News & Update

Pulse Checking Progress Toward Operationalizing REI: Systems & Place

In 2017, we released an internal learning 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. There were twelve themes we uncovered in our scan of practices being used by organizations to operationalize racial equity. These twelve recommendations have guided our internal racial equity work in the last five years and we want to update you on what we have learned along the way and what we are continuing to test and practice. 


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

1. It Is Important To Approach Racial Equity And Inclusion Work Through A Systems Change Frame.

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 training.
  • 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.

Our Action/Progress:

In 2019 we adopted a portfolio for the next three years of work, one that focused resources on root causes, established the Closing the Gaps Network, and used capital in innovative ways to close racial income and wealth gaps. This pivot came after our organizational reckoning and knowing that we will not be able to close income and wealth gaps without centering race. With our new mission and vision, we intend to demonstrate how implementing strategies across multiple/mutually reinforcing systems with a strong racial equity analysis will effectively undo racism in government policies, practices, and operations, leading to a public health and economic recovery from the pandemic. These actions will ultimately reduce racial disparities caused by our unjust systems.

We are so grateful to the deep partnership we have had with Government Alliance for Racial Equity. We have embedded the “Organize, Normalize, Operationalize” framework in our internal and external racial equity work. 

Our internal Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity (CORE) team holds a lot of the practice it has taken to normalize conversations about race at Living Cities. The group is responsible for onboarding all new staff to our racial equity work and values, facilitating workshops for skill and capacity building for all-staff as well as managing our Employee Resource Groups. This group facilitates the normalizing and operationalizing of our organizational values and expectations related to this work through relevant readings and other resources that help us provide context and shared language for our work.


2. We Must Approach Our Work With An Understanding Of Place And Local Context, But Acknowledge That Inequities Are Everywhere And Systemic.

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.

Our Action/Progress:

The Closing the Gaps Network is a culmination of the lessons we’ve learned in our work in cities across the country and what it takes to create systems change in place. We know that we are not the first to do this work, that we cannot do it alone and that those with the insights into the issues affecting community and power to affect systems operate at the local level. As we collectively build towards an anti-racist society, we have to work to undo and dismantle the ways that our institutions–including Living Cities itself–have been complicit. 

Living Cities is committed to working with city governments and organizations that serve the public sector to help them understand the history that led them to the systemic barriers they’re trying to address and transform our institutions in service of a more racially equitable future. In our work with them, we’ve committed to creating strategies that are led by the participants themselves based on their needs in place and with a focus on systems change. The cohort and network experience allows us to help pubic sector partners connect with one another based on similar priorities, needs and strategies we see emerging and based upon their own requests and needs in place.


3. Remember That Data Matters, But Only In Service Of Outcomes.

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.

Our Action/Progress:

We’ve come to shift toward an approach to data as a tool for holding ourselves accountable to our mission and vision, and it allows us to make informed adjustments to our approach along the way.

To determine what information matters to us as data, we work backwards from “ends” (desired results) to “means” (strategies and programs)—a practice drawn from the Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework. With the guidance of Erika Bernabei of Equity & Results LLC, we have married the RBA framework with anti-racist principles. All of our intended results, performance management processes, and strategies are rooted in how racism—be it structural, institutional or interpersonal—as well as power and privilege shape our world and our own efforts.

Our Theory Of Change is rooted in the person-role-system framework. We believe people need to use the formal and informal power in their role to change the systems they inhabit to create a world where all people can live abundant, dignified and connected lives.


Doing The Right Things Right

Bringing Our Results Framework To Life: Building A Data Culture

Bringing Heart To Data: How To Measure The Unmeasurable

Achieving Results By Centering Race Internally And Externally


4. To Close Racial Wealth Gaps In America, We Must Focus On The South.

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 grounds.

Our Action/Progress:

As we planned and developed our Closing the Gaps Network, we remained mindful of this recommendation with the understanding that the South must have some focus in our programmatic work with local governments. To that end, we made the choice to select some Southern cities to be part of our Closing the Gaps Network including Memphis, Tennessee who is part of our Year of Reckoning cohort within the Network. 

Our next blog will cover updates on our progress toward the next 4 recommendations we included in our original REI Learning Report.


Featured Image Credit: Mary Tremonte, sourced from justseeds.

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