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Holding Space to Reckon and Reimagine: An Interview with Evelyn Burnett

AS: The Closing the Gaps Network (CTG) was very intentional about partnering with you specifically, and with Third Space Action Lab (TSAL), as we leaned into our values of grounding in history and honoring the past labor that you and others did to organize Living Cities to even talk about race, let alone center an anti-racist perspective in this way. Then we ended up doing this work in the context of a pandemic and uprising. I would love to hear your reflections on how this year took shape for you and how this partnership started.

EB: Working at Living Cities was a transformative experience for me. It wasn’t without a lot of bumps, but when I first interviewed for the job [in 2008], Living Cities was working on a project in Cleveland. So I thought the job would be in Cleveland. When [former CEO] Ben Hecht asked “Do you have a preference on living in New York or DC?” I was kind of hit by a mack truck. I was this Northeast Ohio girl and just kind of happy to be there. That was a turning point in my life. I had to give him an answer right then, so I just said: New York! To even be given the opportunity was a big deal for me at that time in my life.

I wasn’t naive, but close. I came to Living Cities with a very unshaped opinion on things. I felt deeply about a lot, being from the post-industrial rust belt midwest, but Living Cities helped me shape my own perspective on equity and justice because of the staff there and the work we were doing. I ended up developing some of the most important relationships of my life, especially with Nadia [Owusu]. We had a really big impact on each other, thinking about so many things and challenging each other.

This partnership [between Living Cities and Third Space Action Lab (TSAL)] is really based on that relationship. Nadia and I wanted to continue to work together in some formal way. We’d watched each other grow in a really organic, slow way: the changing of perspectives, Nadia moving up [in Living Cities], really leaning into her writing and becoming who she is, me coming back to Cleveland and working in community development and starting TSAL.

So the partnership was really grounded in a deep, trusting relationship, which is something we’re always talking to clients about, but there’s no shortcuts. These relationships started as early as 2008, so I felt really lucky to be partnering with and receiving a contractual relationship with Living Cities in the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic and an uprising. Because everybody ain’t built for that. Despite Living Cities’ flaws, Living Cities and the people there are ready for this. There were a bunch of other partners that were just not ready, but I had no doubt with Living Cities. I really feel honored to be navigating these times with these people and this institution.

So the partnership was really grounded in a deep, trusting relationship, which is something we’re always talking to clients about, but there’s no shortcuts.

As I hear you reflect on your clarity that Living Cities could endure this time with Third Space, I wonder if you think Living Cities’ racial equity journey influences that feeling for you, or do you feel Living Cities always could have shown up like this?

I do think that Living Cities is battle-tested in a lot of ways. It’s not a secret that just before the pandemic [former CEO] Ben [Hecht] was being strongly critiqued by some women of color in the organization and I was a witness to his transgressions. It wasn’t my experience, but I witnessed it and it hurt me just the same. Still, I thought Ben navigated the heat the best he could, mostly because he didn’t run away. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t acting out internally and being a white male human, but I do think there’s more space for discourse, dissent and disagreement in Living Cities than a lot of other places. I think Living Cities is trying its best to walk the walk and be accountable. So the organization is not without flaws, I’m not saying that at all, but the reason I was confident going into this partnership with Living Cities was because the people there have always had my back and I never feel abandoned. It feels kind of corny but it’s very real and it’s not like that everywhere.

I think the level of transparency Living Cities has–which is not as high as it can be but is more transparent than other places– continues to be an example. A perfect example, absolutely not, but it could have been so easy to pivot folks’ attention away from racial equity during the pandemic–uprising withstanding. This was not an easy task because you’re working with frontline workers–civil servants–in a time when there’s no certainty about anything. When are we opening again? Where’s the money flowing from? When are the payments going to stop? How do we just triage the suffering today? We’re losing people, the morgues are full. I don’t think most of us can wrap our minds around what’s happened this past year, and today we’re still not sure. We’re not out of the woods at all.

And the manifestations of the Uprising are just beginning to take root. The protests and the murders are the flash points. What you’re going to do as a society and as people takes a lot longer. The people in Closing the Gaps Network work for elected officials whose job performance is up for discussion every four years in the most public of forms. It’s not insignificant at all to keep people’s attention, let alone maintain a community and a liberated space. I admire Living Cities’ commitment to that. It would be just as easy to say this isn’t the right time, we need to shift our focus, and y’all really stayed the course. It matters and it will matter going forward.

It would be just as easy to say this isn’t the right time, we need to shift our focus, and y’all really stayed the course. It matters and it will matter going forward.

I know your mom was a civil servant and that’s been an important reference point for you. Feel free to bring that and your personal experience into this question as much as the work we’ve done together. What have you learned, and what do you think we’ve learned, about what it takes to organize the public sector toward racially equitable outcomes, even and especially in the midst of a pandemic and uprising?

I’ll start with my mom. Me and my mom have a very complicated relationship because nobody holds me more accountable than her. Ms. Gladys keeps it 1000%, 1000% of the time. So there’s no break for me ever. But I’ve always deeply respected my mom and she continues to be the example of a real organizer to me personally. I remember growing up I absolutely loved ‘take your daughter to work’ day and I started participating as a little kid. The first time I participated was maybe in second or third grade. My mom has been a big influence in that sort of way. She was a civil servant who was like, you do the work until the work is done, and my dad worked at GM for 40 years. So he’s like you go, and if you’re there one more minute beyond the time you’re supposed to be, you get paid time and a half. So I grew up with two very important labor perspectives. Both my parents were very active in their unions and that had a huge impression on me too. But watching my mom serve people was always very impressionable to me.

Because of my mom, I have always had a lot of respect for people in civil servant roles. And, I watched over 40 years her job become so much of a burden to my mom, the human. So when I hear Living Cities or the People’s Institute [for Survival and Beyond (PISAB)] talk about honoring the labor of Black women, that is something I watched with a lot of proximity my whole life. I watched my mom’s exhaustion from all of her professional affiliations, and the toll of work.

So my relationship with Living Cities aside, I was actually nervous about the opportunity. Because when I was at Living Cities I didn’t work directly with people in city government. The first couple [cohort] calls, I was like, I can’t believe these people are making this time. To me, it was kind of indicative of how the need is enormous if these folks are making this time, and I know how hard they are fighting for this time. Because for the people that aren’t on board, this feels like total abstract philanthropic bullshit because the world is in total chaos, and you’re telling me you’re going to spend five hours for the next six weeks learning about white supremacy? I can only imagine what folks had to go through to even do that, and the presence of mind that people have to have because none of this is over. Federal money is just starting to move in their cities. We have no idea what stage of the pandemic we are in. We are only beginning to understand empirically where the biggest need is; among vaccination debates, we see the lifting of rent moratoriums and sky-rocketing real estate prices, so housing is an enormous issue when some cities were just getting past the 2008 crisis. What is the actual unemployment rate? What do we do about inevitable unrest? What do we do about calls for abolishing police? I can’t wrap my mind about what it means to be a civil servant and needing to respond to all that, in addition to the person who’s like, I don’t give a shit about any of that–my cat’s in my tree. Please send someone out to get it. That’s the life of a civil servant.

It’s very hard for civil servants to get to the abstract and the esoteric and the systems change stuff because the immediate is always right in front of you and it’s always enormous. So I’m most humbled by the servants themselves. And I will say–this is a group of servants. And that’s not always the case because people are going into public service for various reasons, but this cohort is a group of servants. These are people who are grounded in a service mentality. So that’s first and foremost–I’m humbled by that because it’s not easy to do.

Then the partners–us, PISAB, Black Womxn Flourish, Gumbo, really helped Living Cities create the space once people got there. Because you have to be very mindful about the space and very very thoughtful about how you use it. And you know, we had to wrestle with that in the beginning. We were constantly saying too much, this agenda is too much! We don’t need to get to all of this because if we’re going to be here in a year, we don’t have to pack the agenda in this way. That’s what real collaboration and real partnership is. Negotiation. Nope, we’re not going to listen to you, Evelyn, we’re gonna do it this way, and then we come back and say okay, maybe you were right. And we got there. We saw breakthroughs together and that’s the push and pull of collaboration that makes it something that matters. For these civil servants to be in this cohort is the result of deep collaboration, trusting relationships, and having honest, transparent conversations about what it is we’re trying to do.

Beautifully said. Are there other things you want to name that could have gone better or differently within this partnership that Living Cities and others should be learning from?

Yeah. Always more money is possible. Living Cities is a collaborative of the largest financial and philanthropic institutions in the world, so I think that there is ever more opportunity to be less experimental with this stuff we’ve known for centuries. The race-based stuff doesn’t have to be as experimental as it is. So like, no, we’re not doing $75,000 grants, we’re going big here and we’re doing half a million and we’re going to fundraise for that specifically from the board. There’s that.

I don’t know if this could have been addressed here or now, but deeper collaboration with the cities themselves. I don’t know what that looks like. I have some ideas, some of them feel a little wild or radical like, we’re gonna give more resources in the form of money, time, etc, in exchange for wanting the city to experiment with its federal or rainy day funding. Or deeply financially investing in a well-documented problem like lack of access to capital for entrepreneurs of color or financial support to POC-led organizations working to address wickedly complex issues like infant mortality, maternal morbidity, disparities in life expectancy, gun violence; I mean it’s really an endless list of places where we could just trust folks and give them the resources to do their thing. It’s not like the ideas aren’t there but the level of engagement that would take and what needs to be negotiated is not easy. But it’s not impossible.

There’s also an opportunity for Living Cities to make abstract things less abstract. What do we actually mean when we say cover? Cover to whom, for what? What does it look like? Who is it from? Who are we talking about and to what end will it be? And cover’s a hard thing to predict; you don’t necessarily know you need it until you need it. But some of these things we can forecast and be ready for.

That gets down to accountability. What if we say, we’re gonna give you $75,000 today and in a year we’re gonna give you $150,000 because this is our number three fundraising priority, for example? And if halfway through we’re not halfway to the goal, we’ll check in with you and let you know. There is that level of accountability that allows staff to be more specific. There’s not a lot of organizations that are there so Living Cities could definitely serve as a model in that way. That’s not easy stuff but it’s also not impossible.

And I think Living Cities made some very bold statements as part of Year of Reckoning and Closing the Gaps Network. I think those two ways of framing bodies of work in and of themselves are big. To reckon is not an easy thing at all. I’ve facilitated conversations about these goals with big organizations, and it isn’t easy. Living Cities can continue to be a model around what does it mean to lose a funder if they’re not aligned with the work? How do you work through that, because if people aren’t aligned with the values then they aren’t aligned, period. And often folks think they’re aligned even when they’re resisting, pushing back. What do we do then? It’s cool to be aspirational, but when you have the members or collaborators that are not on board to an extent that’s untenable, then what do you do? Using this as an opportunity to take a position on those things. And articulate that position.

If Living Cities and CTG can be a space for white people to show more courage and take more action and be in solidarity with each other on stuff they care about, we can start normalizing “right” more. Right is right and wrong is wrong and we have a decent sense of that, but too often “right” is put in a radical context, which will keep us oppressed. So I think there’s an opportunity to act and experiment, and I think Living Cities and its collaborators are doing that to the best of their ability and know that there’s always an opportunity for more: to push harder, more accountability, more solidarity, deeper demonstrations.


You’re making this work sound fun! In that spirit, what’s your greatest hope for the work ahead – in or beyond this partnership?

Listen, we’ve got the fight of our lives ahead of us and we know that after big events we see some of the greatest innovation. We know that happens, but we also know that we see some of the biggest pushback and resistance. We’re in a unique time in human history–at no other time in human history did you have the internet, cell phones that could take videos, the ability to get information about anything that you can think of in .3 seconds. I think technology has taken society and the world to a very different place. We can leverage that in certain ways, or not. We can choose: do we want to let that thing eat us? Because it can eat us alive. I have these visions that we all just get sucked into the phone. But it doesn’t have to be so.

For me personally, I was really losing hope pre-pandemic. I was like, humanity is just the worst. Then the pandemic and uprising was such a hard year for me personally with a lot of death and loss, but ironically all that pain restored my hope. I was like, wow, look at these dolphins swimming in this place they haven’t swam forever. And look at the skyline in New Delhi. I had just been in New Delhi weeks before the shut down, and I had never seen anything like that smog. And so, to be two or three months into the pandemic and people are like, there’s the skyline in New Delhi!, it was a reminder that we can fix these things if we want to. If the will is there we can do it. It ain’t gonna be easy but we can. And what was the most encouraging to me was that it doesn’t require rocket science. It’s just, like, stop. Just stop doing some stuff or stop for a disciplined period of time.

So for me, it’s not unprecedented for a government to say, every year for the rest of time we’re going to shut down for two weeks and this is what it will look like, this is how we’ll prepare, because we want to save the planet. That’s not unprecedented to me anymore. I never knew anything like that was possible. Now that we know, what do we do with this knowledge? And that’s not different from what the racial equity work has been for me for the past five years. You can’t necessarily act on what you don’t know, but once you know, what are you gonna do?

I’m hopeful that a lot of people are feeling that sense of hope, urgency, courage, will, stick-to-itiveness. That more of us are willing to act, because the resistance is going to be fierce, and the pushback is already fierce. So what we do next is on us. I’m terrified of that, but I’m also really hopeful for that. And I think CTG is one of those places to demonstrate and then articulate that to the world. People can be more specific in their own sphere of influence, in their own networks, to share what they’re learning, what they’re trying, what they’re experimenting with, what they’re feeling.

I’m excited to live in your world. Thank you for your partnership and leadership in this work. It’s been transformative and I know it’s just getting started.

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