Julie Nelson of the Seattle Office for Civil Rightsd
In Minnesota we talk a lot (a lot!) about the racial equity gaps in education, the workforce, health and other measures of well-being. But talking is not enough. When will we take intentional, strategic actions to address the institutional and structural racism at the root of these problems?
At a convening last week entitled “Cross-Sector Learning on Racial Equity,” Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, and Glenn Harris, manager of the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative, offered a well-defined path to action.
Speaking to representatives of philanthropy, the nonprofit sector and local government, they challenged Minnesotans to move beyond simply designing and funding programs. Instead, they advocated shifting focus from program development to changing policies and creating productive partnerships.
For example, to solve the day care crisis, a city can create a program of childcare vouchers, but there will never be enough money for enough vouchers. Instead, a universal child care policy can be created that relies on a partnership between government, businesses, child care providers, parents and other community members committed to quality care.
Systematic and Systemic Institutional Change
Fundamental to policy change is systems change. Maintaining current institutional cultures and practices will lead to the same outcomes, said Harris and Nelson. To “interrupt the process that generates the same thinking over and over again,” they introduced Seattle’s Racial Equity Toolkit.
Use of the toolkit begins with a six-step analysis:
- Set outcomes
- Involve stakeholders (be inclusive!) and analyze data
- Determine benefit and/or burden
- Advance opportunity or minimize harm
- Evaluate, raise racial awareness, and be accountable
- Report back (the work is iterative!)
Nelson and Harris reported that the toolkit process is used in the development and implementation of every city policy, program and budget in Seattle. They cited concrete examples of resulting equity improvements. And they reported that by using a “big squeeze” strategy – top officials pushing for change from above and community members pushing up from the grassroots – they’ve achieved record levels of city government employee engagement.
Bringing All Parties to the Table
Harris and Nelson also emphasized that achieving organizational and community equity requires “a multi-layered collaborative approach for a collective impact.” To change the conversation and achieve progress, efforts to build racial equity into city policies and initiatives must be married with partnerships with other institutions and the community.
In forming these partnerships, it’s essential to create space for productive conversations about race. This includes, said Nelson, “working with white people to understand white privilege and increase understanding of racism’s impact on all of us.”
Is this possible in the Twin Cities? The visitors from Seattle expressed their confidence that Minneapolis and St. Paul are poised for a breakthrough. They encouraged philanthropists to serve as conveners and to not be discouraged if some people initially walk away. By being intentional and strategic, the core group can attract more than enough people to fill those empty seats, creating momentum and progress that cannot be turned back.
The Minnesota attendees relished the encouragement for action. They recognized the need for rigorously applying a racial equity lens to every aspect of their work. Representatives of Greater Twin Cities United Way and MCF, the convening’s hosts, pledged to continue the conversation. We’ll report back on the outcomes.
- Wendy Wehr, MCF vice president of communications and information services