Building the Field: Reflections on Undoing Racism

Building the Field: Reflections on Undoing Racism

We cannot address racial disparities without being clear about the historical, social and political meaning of race in America. As part of our internal racial equity work, Living Cities has asked all of our staff to attend racial equity trainings that connect these strands together in understanding our individual roles (personally, institutionally and structurally) in relation to the current system of racial inequities. We believe that having a shared language and analysis of racism is a key step for us as an organization to get clear on how we might best contribute to undoing it.

One of these workshops is the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) Undoing Racism workshop, which utilizes a systemic approach that is grounded in the following anti-racist principles: learning from history, developing leadership, maintaining accountability to communities, creating networks, undoing internalized racial oppression, and understanding the role of organizational gate-keeping as a mechanism for perpetuating racism.

We believe that having a shared language and analysis of racism is a key step for us as an organization to get clear on how we might best contribute to undoing it.

We also know that we cannot do this work alone. As we collectively build towards anti-racist philanthropic and public sectors, we also have to work to undo and dismantle the ways that our institutions have been complicit. Living Cities doesn’t have all the answers but we are committed to work together alongside our partners and network. Seeing how transformative the workshop has been for our staff, we reached out to our partners to see if they would co-host Undoing Racism workshops with us. From August 2018 to May 2019, we co-hosted five Undoing Racism workshops with the City of Austin Equity Office, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Collective Impact Forum, and the Ford Foundation. Over these months, we were in community with around 200 people across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors who are building anti-racism competencies.

We know we can’t train ourselves out of racial inequities, so we want to be clear that committing to this workshop should not be a one-off event. This workshop is one strategy in our work to build the capacity of the field to tackle racial inequities, and we believe coming together and strategizing next steps after each workshop is critical. We picked up some lessons learned along the way:

Trust the process. And discomfort is part of the process.

There is no agenda sent out in advance for this two and a half day Undoing Racism workshop. We are so used to the white institutional culture ways of having set agenda and times that not having one might make one feel unsettled. The number of emails we’ve gotten asking for an agenda before the workshop demonstrates how entrenched white institutional culture can be in our institutions. The Undoing Racism workshop asks you to trust the process and to just be in community with each other, and recognize that discomfort is part of the process. Racism doesn’t just create injustice, it creates a pathology of seeing whiteness as superior, which expresses itself in an active process of dehumanization of all people. By the end of the workshop, we often hear from attendees on how glad they were to trust the process even in moments that they felt stuck, and how much of the workshop is centered towards humanity because of the practice of deep listening, candor and vulnerability.

“The power – and necessity – of slowing down, that this work (and most) can’t be rushed. That we’re all at different places of our “growing edge” of all things, understanding race, racism, and ways to undo it, included. And that there’s a need to collaborate and “not do it alone” in our organizations, communities, lives. And that it sometimes will feel like being stuck, or disconnected, or anywhere along the grief cycle.” – Undoing Racism workshop attendee

We can’t train our way out of racism, but it’s a start for building shared analysis

We get this question a lot: which is the best anti-racist training? For us, a training is a start, and no one training will be able to get to all of what your institution needs. Trainings are a way for people to get a shared language and experience, and follow up is as important as setting up trainings. We recognize how transformational this workshop was for attendees that attended with other people from their organization. Having a shared experience and building a collective analysis is so key towards anti-racist organizing in institutions and we encourage attendees who came as a group to debrief and create a plan of action for their institution. For folks who came individually, we made a point to have a check-in call after to debrief.

Organizing is a key component to create institutional transformation

A key framework from the Undoing Racism workshop is around the idea of all of us being tasked to become anti-racist organizers in our institutions and in our lives. It underscores the fact that even if we have the knowledge and we are building racial equity competencies, if we’re not actively organizing, we are upholding the current structures of inequities. It is with this lens we look at our work alongside our partner institutions.

“It enabled me to reflect more on how nonprofits benefit from the state of the communities they claim to help, and how I even as a black person can become complicit as a gatekeeper when I fail to speak up and try to change things.” – Undoing Racism attendee

Accountability means that we need to have community in the room

Undoing Racism workshops require that we have community members in the room. City of Austin, who has been running monthly Undoing Racism workshops for the last two years, makes sure that half the room is comprised of community members. For many organizations like Living Cities that serve as an intermediary, it might feel like we are a few levels removed from communities on the ground. However, we need to reflect on why our institution and structures are set up that way. Building an anti-racist analysis along with community is a step towards building accountability mechanism for our anti-racist work. It will be the community who can call us out when we’re not doing the things we had committed to do. Any time we host an Undoing Racism workshop, we make sure that we are doing outreach beyond our partners and we ask our co-hosts to also ensure that community members are present.

Follow up has to be rooted in accountability

Now that we have a cadre of committed partners who have begun building their racial equity competencies with us, many of them are looking to go deeper. One of PISAB’s anti-racist principles is ensuring that we have networks of anti-racist organizers to sustain hope and overcome isolation. As such, we have been strategizing on how to sustain this network of committed racial equity spark plugs to build relationships to foster a culture of accountability to racial equity and inclusion work, and deepen our shared analysis to equip us for action in our organizations and communities.

In June 2019, we brought together folks from across the five workshops, and together we reflected on the following questions:

  • Since attending the workshop, how have you looked at your role as an organizer?
  • How have you thought of yourself in the context of a broader anti-racist movement?
  • What are some tangible changes you’ve made in terms of your own behavior or in your institution’s policy and culture?
  • What are some different risks that are showing up? Where are you feeling discomfort?
  • How are you thinking about accountability differently?
  • How does anti-racist analysis sit in your day-to-day work and life?

Throughout the day, we used storytelling and healing circles, culture sharing, healing space, music and dance as our practice to continue to center humanity.

If you’ve attended an Undoing Racism workshop either as an individual or as part of your team/organization, we would love to hear your answer to the questions above! Email us at racialequity@livingcities.org


More on the Undoing Racism Workshop: The fabric of racism is inextricably woven and constructed into the founding principles of the United States. Racism was done and it can be undone through effective anti-racist organizing with, and in accountability to the communities most impacted by racism. The People’s Institute believes that effective community and institutional change happens when those who serve as agents of transformation understand the foundations of race and racism and how they continually function as a barrier to community self-determination and self-sufficiency.

This nation has always reflected rich diversity from the innumerable multitude of indigenous cultures that inhabited and sustained this land prior to arrival of European explorers to our present composition. Yet, unequivocally, whites continue to fare significantly better than all people of color. In our workshops, we analyze power and how it is used to maintain this racial divide, in hopes of achieving equity and equality across all cultures and races.

Visit The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Website to continue learning about their work.

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