News & Update

Ending White Supremacy Culture: Honoring the Labor that Got Us Here

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. Through a series of resources, we are sharing the ways we are practicing antidotes to white supremacy culture so that we can continue to learn as we support your capacity to also design work in defiance of white supremacy culture.

Explore the rest of the series, including an introduction around ending white supremacy culture, and resources for reckoning with history, cultivating an abundance mindset, and naming what we mean when we say community.

As a collective of philanthropic and financial institutions, Living Cities’ decision-making processes for distributing resources have historically mirrored traditional philanthropy. A rigorous, time-consuming application process opens; the initiative’s target audience spends time pulling together application materials, proving their worthiness; we convene a selection committee; the committee makes choices based in part on the quality of application materials and in part on their personal relationships. Even as we began planning a network designed to undo racism and test different ways of shifting our practices, it took a global pandemic to make us pause, assess our process, and release.

When we paused, we felt the weight of the process overwhelming us. If we are overwhelmed by our own process, we wondered, what must it feel like to be on the side of applicants?

When we assessed, we saw patterns in the choices we had made as an organization. Our board members’ relationships had often been prioritized due to power dynamics, and we’d found ourselves in debates about which cities are “good” or “bad” or “better” at solving challenges that are highly complex and don’t have clear right and wrong answers.

When we released traditional norms, we felt a sense of relief. It doesn’t have to be this way. And if it’s not this way, how might it be? That is when we turned to our values. We are steadfast in our belief that this work has to be grounded in values and anti-racist principles.

One of our network values is We Honor the Labor that Got Us Here. To our team, this means understanding what it takes to push institutional change, to recognize people in the cities that we’ve worked with who are doing that in their institutions, and to honor the ways that those people have helped us push change internally at Living Cities as we learned from their work. This value became a guidepost as we reshaped our processes.

We took stock of and spent time in our relationships. We felt the grief of the loss that people in our network were experiencing; we sat with the discomfort of being compelled to work despite this grief. We realized that, given the reality of Covid-19’s scope and impact, the uprisings for racial justice in cities around the country, the upcoming national election, and so many other unknowns, we had to do things differently. After a three-month outreach process, where we spoke to people in about 20 cities with whom we’ve worked in deep partnership in the past, we realized that launching a time-consuming application process did not make sense. Now is the time to lean into the relationships we have and to work together to deepen our collective competencies and capacities to be able to contribute to the movement in meaningful ways.

This shift is deeply connected to our belief that racial equity is a process as much as an outcome. We seek to move beyond the binary thinking that suggests there is an “end” or that some cities are “on top” or “more successful” when it comes to racial equity. We are interested in investing in people within city agencies and departments who are willing to take on transformational racial equity work, including reckoning with history and the present. Ultimately, we invited six cities–Albuquerque, NM; Austin, TX; Memphis, TN; Minneapolis, MN; Rochester, NY; and Saint Paul, MN–into our inaugural Year of Reckoning cohort based on our intention to honor the labor of people who have been organizing and pushing for racial equity in their cities, and who have also pushed Living Cities through our decades of work together. These cities have been part of many Living Cities past initiatives such as The Integration Initiative, Racial Equity Here, City Accelerator, and Equipt to Innovate

Each of the cities in the Year of Reckoning have organized cross-departmental teams of 6-10 people. Over the next year, we will be sharing stories of their work and uplifting the labor of all team members. To learn more about each of the Year of Reckoning city leads, see their profiles, which we’ve been highlighting on social media: here, here, and here

When it came to identifying partners to work with, we wanted to apply the same intentionality around honoring the labor of people who have gotten us here. 

  • Third Space Action Lab (TSAL) was co-founded by one of the earliest anti-racism organizers at Living Cities, Evelyn Burnett. Without her and other Black women who have organized internally, Living Cities would not be where we are. We seek to honor her past labor at Living Cities and at the City of Cleveland by engaging TSAL as cohort lead for the Year of Reckoning, a role that enables them to shape the culture and approach of the Year of Reckoning experience. Learn more from Evelyn in this IG Live she hosted on our platform.
  • The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) has deeply shaped Living Cities’ anti-racism work by delivering the Undoing Racism training to all of our staff at least once, and to most of our board members and partners. We knew without a doubt that their approach and commitment to anti-racist organizing principles would be central to the analysis-building efforts of our Year of Reckoning cohort. Learn more about PISAB’s impact in this reflection on our blog.
  • The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) has been a partner on Living Cities’ racial equity journey since we launched Racial Equity Here in 2016. GARE and PolicyLink are central to the Year of Reckoning experience as technical assistance providers supporting cities to operationalize their racial equity analysis. Learn more about our partnership with GARE on our blog.
  • Black Womxn Flourish has influenced our internal culture work to center a pro-Black vision, and is now playing a central role in advising us on how to design the Year of Reckoning experience in a way that centers the wellbeing of Black womxn. Learn more from Black Womxn Flourish in this IG Live they hosted on our platform.
  • Gumbo Media has supported Living Cities in centering humanity in our work through the creation of their magazine and other artistic products. They are building on this work to curate storytelling in Year of Reckoning cities and design our curriculum with a pro-Black lens. Learn more from Gumbo Media in this IG Live they joined on our platform.

Collectively, these and more partners shape the distinct culture and value of the Year of Reckoning.

How might you practice this value in your work?

First we recommend you take stock of your relationships. Who is doing the work in a way that aligns with your values? How might you deepen your most values-aligned relationships, and either commit to moving your other relationships toward deeper values alignment, or shedding where necessary?

Once you’ve assessed whose labor you want to honor and who you want to continue building with, bring those people together. We started designing the Year of Reckoning by bringing our partners from PISAB and GARE together, and then we furthered our co-design work with TSAL in sessions facilitated by Black Womxn Flourish. There is truly no substitute for stepping back and taking time to reckon with your personal and organizational histories, and reimagine the work ahead together.

Once energy starts to build around new strategies, step back and ask: who has been doing this work? How might you engage them, or at least honor them for that work and ensure you are not duplicating efforts?

With a solid team of partners at your side, it may be more possible to cultivate courage to break from traditional practices. Whether that’s relieving folks of lengthy application processes like it was for us, or another way of practicing the antidotes to white supremacy culture, work together to ground your processes in trust and care for each other’s time and experiences. From a place of deep trust and reciprocity, your work and its impacts can ripple far beyond any one organization.

Image credit: Kim Dinh, sourced from JustSeeds

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