Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Centering Arts, Culture, and Healing

Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Centering Arts, Culture, and Healing

This series highlights the twelve themes we uncovered in our scan of practices being used by organizations to operationalize racial equity.


We recently released a report titled “What Does it Take to Embed a Racial Equity & Inclusion Lens?” that captures themes from internal interviews, a field scan, and learnings from our grantmaking and investments in cities across the country. In the last piece in this four-part series, we share the final two themes that emerged from our research. To read the previous post, click here.

11. Reconciliation and healing are vital in advancing racial equity.

For other countries with racist histories, like South Africa and Canada, the movement towards equity has involved national Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, public hearings that openly acknowledge what happened and begin the process of resolution. The United States has had only two so far. One took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 2004 to 2006, and addressed a hate-driven massacre that left five people dead. Another has been meeting in Maine since 2012 to address the disproportionate number of Native Wabanaki children in foster care, forcibly removed from their homes and stripped of their cultural heritage.

We can lay the foundation for a national conversation about reconciliation by incorporating healing into the approaches of organizations working for social change.

But nothing of the kind has taken place at the national level, and judging by the tone and timbre of our current national conversation, it is unlikely to happen soon. But, we can lay the foundation for that national conversation by integrating reconciliation and healing into the work and approaches of organizations and individuals working for social change. This has been proven necessary and effective in the work of institutions such as Kellogg, and in restorative justice efforts that intentionally bringing together people with seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints—particularly people who have harmed with people who have been harmed—in a carefully prepared face-to-face encounter where everyone listens and speaks with respect and from the heart no matter their differences.

The talking piece is a powerful equalizer, allowing everyone’s voice to be heard and honored, whether that of a police officer, a judge, or a 14-year-old youth. In our own work at Living Cities, several staffers in conversation and in interviews with the Racial Equity and Inclusion Learning Question Team, and at staff meetings, have emphasized the need to pause for reflection, healing, and reconciliation to address past wounds as we move forward on our REI journey.

Our Recommendations:

  • Include an intentional focus on healing and reconciliation as we recommit ourselves to operationalizing REI. This could take any number of forms, including facilitated conversations, role play, written reflections and responses, The important thing about this focus, in whatever form it takes, is that it helps us to heal societal racial divides as they manifest at Living cities and recognizes the need to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, while addressing the consequences of those wrongs.
  • Acknowledge that arguing and conflict are necessary. According to Citizen University CEO Eric Liu in a recent article in the Atlantic, “more arguing” as a step forward in healing our racial divide (though not the “stupid” type of arguing we’ve been doing in this election cycle, he says, which overlooks the root of our problems). Engage in conversation with leaders at Kellogg about their Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation work and consider implications for our own practice.

Tools and Resources:

  • Healing Justice Is How We Can Sustain Black Lives by Prentis Hemphill of #BlackLivesMatter
  • Within Our Lifetime Network’s Racial Equity / Racial Healing Network Survey
  • The Importance of Arts & Storytelling to Support Communities by Ratna Gill

12. We have to view arts & culture as fundamental; not peripheral.

“The arts drive movements for justice by creating a vision for the future.” –Asante Salaam, New Orleans Office of Cultural Economy

Artists are central–not peripheral–to social change. From our 25th anniversary event that opened with powerful and memorable poetry readings to the conversation about Colin Kaepernick ‘taking a knee,’ to the role that artist-activists like James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Frida Kahlo played in advancing dialogue and movements about issues such as feminism and anti-Black racism, the power of arts and culture as a lever is well-established. Yet, social change practitioners often shy away from engaging with artists and art in meaningful ways, preferring to stay in the “head space” rather than the “heart space.”

Our Recommendations:

  • Integrate art and culture as core elements of our brand through the experiences we create for our grantees, members, and broader community, both in person and in the digital space.
  • Consider how to harness the power of shared experiences of art and culture to foster learning and understanding as we develop our staff and community racial equity and inclusion learning curriculum.

Tools and Resources:

  • Pop Culture Collaborative: represents an innovative hub for high impact partnerships and grants designed to help organizations and individuals leverage the reach and power of pop culture for social justice goals.
  • Ashé Cultural Center: Ashé was a collaborating partner with Ashleigh Gardere of the City of New Orleans Network for Economic Opportunity to produce art bursts for the Living Cities convening with New Orleans cultural artists.

All artwork from this series comes from CultureStrike’s “Until We Are All Free” project.

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