equity and inclusion work in many cities and institutions throughout our country. As we read and hear about more and more institutions each day talking about race and our racial inequities, we are left with a difficult, personal question: “What is my role, and how much impact can I truly have?” The Pew Research Center’s Race in America 2019, found that the “public has negative views of the country’s racial progress.”

Through their public sector racial equity work, Living Cities has named people like us “Spark Plugs,” people who are fierce advocates of racial equity and constantly building internal capacity to normalize, organize and operationalize racial equity work. This definition resonates and more. We want to create a world different from what we have experienced, and to be part of the process of defining, creating and experiencing that new world, that new community…this OneCranston, in our case.

Reflecting on our achievements over the last year, there are a few key lessons and supportive resources that allowed us to get to where we are now.

Talking About Race Requires Common Language and History

When OneCranston formed, some were scared to talk about race while others were ready for it. To truly struggle through a common understanding of the systems we were up against and the change we were working toward, we began with the Racial Equity Workshop Phase 1, Foundations in Historical and Institutional Racism.

Through this workshop and others, the group–as individuals and as a collective—moved away from the saviorism perspective held by many white folks and those working in philanthropy and nonprofits. At the same time, we had to manage for collaborative members who held more cynicism, or came to this work with fear of the unknown. While managing for the different perspectives, one thing held true: we were not to move away from centering racial equity.

Other organizations have found the following workshops in bringing people together around a common language and understanding of American history in order to center racial equity:

Start with People and Build Trust

We must start with ourselves, our colleagues, and our partners. By starting with people, we ground this work in re-humanizing systems.

During our first year, I had to overcome the great personal challenge of being scapegoated by collaborative members who—because of where they were in their personal journey on racial equity—were not yet ready to face their own internal biases. Those first months were extremely difficult. People of color around the table cringed at the language being used to describe our work.

As a Black woman there is great risk in this work for me. At the same time, I found that by being vulnerable, honest and raw about who I am as a whole person, rather than simply the Initiative Director, I could model the behavior expected of others coming into this collaborative.

Balancing the risk and goals you envision for the group is critical to keep yourself safe professionally when pushing around racial equity and inclusion. Identifying allies within the collaborative also allowed me to know when to be more risky in my vulnerability, and who I could turn to for support when the daily emotional labor of racial equity work was weighing too heavily on my heart and body.

To ground us in people and create spaces for people to bring their own whole selves to this work, we had success introducing art, culture and creating conversations where people could be vulnerable.

There Will Be Loss. Approach Loss With Love.

This work is about changing how we do almost everything, professionally and personally, as whole people. Change is usually experienced as loss and we must approach that loss with Love.

When we began, we were functioning within a white institutional culture, and there was a sense of urgency established by the people within the collaborative. The collaborative felt it necessary to quickly build “programs,” because this is how we knew to work. This urgency led to the establishment of the Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI), a program created to help equip community members to execute community projects. In rushing to execute, we did not establish the trust necessary with staff and community, and in a short time the program fell apart.

This was a loss we experienced as people and as OneCranston. Our team grew smaller in this process because of the personal loss people experienced; whether that be not living our values of racial equity, or the change that they were not ready to fully embrace. But approaching this loss with Love, a focus on people and healing, allowed for the personal healing necessary for us to return to the work.

Some practices that we have found helpful in building a practice amongst groups include:

Divide & Conquer to Mobilize Together

As collaboratives of people and organizations we each bring different strengths to create a whole. To build on each other’s strengths, there will be times where it is important to divide and conquer.

As OneCranston we divided into four areas of interest that would move the work:

  • Community Building which provided grants to community members for purpose driven community building activities
  • Face and Places which celebrates successful people of color in the community
  • Jobs and Post-secondary which connects the community to local jobs
  • Youth Opportunity which connects students to opportunity.

Through dividing into smaller groups, we could transfer power to community members more easily, establishing community builder mini-grants for residents who had ideas on how to beautify the community. Residents inspired by our efforts even changed their own career focuses to align with our mission. We were able to revisit the Parent Leader Institute Group and it became a successful credit-bearing program with a strong group of 8 parent-resident graduates implementing change in our school system.

Our greatest success was the change we experienced in people’s competencies and comfort in speaking about race. The Cranston Public Library, who’d once been afraid to even name race—just wrote a grant to bring racial equity training to the leadership level and community. The library hosted events centering racial justice using the book “The Hate U Give.” The Faces and Places group built out a framework around Racial Equity to support the leadership within the community.

As we were implementing our work on Faces & Places, we had to pause and acknowledge that even in simple things such as when we name a program or project, we avoid naming race. This behavior is for the comfort of white people around the table and within the community at large who hold power. This is a part of the journey and process. Reflecting on this 3 years later, one white partner in the work, Annette, is thinking about how we support our white colleagues to be forceful in naming race, racial equity, racism and taking personal actions that support making the systems more equitable, standing as co-conspirators and allies.

Community members are connecting, using their collective power to create change and the tools we provide to create transformation. It’s been inspiring to see people who are willing to talk about issues of racial equity at all. We are learning more and more about the ways that individual power can be applied.

This is a Journey We Will Always Be On

The grant we were given by the Boston Federal Reserve forced an unfamiliar dynamic to our work. This first year was a learning process, defining partnership roles and responsibilities. We have all committed to focus on race and socioeconomic mobility; but we need to continue to explore how we must use our roles to create the change we are dedicated to.

To assess where we are is to create a vision for where we want to go. As Initiative Director, my vision for the future is for the group to learn about where we are as leaders of our community through a racial and social equity assessment and build an actionable plan to move forward as people and a collective on our journeys.

Tools like GARE’s assist in assessing how we involve community and let collaborative leadership play out. I also envision an emerging governance structure that will allow for this to happen. OneCranston’s leadership table will grow because the assessment should help determine who is needed for the work.

We are continuing to learn on this journey. We hope that you will share your story and experience. What resources, tools and practices have you tested in your community and among your collaborative that we can try?


Additional insights, support and input from: Dr. Taino Palermo, Resident at Roger Williams University College, and Joanne McGunagle, President & CEO of Comprehensive Community Action Program. And, Joanna Carrasco, Coordinator; Megan McGlinchey, Associate; and Hafizah Omar and Shanee Helfer, Senior Associates at Living Cities.

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