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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How Blockchain Provides the Missing Links in Climate Action

The blockchain could be the missing link that brings consumers, businesses, and investors together on climate change. Built for peer to peer collaboration around shared, yet immutable ledgers, it lets us account for carbon emissions and transfer verifiable climate action through the supply chain.

Blockchain allows calculated emissions from each business to be tokenized and passed through to its supply chain partners to use in their emissions calculations. For example, a token could be issued based on the dollar amount, unit quantity, or volume of the company’s products. This would allow emissions calculations to be passed through the supply chain, so that the effects of a company’s emissions reductions and climate actions would be transparent.

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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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Heat Action Planning is Tackling Urban Heat at the Hyper-Local Level

A participatory heat action planning process, Nature’s Cooling Systems, identified urban heat mitigation and adaptation strategies that focus specifically at the neighborhood scale. The framework is called the NCS Heat Action Planning Guide. The core team, consisting of The Nature Conservancy, Arizona State University, and Maricopa County Department of Health, selected three heat vulnerable communities based upon heat intensity, strong community identity, health risk factors, the presence of development projects planned or underway, and other factors. The three neighborhoods involved in heat action planning are Edison-Eastlake and Lindo-Roesley in Phoenix, and the Mesa Care neighborhood in Mesa.

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Power of Collective Action

At Living Cities, we believe collective action is the framework through which we can achieve change at a systems level. Most recently, we decided to approach narrative change through a collective action framework with the belief that it will help us shift consciousness and values to match those of racial equity and inclusion (REI).

We have been working over the last year and a half to build a cross-sector collective action infrastructure with members and partners in the field to help push forth new narratives that center racial equity. A key theme in our work over the last year and a half with our Narrative Change Working Group has been the power that collective action holds and the ways in which that power grants us the possibility of creating large-scale change.

The power in collective action is the agency it gives to those who are at the table. In our own experiences, we’ve seen people use their roles to truly make a case for the work they’ve been charged with as members of a Living Cities working group. Participation in working groups like the Narrative Change Working Group has shown members the value in diversity of thought.

While it can be daunting to be surrounded by so many powerful peers, the learning and growth that takes place in these settings are priceless. They have allowed members of our working group to show up and lead with authenticity and engage in racial-equity focused conversations that aren’t usually had in their 9-to-5 jobs. Although it shouldn’t be, discussing race and equity at any company is risky. Being at a table where everyone is committed to embedding equity into all operations is empowering and equips those present with the courage necessary to effectively create change.

We each have the power to use our roles, both as people and professionals, to advance REI in a number of ways. Acknowledging the skills and power a group holds is necessary to truly understand how to best harness those skills and power for the goal of the collective. Some ways in which skills and power manifest and can be used to move work forward are:

Personal passion and leveraging identity: As we’ve learned, the personal is professional. This is especially true for collective action work. Each working group member approaches collective action work from a different perspective based on lived experience. Acknowledging the differences in those perspectives is just as important to the work as the differences in our professional roles. It’s also critical to have people in this work who are passionate. For some, that passion stems from a personal stake in the success of the work. For people of color specifically, REI work embedded in collective action feels that much more critical and essential. And it is critical to the work to have white people around the table who are equipped to use their power to educate and help other white people along their own journey. This leads us toward a better more equitable whole committed to social impact and change.

Influence based on role: In our experiences, we’ve seen members use their roles to influence their institutions and thus influence broader systems. Influencing through your role can look different depending on where you sit and what power you hold. Some use their role to influence culture internally, using lessons from external contexts to change the systems they are in. Some members are asking the investors they work with about the role of REI in their work; this tactic puts the onus on the investor to assess the ways in which REI shows up for them. Others who are in leadership positions can use their power to put REI spark plugs (anybody who fiercely advocates for racial equity in the workplace) into leadership positions. Actions like these may seem simple but are transformational steps that many aren’t willing to take due to the associated risks.

Cross-sector insights and dot-connecting: The ability to glean insights and make connections across sectors is also a powerful tool in this work and can break down silos. The ability to convene powerful people to pursue a common goal and further connect dots is critical to this work. Collectively, we are thinking about how to push past tendencies that reinforce barriers and discourage risk-taking. This work requires us to organize as a collective with different areas of expertise and perspectives; otherwise, we won’t see progress.

It can be hard work to materialize the potential of collective action, but our working group members have learned to suspend disbelief. Collective action is as good as the action that each individual in the collective manifests. The power in the collective is that together, the group works through office and company politics that dictate how far they can push on certain issues, where and when they can push on them, and with whom. As you navigate these nuances, there’s a collective action table behind you, guiding you, supporting you, and sharing tips and tricks from their own experiences in navigating these risks to push this work forward.

In the process of pursuing collective action, you’re combining the collective competencies of your group; that is what equips you to solve the issues you’re tackling. Often, especially with work that relates to social change, the goals and process can feel ambiguous. The key is to be comfortable with the idea of falling and failing, with the intention of always growing into a better collective. A clear understanding of the challenge is always necessary and present but the plan to get to the end goal isn’t always clear. It is incredibly important to be open to what the work could be. This work requires that we imagine new possibilities and new realities different from our own because what we need and require does not yet exist – we need to create it, together.

All inputs, insights and lessons were gathered directly from Living Cities’ Narrative Change Working Group Members

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Decolonizing Lunch Part II: Putting Our Values into Action

Read Part I of our decolonizing lunch series.

Living Cities’ New York City and Washington, DC offices are both located in busy, downtown metropolitan neighborhoods where restaurant chains like Pret-a-Manger abound. These chain restaurants have the infrastructure and technology to facilitate easy ordering and delivery, and serve the many office buildings around them with so-called typical American fare. Customer service is consistent, delivery is generally punctual, and our staff members tend to be familiar with the dishes served.

Over the last year, we started looking for real-time opportunities to better align internally with our programmatic focus by supporting businesses owned by people of color. Staff members across the organization who were charged with securing lunch for various meetings and events began researching POC-owned restaurants and caterers.

We soon realized that perhaps the biggest challenge to diversifying our pool of food vendors would actually be finding restaurant owners and caterers of color. Google searches like “Black-owned restaurants nearby” yielded very limited results, so we tried work-arounds like “soul food” instead—working under the assumption that certain types of restaurants were more likely to be owned by POC. At times, we would call restaurants directly to inquire if the owner was a person of color, although asking, “Is this a Black-owned restaurant?” can be a bit awkward. Sometimes the person answering the phone did not even know the owner, let alone the owner’s race and ethnicity.

These encounters led to even more questions: What do we mean by vendors of color? African-American? Chinese? Dominican? Does Italian count? Do we only want to support businesses owned by POC, or is it enough that a restaurant employs POC? What if there are two owners, and one is a POC and the other is white? Is POC even the right term to be using?!

Suffice it to say, shifting away from white institutional norms in even the simplest ways, like ordering food, was harder and required more additional labor than we expected. When Google didn’t yield enough results, I reached out to personal networks outside of work, and requested recommendations from staff and external partners. I searched hashtags like #blackcatering on Instagram, and slowly but surely began to get disciplined about doing the extra work required to consistently do business with caterers of color.

But the work didn’t end there! Before we began this shift, I tended to use apps and online services like GrubHub and UberEats to place orders, which made the transaction extremely convenient. I was able to secure food within 24 hours or less and even track the order. However, most POC caterers that I found independently are not listed on these apps, and there was no easy service to facilitate ordering and delivery. Efficiency was a challenge because oftentimes a single person, usually the owner of the company, had to buy, cook, deliver a farther distance, and manage payment for every order.

Staff also had to become accustomed to some changes. In many cases, meals were no longer individualized, but instead buffet-style. Several caterers specialized in vegan/gluten-free dishes, so those became the bulk of some of our lunches, rather than a side dish. Meat-eaters expanded their palates to incorporate vegetarian options. We shifted away from eating traditional American food like sandwiches and salads regularly, in exchange for an expanded menu of different flavors that represented multiple cultures and dietary needs.

Part of my job success depends on the flawless execution of events, including catering. The first time a vendor of color showed up 30 minutes late, or a staff member complained that the food was too spicy, I was inclined to default to the easier methods of securing lunch using the usual methods. Luckily, I was already learning that shifting away from white institutional norms requires innovation and intentional effort.

In order to shift the lunch ordering ‘system,’ I had to expand my approach and accept some growing pains. Supporting vendors of color may include not only extra time to locate them and procure their services– placing orders further in advance—but also better quality communication, and most importantly the compassion to allow for hiccups. As we move from the transactional to the transformational relationships needed to move equity work forward, I chose to work to understand challenges POC caterers face, and sometimes offer vendors a second opportunity to make the best impression. Since applying this approach, I have been met with customer service that is full of care, humanity and excellence. The food vendors of color who we have developed relationships with over the last year always go the extra mile to make sure all our needs are met!

Now, staff members look forward to learning each month about the people and companies behind our food, and tasting something new! Personally, as a gatekeeper of organizational dollars, I feel satisfaction knowing I am doing my part to support the creation of jobs, income and wealth for people of color, in line with our organizational mission.

For your convenience, some of my colleagues have compiled a list of tried and true caterers and restaurants owned or operated by people of color. The bulk of them are in NYC and Washington, DC, with a few added options in cities where we have worked. Next time you have a company event, we hope this resource can be useful for you.

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