News & Update

What Does Racial Equity & Inclusion Look Like for the Public Sector?

Where do we go from here? That is the question. There was a training, or a book, or a conversation with a person you trust that broke down systemic racism for you. Now you can’t unlearn what you know but you don’t know what to do next. This is a place many find themselves in as they develop their racial equity analysis and struggle to integrate their new knowledge into their work. This was our experience at Living Cities and we learned this was a shared experience of many people trying to transform systems with the goal of advancing racial equity. We call anybody who fiercely advocates for racial equity in the workplace “sparkplugs,” and this blog post is part of a series elevating their voices across sectors. Check out the first post here.

As with most things, building community can be a source of inspiration, affirmation and guidance. One of Living Cities’ key partners in our racial equity journey has been the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a project of Race Forward. We have been appreciative of their three-pronged approach to integrating racial equity within public sector institutions; it includes normalizing conversations about race, organizing key players, and finding ways to operationalize the work. Through conversations with public sector practitioners in our Project on Municipal Innovation and at the GARE Membership Meeting, we learned more about what it takes to do each stage of this work.

What does normalizing conversations about race look like?

Maari Porter, Deputy Chief of Staff for Philadelphia, PA, reflected on her city’s racial equity journey with us. Racial equity sparkplugs need to “socialize the term [racial equity], socialize the methodology, then get people to understand what that means.” We have also found these internal definitional conversations to be critical, and Dora Perry, Equity & Policy Manager for Portland, OR Bureau of Development Services, reminded us that conversations also have to move beyond definitions. They have to help staff “understand how to position community people, how to hear them, who are the leaders, and who we should recognize as leaders.” Normalizing can look like a lot of different things given the breadth of race-related topics, but a key learning is that normalizing dialogue and shifting narrative are practices; they take time and diligence.

How can organizing key players advance your racial equity journey?

Organizing within public sector institutions is critical to advancing racial equity, and often takes the shape of long-term relationship management with senior leaders. “Sustaining the attention [of senior leaders] and figuring out what points in the process do you elevate the work up” are critical to advancing a racial equity journey, Porter reflected on her experience in Philadelphia. Because this work is often new, sometimes colleagues don’t want to hear from racial equity sparkplugs because they are requesting an “additional layer of consciousness” that otherwise wouldn’t need to be addressed, as Joann Massey, City of Memphis’ Director of Business Diversity & Compliance, shared. This potential for adverse reactions to racial equity work makes it all the more critical to have strong accountability mechanisms in place and to continually remind colleagues that “new does not mean it’s hard – it’s just different.“

What does it take to operationalize racial equity work?

“Be patient yet persistent,” said Vana Hammond, Chief of Community Relations and GrowSouth for Dallas, TX. “…and have clear goals set to solve specific issues.” This advice resonates with our journey at Living Cities; there are small wins, big wins, and there are setbacks. Being patient and persistent, while tracking progress toward goals, has been critical to the progress we’ve made. It is understandable for racial equity sparkplugs to feel overwhelmed by this difficult work many days, so Porter shared that as cities seek to operationalize racial equity day in and day out, it is important for sparkplugs to “know that the work is valued.” In the end, it is both a moral and economic imperative for all of us to do what we can to advance our collective journey toward racial equity.

The normalize, organize, operationalize framework is not linear. While it is key to align around definitions at the outset of a process, institutions will need to continue normalizing conversations as organizing and operationalizing are under way. The goal is for the process to become cyclical, where conversations enhance organizing efforts which lead to new ideas for operationalizing racial equity, which further normalize the conversations. Has this been the experience of your institution? Whether your process has been cyclical and smooth or messy and confusing, we’d love to hear from you.

Email us at or contribute to the conversation on Twitter at #REILooksLike. We look forward to learning from your journey.

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