Staying Power: Cultural and policy strategies for belonging in Richmond

Throughout historic neighborhoods of low-income communities of color across the Bay Area, development has come to be a marker of displacement. The relationship between development and displacement for low-income communities of color presents a profound challenge to those who care about place-based justice: what processes of reinvesting in place can strengthen these communities’ ability to stay-in-place instead of leading to further displacement? Developing the power of historically excluded communities to define and advance their sense of belonging, and reverse the racialized inequality that is generating displacement is the focus of our ongoing work in Richmond.

Richmond, California is in many respects like other cities where the majority is African American and Latino, and was rocked by deindustrialization, concentrated poverty, and mass incarceration. Like other parts of California, Richmond faces a profound crisis in the affordability and accessibility of housing, extreme inequality, and profound racial disparities. The effect of the housing crisis ripples out into the economy, education, health, and other domains of life.

But Richmond is increasingly known for a string of progressive milestones, including the state's highest minimum wage, the most comprehensive version of a "ban-the-box" policy, one of the first city General Plans to have a Health Element and a Climate and Energy Element, and others. And the impact is notable. For instance the homicide rate was once in the top 10 nationally, and was brought down to the lowest level in the city's recorded history.

Improving the city has led many residents to worry that the very people who helped bring them about will no longer be able to afford to stay and benefit. Richmond is in the early stages of gentrification-related change, according to an analysis by the Haas Institute that looks at demographic and housing trends. It has become an imperative to develop community and institutional capacities that foster belonging even as reinvestment and opportunity expand.

In the Spring of 2016, three community organizations -- Safe Return Project, ACCE, and RYSE -- along with the Haas Institute and artist Evan Bissell launched Staying Power, a collaboration integrating resident-driven cultural strategies, policy development, and community organizing. The overarching goal is to generate public narratives, community arts interventions, and a comprehensive plan to prevent displacement. Together, we seek to create the context, community-based power and commitment of city leadership to support Richmond residents who wish to stay in Richmond.

To anchor the process in the voice and capacity of grassroots resident leaders, we created the Staying Power Fellowship -- a six-month program for six Richmond residents who have been impacted by the housing crisis. Through participatory action research and creative activities, the group developed policy, arts, and culture projects to strengthen and support the belonging of people of color in Richmond and fight continued displacement, with a particular emphasis on Black residents of Richmond. The Haas Institute provides coordination, training, and technical assistance to the fellows as they design and carry out research, community arts projects, and policy development.

In 2016 and 2017, the Staying Power Fellows and our four partner organizations facilitated a youth poetry workshop in an affordable housing site, created a know-your-rights mural highlighting key housing victories, and a book and video of poetry created from interviews with Richmond residents impacted by the housing crisis. The fellows also presented their poetry and policy proposals to the City Council, and distributed a series of policy fact sheets as well as a report that outlines a comprehensive housing strategy. In addition, the Haas Institute and seven co-sponsoring organizations held a citywide housing symposium that hosted 12 workshops on 12 housing justice policy options, drawing over 100 attendees.

The Fellowship in 2018 will again consist of a cohort of half a dozen residents nominated by community-based organizations in Richmond, who carry out participatory action research and arts processes to gather and express visions and strategies for belonging. This year the focus will be on identifying and setting development priorities for a Community-owned Development Enterprise. The Fellows will carry out interviews, surveys, workshops, and other actions to gather input on development priorities, as well as produce art and culture outcomes that help to shape the narrative around development without displacement. This extends and builds on ideas identified in the first Staying Power Fellowship that housing strategies for belonging will ultimately become ineffective if they do not also account for the development of other place-based characteristics and opportunities that benefit and are owned by low-income people of color.