Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Contextualizing Systems, Data, and Place

Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Contextualizing Systems, Data, and Place

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


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.

This post is the first in a four-part series that will share the 12 themes that emerged from our research.

1. It is important to approach racial equity and inclusion work through a systems change frame.

Working for racial equity means dismantling systems of social structures that produce and reproduce cumulative, durable, inequitable results. These systems mean that it is not necessary to have explicitly racist actors to see inequitable results. Focusing on individual instances of racism can have the effect of diverting our attention from the structural changes that are required in order to achieve racial justice. Through our activities and research, it is clear that we need to explicitly and implicitly challenge all manifestations of racism and racialization in our work and in our organizations.

It is clear that we need to explicitly and implicitly challenge all manifestations of racism and racialization in our work and in our organizations.

Too often, we hear people say things like, “How can that police department be racist when its leader is Black?” or “Why didn’t the Obama presidency mean that racism is over?” The answer to these questions, of course, is that changing individual leaders does not automatically lead to systems change. For that to happen, not only do those individual leaders have to commit themselves to applying a racial equity and inclusion lens to their work and to working at the systems-level, but they have to push and support other actors within their institutions to do the same. For example, through Racial Equity Here, we are supporting the training of thousands of city government staff to build racial equity and inclusion competencies so that they can in turn train others make more decisions and create more policies with a racial equity and inclusion lens.

Our Recommendations:

  • Work to deeply understand the systems that most affect the life chances of low-income people of color through a series of readings, experiences, and trainings.
  • Work to deeply understand the ‘Organize, Normalize, Operationalize’ framework developed by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity that holds that we must normalize conversations about race, operationalize new behaviors and policies, and organize to achieve racial equity.
  • Develop a shared definition of the systems we are trying to affect and the actors that make them up, particularly in terms of creating jobs, income, and wealth for low-income communities of color.

2. We must approach our work with an understanding of place and local context, but acknowledge that inequities are everywhere and systemic.

Throughout our interviews and conversations, we were struck by how national actors often disregard local context while local actors often argue for the primacy of place while ignoring shared history and the fact that racialized inequities exist everywhere, so there is much that can be learned and adopted/adapted across places.

Our Recommendations:

  • Continue to push ourselves to consider local context and to share emerging themes and promising practices across places.
  • Deeply listen to local actors to ensure that we are not missing nuances.

3. Remember that data matters, but only in service of outcomes.

In our work, we noticed a great emphasis on data, which is exciting because we know that it is a necessary and powerful tool, but to use a common metaphor, data should be used as a flashlight, not a hammer. Often, when it comes to using data for racial equity, it is used to highlight the “failings” of individuals rather than of systems. And, there is a widespread belief that data are neutral, when in reality we know that they are not. For example, algorithms that harness data to help with hiring decisions have been found to have the biases of the people who created the algorithms embedded in them. Disaggregating data by race is key for practitioners working on issues of poverty and inequality, but we need to do a better job of communicating what that data tells us about systems and about the policy and programmatic implications.

There is a widespread belief that data are neutral, when we know that they are not.

Our Recommendations:

  • Continue to move towards requiring grantees and borrowers to disaggregate data by race.
  • Invest in increasing staff competency around data analysis, data storytelling (particularly about systems change), and data visualization.
  • Develop a practice of capturing community voice in data collection to ensure a balance of qualitative and quantitative data.

Tools and Resources:

4. To close racial wealth gaps in America, we must focus on the South.

At the 2017 Unity Summit in New Orleans, much of the conversation focused on how if we don’t understand the South, we can’t get to economic opportunities and dismantle white supremacy in America. The South must be a key geography for advancing racial equity and inclusion because of its already extremely large Black community and its expanding immigrant community and because of the historic and present significance of the South, from slavery to Selma. One speaker noted that if you are working for racial equity and inclusion and you are not working in the South, you might have a problem. This sentiment has been echoed through our partnership with GARE on Racial equity Here, and in our TII work with New Orleans.

Our Recommendations:

  • Engage in a reflection and strategy conversation/meaning-making process about our work in the South to date, and potential opportunities.
  • Engage in conversation with folks leading efforts related to ours in the South such that we better understand the realities on the ground.

Tools and Resources:

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