All in This Together: Ending White Supremacy Culture Starts With Us

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. The characteristics and antidotes to white supremacy culture are detailed in this resource from Tema Okun at Dismantling Racism, which readers are encouraged to review. Through this post and a series of resources that will follow, we will share the ways we are practicing Okun’s suggested antidotes to white supremacy culture so that we can continue to learn as we support our readers’ capacity to also design their work in defiance of white supremacy culture.

Image credit: @mosaiceye

Grounding our work with shared values and vision

When we kicked off our new team in Fall 2019, we took time to ground ourselves in shared values and a collective vision of what our work could look like. White supremacy culture values perfectionism, which then brings up a sense of urgency. To defy those norms, we took longer than usual to co-create our shared values and collective vision. This led to a feeling of commitment to our values across team members and helped us move away from this idea that there is only one one right way of getting to our collective vision.

Practice

Our team lead, Nadia Owusu, opened one of our first team meetings with space for each of us to write a haiku about what we thought our work could be. Team members’ haikus about the world we seek to create were combined to make our team’s vision statement:
“We acknowledge that, when it comes to racism and inequity, the past is present. We know that history is a story and that story needs to be retold and reinterpreted, not by a singular voice, but collectively. We need to see ourselves and each other more clearly. We need to repair harms. We need to heal. We need radical new ways of working together. We need to imagine, nurture, and grow an America in which all people and communities feel powerful, joyful, connected, and whole. We need a reckoning. Our team will support and learn from ten cities that are ready and willing to do this work. This, we will do in partnership with local governments, the communities they serve, and other visionary and committed institutions—public, private, and philanthropic.”

Creating a feedback culture and culture of accountability through norms and agreements

We know that defensiveness is a norm of white supremacy culture. To defy that, we want to make sure we create a culture of accountability in our team so that we don’t default to the fear of open conflict. Creating norms and agreements don’t automatically mean that we are now well equipped to deal with conflict, or that managing conflict gets easier. What it means is that we have an agreement that we can go back to when our team members’ behaviors are misaligned with our agreed-upon norms.

Practice

We started an early meeting by reading the poem “Aleph Pattern” by Joshua Sassoon Orol and reflected on what accountability in our team means for each of us. Then we asked the following questions: What are some agreements we want to make with each other? How can we practice our racial equity values in the way we work with each other? How do we increase our rigor in the face of pressure? What are some barriers to accountability and addressing conflict? How would you like to be called in?

Embracing a rigorous and emergent learning process where we make meaning on a regular basis

At Living Cities, we believe in emergent learning and we believe that we should make meaning on a regular basis. We shift our practices as we learn new things. To understand how these day-to-day shifts impact our work, we create time and space every month to reflect on them. The reflections and lessons learned from our “meaning making sessions” are used to inform changes and evolutions of our work. Before any decision making, we also use the racial equity impact assessment tool from Race Forward to ensure intentionality around the impact of our decisions.

Practice

Questions from Weaving a world without violence that we incorporate in our reflection processes include: In what ways do you do the work of oppression to yourself? How might you recognize and examine the habits that keep white supremacy in action? What internal shifts need to happen for those habits and the systems that perpetuate them to change?

Giving ourselves a full year to co-design the network with intention

For a long time, Living Cities was doing what many institutions like us do when partnering with other organizations. As we embark on this new network, we want to avoid power hoarding, individualism, paternalism while trying to also balance out a manufactured sense of urgency that tends to come up in white supremacy culture. We gave ourselves a full year to co-design the network with intention, and want to make sure that we start with building and deepening relationships across partners.

Practice

Because we want the network we’re building to be a shared effort with our partners, we have been hosting co-design sessions where three to four organizations come together to envision what the network should look like. Our first co-design session was hosted at a Black-owned community center where we could center our values and direct our resources to the organizers we seek to support. We also structured the agenda to create space for each individual to share their personal and organizational histories, helping us relate to each other as humans first and foremost. In our next piece, we will share a resource that can help our readers replicate this session.

Moving away from success/failure binary in thinking about our racial equity work by seeing racial equity as both a process and an outcome

We are reframing impact from quantitative results to qualitative, process-oriented outcomes, such as the depth of engagement of community organizers in the network co-design. This is helping us move away from either/or thinking that is normalized by white supremacy culture. As we move toward selection of cities to be part of our network, we are clear that no one city is “good” or “successful” at racial equity, but that impact will come from investing in the organizers both within and outside government who are pushing for greater accountability.

Practice

We have incorporated performance measures that force us to reflect back on ourselves, and whether we are building the competencies that we expect of our stakeholders. In our most recent “meaning making” session, it became clear to us that there is a cyclical process in our intention to learn from racial equity organizers within government, deepen our own anti-racist competencies, and model new behaviors for other public sector empoloyees who we are supporting to become racial equity organizers. Some of our new performance measures include:

  • Success-failure binary is interrupted among our team
  • Our team details and acknowledges our history with race
  • Our team works with communities of color to strengthen or create accountability mechanisms
  • Team members display increased capacity for imagination
  • Team members’ capacity & willingness for risk-taking and challenging status quo grow

Being clear when we’re making decisions and when we’re not making decisions

In order to move away from white supremacy culture’s paternalistic norms around decision-making, we have started a practice of naming when a decision is being made in meetings, and outlining all decisions made in a follow-up email for each meeting. This also helps us see that there is not only one right way, as white supremacy culture often suggests. Instead we can see through the intentionality we apply in our notes that many options are discussed before decisions are made, and through convergence we either get to one decision, or we name that we are not making a decision yet.

Practice

During and in conclusion to each meeting, we name and outline the decisions that were made. This is as simple as sending a list to all meeting participants after the meeting concludes. Each team member then has the option to reply to the email noting if they had a different understanding of what was said in the meeting, or they no longer agree with the decision. This rarely happens, but when it does, the extra time that we invest to go back to the decision is worth it because it strengthens a culture of trust and collaboration.

While we have been reminding ourselves of the “transformative power of practice” as we make efforts to defy white supremacy culture daily, we continue to lapse. We each resort to cultural norms when we’re exhausted or impatient, which happens even more as we navigate grief and isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, when we practice the antidotes to white supremacy culture, we get further. We feel more confident in our capacity to influence long-term systems transformation, knowing that it starts with our day-to-day behaviors as people and gatekeepers in our roles. We see glimmers of the world we’re trying to build.

We hope that the practices outlined here and the resources that will follow this post help you to build your practice of defying white supremacy culture. If they do, or if you want to learn more about anything we’re sharing, let us know by emailing racialequity@livingcities.org.

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Alone Together, in Community Resilience

The clapping starts at 8 p.m. every evening. Across the world now, from São Paulo to Amsterdam, residents of cities confined to their homes by anti-coronavirus self-isolation measures are assembling on balconies, at windows and in doorways to applaud the emergency service providers helping Covid-19 sufferers. Darkened streets that have most of the day been vacant and silent — emptied out by social distancing and lockdowns — alight with the glow from open drapes and fill with the sound of neighbors united in a common sound, if from a distance.

The health workers receiving the ovation deserve the appreciation — but the nightly applause isn’t just for them. It’s also a way for residents shut indoors to remind themselves that, just outside their doors, there is a whole community of people in the same situation. Many of those neighbors are ready to help out if they can.

The way people band together in response to disasters is a key factor in a community’s ability to recover. As resilience guru Michael Berkowitz told CityLab recently in defining urban resilience: “It includes good infrastructure that promotes mobility and sustainable transportation. It’s also cohesive communities where neighbors check in on neighbors.”

Weaving this kind of community safety net becomes even more challenging when the disaster involves mandated isolation from one another. But already, even in a crisis which for many is still best measured in weeks rather than months, communities are using agility and creativity to adapt community initiatives to a touch-free world.

On a larger scale, these efforts take the form of organized volunteer networks and mutual-aid groups that are mobilizing neighbors to help each other out with simple tasks that social isolation has made difficult, such as picking up medications, walking dogs, or just calling for a chat. Zoom out and you can see impressive systems forming, such as France’s 40,000-member volunteer website En Premiere Ligne (“In the Line of Fire”) or the more than 1,500 local mutual aid groups that have sprung up across the U.K.

But social solidarity doesn’t just take place on a national scale. It’s the sum of countless gestures that keep communities up and running, many of them small and homespun.

“It started as a joke,” Copenhagener Eszter Igaz says via email of her 15-home apartment building’s toilet paper pool. “The news reported shoppers hoarding toilet paper, so my boyfriend put a few rolls (unused!) on top of the post boxes at our building entrance, with a message saying ‘for the needy that deserve it.’” The first response from neighbors, already locked down for more than 15 days, was approving laughter. Since then, she says, there’s been some real exchange going on, with people stocking up the communal pile of rolls when they have some to spare, while others take them if they don’t want to leave the building and are running low. The residents have now expanded the scope of the exchange, passing an Xbox from home to home after a good wipe-down with hand sanitizer.

This kind of sharing — as much about morale as assistance — is happening on a street-by-street level too. In Berlin, neighbors have turned local fences into sharing centers where people hang items such as clothes and food in front of their homes for other people who might need them. The fences have also been used as message boards for homeless people, communicating which open shelters are thoroughly cleaned daily and have enough space to practice social distancing.

Safety pins secure items left out for the needy in Berlin. (Sarah Syed/Bloomberg)

In Taos, New Mexico, community groups have adapted an existing idea for no-touch food-sharing. They are using small portable food pantries placed on people’s front yards or sidewalks to leave food that can be removed and refilled by anyone in the community. It’s a style reminiscent of the Little Free Libraries, which later also spawned the similar Little Free Pantries.

“This allows both giving and receiving without contact,” said Mark Goldman, the chair of the construction technology department at the University of New Mexico, Taos. The initial pantries were a collaboration between local organizations including Habitat for Humanity of Taos, Immigrant Allies, and Las Cumbres Community Services. Since social distancing began, Goldman got involved, adapting the boxes so they sit on more stable bases, supported by sandbags or other weights as in the blueprint below drawn by Goldman. He said the first box was emptied and then restocked again on the day it was set out.

(Mark Goldman)

“We are a poor working-class community with a hip, affluent ski area,” Goldman said. “This food pantry is a way to link all of us in this together as a community.”

In addition to supports from physical communities, there are countless online communities bound by shared identities. In New York City, choreographer Yin Yue has been using video to reach out to a group of people who might find being stuck at home especially challenging: dancers. Yue has launched a dance class project called Solo Together from her kitchen, intended for dancers trying to make things work in cramped apartment spaces. “It’s definitely in one spot, you allow yourself just two to three steps out of your center.” she says. “If you choose, say, your living room and move the coffee table if you have one, then you have enough space.”

Dancing together in our time of social distancing. . . In response to the continued spread of COVID-19, YYDC YY Dance Company wishes to stay connected with members of our global dance community who may be in isolation and practicing “social distancing” to combat the spread of the virus. Join me on YYDCINC instagram IGTV where I will choreograph and teach the movement for a solo dance that we can all learn together as a community. . Once we have completed the solo together, please feel free to record your performance and share on your social media and tag @yydcinc and @theyinyue, so we can see and share your work with our community. I hope this project will play a small part in fostering the connectedness and engagement that we all need at this time. #Solotogether

A post shared by YY Dance Company (@yydcinc) on

In Berlin, another online effort is aimed at the clubbing crowd. The city’s clubs have been shuttered for several weeks (and have since been pinpointed as hotspots for coronavirus’s spread), but a new online effort is maintaining a 48-hour live DJ marathon over the weekends. Called Club Quarantaene, the livestream simulates the Berlin club experience, down to waiting in line briefly to enter, and answering a doorman’s questions before being allowed in. Separated into four club-like spaces — the “toilet” is a place for users to hang out and chat — each space connects to donation links that help users provide financial support for organizations helping furloughed, income-less club workers, refugees and other groups in need.  

Although people are stuck in their homes during coronavirus, the lockdowns haven’t stopped politics. And people wanting to protest government actions are using new communitarian ways to express that frustration in a period when street demonstration are impossible.

When news came out in Spain this month that the country’s royal family was embroiled in yet another corruption scandal, it was the sort of news that would normally have brought people protesting into the streets. With the streets unsafe due to the risk of infection, people had to ask themselves: What happens to public life when the public space it takes place in is off-limits? Spaniards took collectively to their balconies for a cacerolada — a noisy protest where everybody bashes a saucepan in unison. One website even provided a downloadable saucepan-beating sound to play out the window, for those afraid of damaging their saucepans. This video comes from last Monday in the northwestern city of A Coruña.

While the demonstration may not have quite as positive a message as residents applauding emergency workers, the effort had a similar effect: Creating on city streets a distinctly unified sight — and sound — that would not have occurred if people weren’t stuck inside their homes.

With reporting from Marie Patino in London and Sarah Syed in Berlin.

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