Making racial equity integral to all aspects of the Working Cities Challenge Making racial equity integral to all aspects of the Working Cities Challenge

'Business as usual' can’t be enough when the goal is to change unjust systems 'Business as usual' can’t be enough when the goal is to change unjust systems

June 3, 2019

I’ve been an older white guy for as long as I can remember (OK, I’ve not always been older). So when I think or write about racial equity, it’s not because I’ve experienced discrimination. Still, I’m aware enough to know that the social and economic outcomes for city residents are significantly worse by race, and that business as usual won’t improve the economic well-being for all of our neighbors – particularly communities of color.

The Working Cities Challenge is continually engaging our leaders in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island so the Fed can learn how to make racial equity a top priority in everything we do. Here are some questions we’ve asked, and answers we’ve gotten:

What is racial equity in a Working City?

Racial equity is achieved when one's racial identity has no influence on how one fares in society. As the Working Cities Challenge model has rolled out, we’ve paid increasing attention to the role that race and equity play. Understanding the legacy of race in a particular community helps ground city teams and their plans in the reality of how (and why) cities operate.

The data makes clear that race matters on a host of life and economic well-being measures. For example, in Hartford, 76% of whites believe the city is an excellent or good place to raise children, compared to just 54% of Hispanic and African Americans, according to the 2018 DataHaven Community Wellbeing survey. Minorities are also underrepresented in local governments around the region. In Lowell, Mass., a city with a 40 percent non-white population, 90 percent of the city’s school district employees and administrators are white. In Cranston, R.I., a city where more than 1 in 4 residents are non-white, only 2% of the city’s workforce are people of color.

The situation many of our teams face is that the local systems they want to improve – everything from schools, to housing, to transportation – were developed during times when policies were designed to exclude people of color. While many of these rules and practices have improved, the legacy of race lives on in visible and invisible ways. All our teams are working to improve local systems and make progress on their “shared result,” a 10-year plan to benefit lower-income people in the community. To do that, it is imperative that community and resident leaders consider the role of race and equity in their planning and doing.

How does attention to racial equity improve outcomes?

Racial equity is advanced when those most impacted by racial inequity are the owners, planners, and decision-makers in the systems, policies, and practices that affect their lives. This happens within the four core elements of the Working Cities Challenge in the following ways:

  • Collaborative leadership: Our teams seek input from a range of community leaders who understand the role and legacy of race in local systems and bring wisdom and credibility to the teams’ decision-making.
  • Community engagement: We involve, empower, and consult with residents from diverse communities, and that helps build momentum and provide accountability as we work to serve them and their neighbors.
  • Learning orientation: We gather data by specific racial community, leading to interventions that may be different than the solutions applied to the broader community. We ask questions and test assumptions in the context of the stories of historic racism in a given community, which leads to a nuanced understanding of how decisions are made and more targeted strategies and solutions.
  • Systems change: Understanding how root causes and the systems that relate to your team’s shared result drive racial disparities in a community leads to more targeted, impactful strategies.

A Rhode Island community leader told us that achieving racial equity is more than a process or outcome – it’s a right. There’s an urgent need to have conversations about racial equity and provide teams with the tools and support they need to make them happen. So what is the Boston Fed doing to help teams make progress? We’ve taken what we’ve learned and drafted progress benchmarks. In a future blog, we will share these benchmarks and how Working Cities teams are bringing them to life.

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