News & Update

Normalizing Deep Conversations about Race through Coaching

This blog is part of a series that will tell the story of our organizational shift toward centering racial equity 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.

Over the last several years Living Cities has experimented with different ways to build racial equity and inclusion (REI) competencies as individual staff and as an organization. This work has been quarterbacked by a cross-cutting internal team—Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity (CORE)—that strategizes and implements ongoing interventions to build REI skills and help develop and sustain a culture where everyone can thrive. CORE’s work is grounded in the recognition that systems—from within our own organization to the complex systems in cities where we work—are made up of individual people in various roles.

In the first blog of this series on “Holding Staff Through Our REI Journey,” we expressed how shifting toward centering racial equity in our internal operations and external work is an “all hands on deck effort, with each staff member investing a tremendous amount of personal effort toward this ambitious but necessary goal.” One thing we know for sure—having tried and failed—is that we cannot fully support partners in closing racial income gaps if we aren’t doing our own work to build REI competencies. Otherwise, even with the best of intentions, we will likely recreate and/or uphold the very oppressive power dynamics and structures we are theoretically working against.

One of the many resources CORE supported over the last year was the opportunity for staff members to engage in individual coaching. We’ve received several inquiries from partners considering offering coaching to their own staff. In response, we want to share some of the background, intent and detail on why and how we pursued this coaching pilot.

Why Coaching? Normalizing deep conversations about race and racism in America as a daily practice is not a muscle many people and/or organizations regularly exercise—especially not in a professional setting. At Living Cities, beginning to build this capacity has required dedicated effort, a variety of pathways, and a significant commitment of time and resources.

Three years ago, with CORE’s leadership and support, Living Cities laid a critical foundation for ongoing competency building by requiring all staff to go through trainings like the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Workshop, which every new staff member now completes as part of onboarding. Participation in these workshops was a critically important step in developing shared language, analysis, and sense of history as a staff and in grounding ourselves in some core accountability principles. And, as our work continued, we realized this was only the beginning of what was needed to continually deepen our tolerance for conversations and work that named racism, whiteness, white institutional culture, and anti-blackness. We had to acknowledge that this would not be accomplished through a one-off training (though they have been extraordinarily helpful) or a single all-staff conversation (also helpful). We needed to continue to push ourselves to engage through, not around conflict, to develop transformative relationships, and to move out of heady and intellectual spaces to create and support deeper connection and introspection.

So, in addition to the work we were doing at the organizational level at all-staff meetings, trainings, and retreats, we sought out additional options focused on helping individual staff members to lean into their personal “growing edge(s)” and to be supported through this very messy and often painful work. Coaching is often a luxury within an organizational context; an offering usually reserved for Executive/Senior staff. We intentionally wanted to disrupt that norm and make the opportunity available to all Living Cities staff.

“My coach helped me deeply explore how elements of white institutional culture manifest in me, and how the roots of those dynamics for me personally stem from fears, assumptions, values, etc. My coach introduced me to ways of interrogating those elements while still being kind to myself. This deeper understanding has helped me identify and navigate situations at work when my values are in conflict with one another and figure out what the root causes are when I’m feeling uneasy, unsatisfied or frustrated in my work. And, how to translate that awareness into my interactions with others in my role so that I’m better living my values.” -Ellen Ward, Chief of Staff

How did we roll out coaching at Living Cities? Our coaching program was voluntary; staff members were not required but were encouraged to give it a try as they learned and applied new frameworks, language, and behavior change as part of their leadership practice. Five individual coaching hours were available to any interested staff member and they were advised to use the coaching sessions however they best saw fit. There was no mandate to focus on REI (particularly or exclusively), and those who took advantage of the opportunity had the freedom to figure out how the time could be used to meet their needs, advance their leadership journey, and live our organizational values through the practice of coaching. In the end, more than half of our staff took advantage of the opportunity.

We did, however, think it was important to develop a coaching pool that included coaches with competencies and experiences to discuss issues related to race and oppression, because building those competencies and exploring these conversations is front and center for many on staff. We built relationships with a variety of social justice-oriented coaches, many of whom are people of color. All of the coaches offered a wide variety of other skills and experiences. Once we had articulated our desired goals for the program, we developed a directory of potential coaches to share with staff. All of these coaches agreed to be part of the directory and to the terms and rates ahead of time.

To launch the effort, the CORE team outlined the process, the value proposition of coaching, and the goals at an all-staff meeting and then distributed the coaching directory to staff members with guidance for reviewing and contacting coaches to schedule introductory conversations. We suggested speaking with at least two to three different coaches throughout the matching process to help them get a sense of how they might be together in a coaching relationship. We recognized that coaching might seem abstract or uncomfortable to some people, so staff from CORE were also available to answer questions and to “de-mystify” the opportunity for anyone who had never engaged in coaching before.

What was the Impact? Coaching is a real and substantial investment that we were privileged enough to be able to provide thanks to the core operating support we receive. But -as costly as this approach can be, coaching has proven itself to be tremendously valuable to our staff, our organization as a whole and, ultimately, to our impact potential in cities across the country. Indeed, since we launched the coaching opportunity, we’ve heard consistent positive feedback from staff that the coaching has helped them grow as people and in their day-to-day roles in numerous ways, deepening their practice and impact throughout our work.

“My coach helped me think through some accountability practices that I can start practicing individually and within my teams, because one of my objectives is to be able to look critically at existing power structures and understand power dynamics, interrogate my biases and continuously reflect on my identities, roles and interactions. We also were able to have conversations about addressing anti-Blackness and how that can show up in our work at Living Cities.” – Hafizah Omar, Senior Associate

We are continuing to analyze feedback as we consider how we support our staff moving forward and how such efforts contribute to our organizational results of closing racial income and wealth gaps. As we assess the impact of this coaching and other REI competency building investments, we are also encouraged by the data from our recent REI competency survey. The survey found that from 2017 to 2018, we saw a 14% increase in the number of staff who reported feeling more comfortable talking about race at work and another 20% increase in the number of staff reporting that they actively embed racial equity into their everyday work.

At Living Cities we are working to build and strengthen transformational – not transactional – relationships amongst staff and partners to establish the trust required to do this messy work. This is not a nice-to-have; this is THE work to be able to support closing the gaps and centering humanity. We’re also increasingly recognizing that some of the discomfort and conflict we experience as a staff and organization is that – as we work to disrupt the status quo – we have to intentionally work through these conflicts and growing pains, not around them. We’ve seen that coaching is a tool many staff have leaned on to support them through this conflict and discomfort.

This is just one of many ways to support staff through the process of operationalizing racial equity. If you’d like to share your equity journey or story with us, email us at

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