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Holding Staff Through Our Racial Equity Journey

In the past several years, Living Cities has made a shift toward centering racial equity in our internal operations and external work. Making this shift has required an all hands on deck effort, with each staff member investing a tremendous amount of personal effort toward this ambitious but necessary goal..This blog kicks off a series that will tell the story of this shift by sharing details of the experience and how we’ve handled bumps along the way with an emphasis on the ways in which we’ve supported our staff as people and within their roles.

We hope that other organizations are able to learn from our journey, see themselves in our story and commit themselves to working through their own challenges to transform themselves and their organizations to create more equity and achieve the results they want to see in the world.

Creating an internal team for support and accountability. One of the key takeaways from our racial equity learning process was that building an organization that actively combats racial inequities internally and in our work requires a set of informed policies and practices that do the same thing.Given the importance of this work, we needed to give staff the time, budget, and authority to develop and implement those new anti-racist policies and practices. We also identified a need for accountability and capacity-building to ensure that all staff have a shared understanding of interpersonal (including implicit bias), institutional, and systemic racism and are equipped to make decisions that contribute to undoing racism every day. Asking our employees to embark on this journey required difficult personal work, which is why we formed the Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity (CORE) team which pushes, pulls, and supports Living Cities, its people, and its leadership to do the inside work of holding the mirror up and considering how we continue to build our racial equity practice in our individual actions and interactions, how we apply that to our roles, and how we use these practices to target systems change.

Recognizing and investing in the skills. Unraveling racial inequities internally and applying that practice to our work externally is only possible when staff feel committed, engaged and equipped. This proved to be challenging because, as an organization that had not always centered race, many of our employees were not equipped with the right skills and experience to do this. In response, we learned that we need to treat racial equity as a competency – the same way we do communication skills, project management, or anything else that we hire for and invest in. We spent the last year rolling out a number of activities, trainings and coaching opportunities aimed at addressing this competency gap. This was an especially difficult task because the work that we are asking employees to do requires deep personal reflection and questioning assumptions which, due to institutional norms, we are socialized not to do in professional environments. However, the reality is that to do this work authentically, we are all required to show up in our entirety because the personal is professional.

Building a baseline to direct differentiated training opportunities. We also realized that we had no idea where staff were starting from in terms of competency. Our first step to fix this was a staff survey adapted from GARE’s Employee Survey for Local Governments, the D5 initiative’s Field Survey, and other best practices from the field. This helped us get a baseline of data and understand exactly where staff needed support in their individual REI journeys, and as they applied this critical lens to their projects and work.

With this information, we could provide an array of training opportunities and resources for staff members with varying levels of competency. Our energy was then redirected from managing for the discomfort of the few, toward striving for engagement of the many – toward the goal of having staff members who were ready and willing to engage in conversations and trainings around racial equity.

We also addressed employees’ growing pains by creating spaces for conversations, shared learning and exploration. In recent months, we’ve made five individual coaching hours available to all staff and launched 10 Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that were staff-proposed and staff-convened. Our most recent REI competency survey results (October 2018) suggest that these efforts are paying off. Although we’ve recently had some wins, embedding racial equity is a continuous process in which we are constantly learning from others.

This series will dive into some of the ways in which we have approached our racial equity journey and will share some staff reflections on their experiences in the process.

If you have any questions or want to share your story on your racial equity journey, please email

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