The Government Alliance on Race and Equity of the Haas Institute hosted a conversation and Q&A with author, activist, and director of social justice organization Race Forward, Rinku Sen. During the hour talk with emcee Dwayne Marsh, Rinku discussed the steps government workers and organizations can take to adopt a lens of racial equity to create a “functional, inclusive, compassionate, equitable government.” Focusing on the nuances and ensuing complications of current race issues in the United States, Rinku emphasized the need to build in and with local communities and find allies by explicitly naming race problems, rather than adopting political correctness, and finding solutions that integrate racial equity into an institution’s infrastructure. As the conversation and Q&A winded down, Sen began to address the concerns and questions from the crowd of devoted government workers looking to improve race relations within their own communities and organizations.
Rinku Sen: Thank you. I lived here for a long time and Race Forward started here. Our first office is here in Oakland. I love to get back as often as I can to see my Oakland colleagues, friends, and people like yourselves. So really happy to be here and I want to start by thanking you for working in government because government is our best hope of getting it right as a society. It is the end goal of democracy, right? Of having a functional, inclusive, compassionate, equitable government and I know that working in government, you get it from both ends. You get from the right all these “Government sucks!” messages and “get the government out of my wallet”, “get the government out of my house, and you know “just shrink the government” messages. I also know you get it from the left.
You know [you’re] buried in complaints about the parts of the government that don’t work. So to decide I am a person who is going to work in government and use that position to try to make things better, that takes a lot of courage and heart and spirit. I am really grateful that you are here doing that work— really truly grateful. Right now in our country and certainly in California, northern California, we’re in this moment where there is so much agitation and conversation and organizing around racial justice that it makes my middle-aged heart happy to see it.
It gives all of us hope who are trying to bring communities together and trying to be a functional society. It gives all of us a tremendous opening and lots of opportunity, because now suddenly it’s like the nation has discovered that racism can appear in a system and not just in an individual and that history makes some difference in how different communities get through life and what they’re facing— what they have to deal with.
But with that opportunity also comes lots of backlash and lots of urgency and lots of accusations of political correctness and divisiveness and ineffectiveness. I hope what I’m going to say today are ideas and principles and things to do that will help sustain you and your efforts to make racial equity in the different geographic places you’re in and the different kind of issues you work in. I know doing that work is not simple or easy and part of what makes it so complicated and so fraught and so conflicted and conflict-producing is that it’s really hard to match up the two ideas: one that race is not a real thing, that it has no biological or scientific grounding, and that there is only a human race and there’s really no inherent difference between people like me and Dwayne. But even though race isn’t real, the reason we’re all here in the room is that we know racism is real, racial discrimination is real. The creation of racial hierarchies are real… so real that it actually determines how someone’s life is going to go, whether they get to graduate from high school, whether they get a living wage job, whether they get sick and actually get care that will cure them. So I think for lots of Americans It’s very difficult, they just can’t wrap their heads around those two ideas at the same time. But you have already made that leap and now the question is: how do you act on the racial discrimination part of it without reinforcing inherent difference between human beings? I’m just going to share four things that I have found helpful in the course of my adult life working on these issues.
But even though race isn’t real, the reason we’re all here in the room is that we know racism is real, racial discrimination is real.
The very first of them is that being explicit and being able to have “real”, grounded talk about racism and racial discrimination and bias is absolutely critical without that ability to say what we mean, to name the problems that we want to solve, to avoid using proxi words like disadvantaged, at-risk, vulnerable, inner-city, without using those proxi words and actually talking about the communities we want to address and want to be talking about. We want to be crafting policy in practice to help that. If we’re not prepared to talk in real times like that, then we’re not going to solve our problem. We can’t solve a problem that no one is willing to name.
I realized that particularly in lots of government agencies and their process of creating policies, there are infact many proxies and code words that we use and they’ve been really built-in to the culture of your agencies. Working against that is really challenging but it will get easier as you keep exercising the muscle and that muscle will become collective if people like yourselves bring it [explicitness] into the entities, the institutions that you’re in.
And it’s really important to do that for three reasons: if we can be explicit that way, we can also reveal to people the mechanisms of that discrimination. Many of which don’t have intentional racial bias… so most Americans define racism as individual, intentional, and overt. So if you’re not throwing racial slurs around or hanging a noose somewhere, sometimes even if there is a noose hanging.... Americans only recognize the most overt, the most obvious forms of racism as actual racism. So when you talk about race explicitly and use that lens to look at how your institution gets its work done, then you have a chance to reveal what those mechanizations of discrimination are.
You can reveal that when we are giving out building citations on code enforcement because 60 years ago, somebody passed a law that said that all the roofs in our community need to be the same color. When we give out citations because your roof is the wrong color, to a set of people who can’t afford to pay the citation nor replace their roof that turns out to be all people of color, then you can see what seems like race-neutral, fairly benign “it would just make our roofs prettier if all the roofs are the same color” law ends up having a discriminatory effect. So being able to reveal the actual mechanizations by which discrimination takes place even if it’s the unintentional kinds of discrimination that are baked into our systems because we’re not accounting for the different needs of communities.
So if you’re not throwing racial slurs around or hanging a noose somewhere, sometimes even if there is a noose hanging.... Americans only recognize the most overt, the most obvious forms of racism as actual racism. So when you talk about race explicitly and use that lens to look at how your institution gets its work done, then you have a chance to reveal what those mechanizations of discrimination are.
The second benefit is that you find the people who are with you. When you are racial equity, you find other people who are interested in racial equity. If you don’t say it, they don’t know to come find you. They won’t come find you and you’ll be alone not saying racial equity but trying to achieve it nonetheless. One of the stories I really love is about my friend Parmila Jayapal who is a state senator in Washington. She is the first South Asian state senator, certainly in Washington, possibly nationally. So, one of the earliest things she did when she got into office was begin working on changing racist names of parks and monuments— public spaces. Her first effort was to change the name of “Koon Lake”, which she did successfully. She started a program to change all the racist names and in the course of that, she got a letter from a white kayak tour leader, a white guy that leads tourists around the world through Washington’s rivers and [who] is deeply embarrassed every time he takes people around “Jim Crow Park”.
When Parmila was attempting to change the name of Jim Crow Park, somebody told her, “Oh but Jim Crow was a person and he’s no longer with us and we need to honor him.” Jim Crow isn’t a person; he was never a person‚ just an idea—[a] deeply segregationist, racist, deeply offensive idea. If Parmila wasn’t willing to say these [the names of the public spaces in Washington] were racist names and they don’t belong in 21st century Washington state, she would have never found that guy and he would have never found her. You find allies and people who are with you if you’re upfront about racial equity.
Finally, a really important idea, racial justice makes things better for everybody— maybe not everybody but somebody is going to have a little less freedom to discriminate— but it will make things better for vulnerable white people. I think that’s an argument we don’t make often enough and it’s one of the ways racial justice is unifying. Talking about race is unifying.
I was really horrified a few weeks ago. I read a story about a white man who was having a psychotic break in Georgia. He was in a car with his girlfriend. His girlfriend called the police. They arrived and they tased him to death. They tased him for 20 minutes after he said, “I quit,” after his body went limp and he was passive. They just kept tasing him and indeed, he did die. In the New York Times story, there was no racial dimension because the victim was white and the cops were also white but there was a racial dimension, because policing is built on the purpose of policing communities of color— the use of force policy, training of police officers, and the attitude that we have toward people who need help is so deeply racialized and so part of policing culture. It doesn’t make sense that a mentally ill white man can— in fact then be treated in that case— not as white as other white men might be treated but as other weak, other unwanted people, other people who need to be controlled would be treated, and those are people of color.
So racial justice and real talk about it can be unifying but we have to practice and try different things and figure out what the point of unity really is, particularly with vulnerable white communities. Even if you do all of that, you get really great at talking about race and most of the time you’re really compelling about it. You have language that everyone can understand. There will still be a backlash. There will always be a backlash. Backlash is part of the process of achieving justice in any arena and that is no less true than it is for race than anything else. You can’t avoid backlash or attacks by trying to use proxy words and hide it. So you have to prepare for it and get yourselves ready for teams to address it.
In the New York Times story, there was no racial dimension because the victim was white and the cops were also white but there was a racial dimension, because policing is built on the purpose of policing communities of color— the use of force policy, training of police officers, and the attitude that we have toward people who need help is so deeply racialized and so part of policing culture.
I found three things that really help with that. The first is to focus much more on impact than intention. The conventional and even to a large degree, the legal definition of racism requires intention and wanting to discriminate and really overt expressions of discrimination. It’s really difficult to prove such intention exists. This is the entire origin of the “some of my friends are black” joke. Somebody says, “Well that’s racist. You’re racist.” The person who’s being accused pulls up the “I can’t be racist. Look here’s my friend, my wife, my kid, my niece, my best friend.” So intention is not good ground for us. We can’t get very far if that is core to our definition of racial discrimination. Impact is a much better ground because impact can be proven. Impact can be proven with data and stories and it can be proven with revealing people’s actual experiences of systems and of other people. You can deal with impact systematically through something like a racial equity impact assessment. That’s a tool that we use at Race Forward [we have our own version of it]. Cities across the country that are part of GARE have adopted it and come up with their own questions and their own ways of conducting such analysis but it basically works like an environmental impact assessment. If you’re going to put up a building, you have to account for all types of things before you’re allowed to put it up. What’s the effect going to be on the water, the soil, the noise, the traffic, etc.? If those impacts turned out to be negative then you might not get to put the building up. You might have to change your building plan or the architecture of it in order to get it up. It’s so much easier to figure that out before the building goes up and make changes than to figure it out after then remediate those things.
A racial equity impact assessment does the same thing and you can apply it to decisions large or small, to legislations and regulations and practice. So it doesn’t have to be just applied to particular written down policies. It can be applied to the way that you get public comment, the way you do outreach to communities, the way you return phone calls even. The goal is to equip ourselves as teams, as collectives, as institutions to do equity-conscious decision making and to replace colorblindness with equity consciousness. Because color blindness comes out of the wrong definition of racism. It comes out of an understanding that there aren’t biological realities to race but not understanding that discrimination exists nonetheless. If there’s no biological realities then colorblindness makes sense— let me not see race. But of course racism is a social construct not a biological construct and you have to have ways to take it apart and dig into it. So focusing on impact is the way to do it. There are lots of tools available to help with that.
The second thing I have found that’s important to do is to talk about our racial equity goals, our desires and commitments to that as a matter of strategy as well as being a matter of morality. So I definitely believe that fighting discrimination is the right thing to do. I certainly believe. It makes my heart hurt when I think about the millions of people in our country who have all kinds of brilliance that we will never get to benefit from because nobody is looking for it and people assume it’s not going to be there and institutions treat them accordingly— that kills me at my soul level. I also understand that our institutions exist to do something in the world. Your institution and government exist to get people fed or get them through school or make sure they’re healthy or plan transportation lines across cities, counties, or whatever geography. There’s an actual mission and purpose and set of goals that your institutions purport to have. Racial equity decision making is key to making those things happen as well as key to feeling good about yourselves. If you’re able to make strategic arguments about why to embrace and adopt a racial equity lens, you will not be in the position of arguing that your colleagues, who haven’t gotten there yet, are not moral people. You’ll just be in the position of arguing that we’re not making good strategic decisions, which is hard enough in itself. But getting past the initial defensiveness that any human being would have if you told them that they’re not being a good person right now is part of having an actual strategy to moving racial equity ideas along— strategy as well as morality.
The goal is to equip ourselves as teams, as collectives, as institutions to do equity-conscious decision making and to replace colorblindness with equity consciousness.
When we’re thinking about how to operationalize these ideas, to do that, in as close association and relationship with community as you can, there are so many good reasons for that. One of them being that the community is who you’re trying to serve and if something isn’t working for them, they have to have a way to let you know that or you have to have a way to elicit that information and together, you have to be able to determine whether or not your institutions are hitting that kinds of outcomes that you want to have, the kinds of impact that you want to have. In no other arena, would we say good intention was enough. If BP caused an oil spill and didn’t clean it up then said, “Oh but we didn’t mean to spill that oil,” we would never think that would be a good enough answer. So impact has to be clear and our desired impact has to be clear and that desired impact is best worked out with the community so that you don’t end up in a situation where, at an institution, you’ve said these different impacts are good enough for us to aim for and you start pursuing that heavily when the community knows that a completely different thing is required and you end up talking across purposes and across each other.
Build your muscle in talking real talk and being explicit. The more you do it, the more everybody else in your institution will get used to it and less freaked out by it. Focus on impact a lot more than we do on intention. Talk in terms of strategy as well as morality and as you’re operationalizing these ideas, really try to be like this *crosses fingers and puts hands together* with your community so that you can course-correct along the way, set the right kinds of goals, and you can get real true feedback that will help you do your better. Race Forward is here for you as you do that. GARE is definitely here for you. We work very closely together all the time. I know that you can do it. You have the strength and the brains and the peer support and I know that you can do it because this is the time when we have an opening to establish racial equity in governance at a rate and pace we haven’t had in about fifty years. I know that you can do it and I know you will do it.
Dwayne Marsh: So everyone here is part of the community, including the team members from the GARE jurisdictions, but if you’re not one of the jurisdictions I listed but you just came because you’re interested and committed to these issues, can you raise your hands? So a few.
I’m struck that you talk about the partnership between the community and government and you’ve done this work for the past three decades, please talk about how your perspective on how government fits as a community advocate, starting off from where you started and where you are now. I met up with her yesterday and had this conversation in Los Angeles and you mentioned, maybe inadvertently, that you were chasing down a government official at one point.
Rinku: Right. I mean my early training was as an organizer, as a direct action membership-based community organizer and in my earlier days, my feelings were that the government was only a target and that it could never be an ally. I certainly own it. It wasn’t my government but I said earlier that the government is the end goal of democracy. I think that idea is what has become crystallized in my head over the decades I’ve been doing this work. We own government. Part of the community gets to exercise control over the government— though it varies from place to place and definitely money has something do with it. But government, I think, is one of our best hopes of achieving the kind of the outcomes we want. I don’t think that the private sector is going to set up a system of privately funded education that is going to benefit all kids and I think government has to do that. It’s our only hope of doing that, making sure that every kid has access to a quality education.
I think community and government can be allies for each other. But being allies to each other doesn’t mean that there’s never conflict. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have different strategies in getting your point across.
When I was younger though, government was always our target or our opponent and the chasing somebody down the street story… One of the earliest organizing campaigns I had ever worked on was a campaign to shut down a welfare hotel in San Francisco back in 1988 or 1989. We wanted a new health inspection done of the building, which was basically a slum and should never have passed a health inspection in the first place. We made an appointment with the then director of public health in San Francisco and when we got to his office, he wasn’t there and they had us talk to the aid. But we had someone planted in the lobby and when we came down the elevator talking to the wrong person, and as the elevators opened, our colleague said, “He just left the building.” So we ran and kids, TV cameras, and everyone caught up to him after a block and a half and we got a new health inspection.
One important thing being in government that you can do is really support that kind of community organizing. Speak up for it. Defend it. It can be upsetting to be the target of a protest or an organizing but you know thick skin makes good allies. Helping all of your colleagues kind of process whatever feelings they might have when protests happen or when the community organizes, that’s a really important role for government. I think community and government can be allies for each other. But being allies to each other doesn’t mean that there’s never conflict. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have different strategies in getting your point across.
Dwayne: One of the things that have come up a lot over the course of the year and I don’t know if you have any advice for government workers who are trying to deal with race. How do you keep a pathway to this?
Rinku: Like any other giant problem that is fundamental to the way that we all relate to each other, you have to break it down to smaller pieces and you want to try and rack up some early successes so you can get a growing mandate. I find a lot of times when people do this work, they have this very broad notion of what the problem is— and it is broad and it is complex. I’m not saying [to] make it fakely narrow. Within any big problem, there are smaller problems embedded and the trick is to rightsize the next intervention you’re going to do to what the history of your institution has been, to what your leadership is able to accommodate and support, to what the community is demanding. There are all these different factors that give you more or less space to move and you weigh those factors and you try to carve out something that is meaningful but not the hole. Something that is still small but meaningful. Then make a granule workplan like anything else. If there isn’t a person or deadline attached to it, it’s not getting done. So rightsize the initial project and once you’ve accomplished, rightsize the next project and be really granular about the work planning around it.That’s not my thing, the work planning or the details. I lose all interest to be completely frank but that is why I build teams and that’s why I raise money so that I can pay people who have those skills and I don’t have to self improve in order to get there.
Dwayne: What else I think reinforces the metaphor you used earlier, building muscles— you come in and start with the exercises you can manage. A tension we’ve been dealing with too is the pace as we pull the curtain back on all the systematic issues that are part of racial inequity, there’s an anxiety, both from within and also from outside, to move quickly but we also know that we have to maintain the momentum. Any thoughts on how you maintain the balance of urgency and long game?
Rinku: Yeah. I think you have to keep talking about the long game and whatever piece of work you’ve carved out, you have to keep relating it to what the long game is going to be. For example, if your goal is to transform the nature of policing in your community, to have the police and— Julie and I were just talking about probation officers and what their job is. If your goal is to fundamentally shift the way in which policing happens and what police officers think their job was and you decided, you’re going to start by hiring more officers from the community that we’re looking to police, you have to be able to think through what are the connections between hiring different police officers and that foundational change that you’ve said is your long term goal. People will say, “Oh it doesn’t matter if you hire officers of color or it’s all about hiring officers of color.” People will always stake out positions on both ends of that. Your job, if that is the work you’re doing, is to really think through, “Well if we hire new officers of color, then how can we train them differently in order to get to that foundational change?” I think part of what happens to us is when we’re doing the work, we have these big goals in mind and fundamental really massive changes, often changes in the culture of an institution, but the first thing that is available for us to do is much smaller… How you do that smaller thing determines whether or not you can stack up smaller things to get to that bigger foundational change, or not. So you can hire new police officers of color in ways that move toward that foundational or ways that don’t. That’s the strategic challenge of planning out the project.
Within any big problem, there are smaller problems embedded and the trick is to rightsize the next intervention you’re going to do to what the history of your institution has been, to what your leadership is able to accommodate and support, to what the community is demanding... If there isn’t a person or deadline attached to it, it’s not getting done.
Dwayne: So basically, transactional encounters have to be transformational in their approach if you want to get to transformation in the long run.
Rinku: Yeah. A different arena where I talk about this is multiracial coalition or alliance building, so I believe in monoracial spaces. If black people want to have an organization, they should have an organization. If Indian immigrants need an organization, they should have an organization. But we intend that black organization and Indian immigrant organization to work together at some point, you build those organizations differently if you don’t ever imagine them working together. It changes the way in the way you recruit people, maybe the mission of the organizations, maybe the way you do political or community education, maybe the kind of campaigns you decide to work on. It’s the same thing here where in the way you talk about something. I’m trying to think of a neutral example. Let’s say that you wanted to change the public notice system for like town hall meetings or getting public comments on things. The change is very small. It’s like instead of burying an announcement printed in English on page 56 of the daily newspaper, we’re going to use social media, use different languages, and do all these different things. Those are important to do but those are relatively small. But you can use that process to educate so many people about the public comment, about democracy. You can use that process to get your own institution starting to get accustomed to racial equity conscious decision making, or not. If you want those outcomes, you have to build them into the ways you talk about the change you’re going to make.
Dwayne: I have ten more questions but I’m only going to ask two then we’re going to turn them over to you guys (audience). The first is, you talk about community for a second. Let’s talk a little bit about your evolution in terms of what are sophisticated approaches government can take to engage communities more effectively given the moment right now?
Rinku: You know we’ve been involved in this process in Salinas, California for about two years now. I’ve learned so much in those two years. Salinas is a city of 160,000 people and they had between December 2014 to June 2015, four officers involved in shootings of men of color. There has been churn and organizing in that community for years around policing and other things as well but that concentration of deadly shootings had generated so much churn. We worked with lots of different groups, advocacy, local and community organizations and the city government, through a process that has been supported by the California Endowment that got us to our structural equity curriculum. We teach people how to make racial equity an institution of all kinds and we worked with the national Compadres network, which is a social, psychological organization that works on trauma and healing and changing community norms and practice around domestic and sexual violence in particular. I think it was pretty sophisticated to bring this psychological framework and political structural framework together and what we found is that we were able to get the community and the city government in Salinas to agree on a set of definitions.
What constitutes racial discrimination? Is it only that intentional, overt and conscious kind? Or individual kind? Or is there something called implicit bias? Is there some place where we can have race neutral laws and policies but still have terrible racial effects? In Salinas, they’ve been crafting a joint agenda, really grounded by the city government, lead by the city manager who has been the most consistent champion of this work I’ve ever seen. In under two years, they got actual changes going and three of their departments in particular: public works, police department, and parks and recreation. I think a joint process requires some sophistication and it requires real emotional wear for everybody involved.
In the beginning of that process in Salinas, we did two days of training for the advocates and two days of training for the staff and they were all nervous and anxious. None of them wanted to be with the other people. They were like, “We’re just going to get creamed.” On the fifth day, we brought them all together and I think just having that experience of being able to talk to each other using the same language and not talking over each other created the foundation for real ongoing democracy and equity conscious decision making from the residence all the way to the city manager.
Dwayne: The last question I had before we turn the mics. Often we see the teams wrestling with how perfect does this strategy have to be to launch? Does it have to be perfect? How do you make that decision? Especially with a responsibility as big as government.
Rinku: It could be “good enough” but that should be much better than what was before. It doesn’t have to be perfect and honestly we don’t know enough about how to do this for it to be perfect like there’s nobody who got it perfectly right that you can rip their model and lay it on top of your institution and be there. Perfection is impossible so having perfection as a goal means you won’t do anything. You have to answer, “Good enough for whom?” Good enough for you?... because you can manage to get it done? Good enough for the community? As an early effort, as a foundation laying thing? Good enough better be a lot better than what you’re not doing anymore. Is it better than before? That’s a criteria. Is it connected to bigger foundational change? Is it helping to build muscle and support for racial equity in the institutions and in the community at large. That’s a criteria. If you have an idea that does those three things, then it’s probably worth going for it.
Dwayne: Thanks. I think in addition to being an amazing strategist and community leader, Julie Nelson, the director of GARE will be asking for questions from the audience.
Audience Member #1: Tell us your thinking in terms of the strategy when you sue or when you file a complaint with the feds, and as government folks, we know that the danger of risking the loss of federal funds is always a powerful incentive.
Rinku: I’m not a lawyer but I’ve worked with a lot of lawyers in the course of my organizing and I think that there are many good reasons to sue. The number one reason is if you think that a lawsuit will get recourse and move the resources that you need to move. The possibility of getting actual material change is a good reason to sue. You sue if the leverage is real. Actually you threaten to sue for leverage but you have to be willing to follow through if you’re going to threaten. One thing to keep in mind is that lawsuits aren’t much of a threat and they aren’t leverage because municipalities just build them into the cost of doing business. This is a problem in the way we try to get recourse on bad policing and excessive use of force or discriminatory force. You may know that very very few police officers have been indicted for manslaughter for killing a person of color and yet in those same cases when there are civil judgements—police officer not indicted with no charges considered, families sue civil courts and win millions and millions of dollars. This has been going on for 40-50 years. Those millions of dollars of losses hasn’t generated new policies or behaviors within police departments. They just build it into what’s going to happen. So in that case, a lawsuit doesn’t act as leverage. They don’t serve the same purpose as, let’s say, a civil rights lawsuit on desegregation of housing or schools. And then the last thing to consider is what the organizing atmosphere is and I think lawsuits have very limited, in fact, even if they are successful, if there isn’t community and government organized to implement whatever remedies have been mandated out of a lawsuit.
People have so much cynicism and fatalism about questions of race and they really think nothing will ever change that we’ve just all got these biases in our heads and the best we can do is to mitigate the drama and the harm so it’s been very important to have early small projects happen there.
Audience Member #2: I wanted to appreciate the work you did in Salinas in bringing the advocated and community together and then figuring out how to bridge that gap. What worked to make that effective? Was it just spending the time? Or were there specific things that worked?
Rinku: Couple of things that made it work was definitely leadership from both sets of people and really brave and consistent leadership. The city manager, Ray Corpuz, insisted that every single department participate in the training— multiple people from each department. He did not wait for a mandate from the city council to do it. He just did it. So that was one thing. I think on a different note, just acknowledging that people on both sides among the resident, advocates, and city staffers, had suffered and experienced some trauma and needed healing. That acknowledgment seemed pretty key. I think actually that the training team just timed well because the first effort, we did everything in a week— this concentrated period of time. People got to see the training team multiple times be comfortable and easy and optimistic about the whole topic and that set a tone that was a tone of togetherness. And we did some creative things on the fifth day when we all came together, we all incorporated a couple of games in the agenda for that day because we wanted people to have a physical experience of working together— a somatic experience of that. We incorporated the National Compadres Network’s focus on storytelling so lots and lots of stories got told for the rest of that week.
Those were some of the factors and in the end, the granule work planning worked— we actually did something. People have so much cynicism and fatalism about questions of race and they really think nothing will ever change that we’ve just all got these biases in our heads and the best we can do is to mitigate the drama and the harm so it’s been very important to have early small projects happen there. There was a period in Salinas when that was held up; the logistics just didn’t come together. Let me just say this right now: logistical problems quickly become political problems. So don’t let logistics become the hold up— the fact that we didn’t complete the work plan therefore these five things didn’t get a person or deadline assigned to them. There are easy and hard ways to schedule meetings. Meeting scheduling becomes like this huge problem. Efficiency in meeting scheduling and thinking about how we use meetings. Does every meeting have to last an hour? No. Some of them can go 15 minutes or making a meeting for 45 minutes instead of an hour. I know people who are doing all their meetings standing up because it makes your long talkers talk a lot less. So creativity on that front but logistical problems quickly amount to “they never really wanted to do it anyway” so that’s an arena of vigilance for people like yourselves.
Audience Member #3: You talked about creating a growing mandate and it seems to me that in a lot of institutions, there’s always a benevolent leadership. What happens if when there is no leadership in that arena but most of the leadership is coming out of lines down? And unfortunately you don’t get in trouble for making mistakes. You get in trouble for moving outside of your role. I’m wondering how do you create a growing mandate without that quote on “benevolent leader”?
Rinku: I guess what I would say is that’s where an inside-outside strategy would really be important. Because if the people who are inside have limitations on what they could push forward on, then they need some kind of leverage to justify stepping out of their roles or expanding their roles or making some other department take up something that isn’t in your role. So that’s when you need the organizing and the community demand to be there so that’s a reason to really support that kind of direction action organizing. I mean in Salinas, there’s a case study about our work in Salinas that you can find on our website at RaceForward.org. There’s a thing that happened 9 months after we did all this training and got the process started. On the anniversary of what they call an uprising that was happening at the height of the police shootings, on the anniversary, there was a new round of protests— as you would expect, as any community-minded person might expect— but by then, the city staff had already been in this process where community and staff were together and they were really taken aback by the anniversary protest.
“Why are they protesting us still?” We liked and we worked it all out last November. They kind of had to get used to the idea that there is going to be protest and even if there is, it’s still your job and still your mandate to work very closely with these community leaders who—yes indeed they supported the protests that were so upsetting to them. People like yourselves can help your colleagues process their feelings about that. I understand the feelings of the city staffers in Salinas and that’s why we need the emotional strength to do this work and why we have to pay some attention to the trauma and healing and psychology of it all and incorporate understanding those things into our strategies.
Audience Member #4: So in thinking about the comment you made about the roof enforcement (aforementioned metaphor) of the code enforcement person. The code enforcement person’s job is to identify violations, write up citations, and she does her job well. In thinking about that, what are the structures that jurisdictions have placed to keep their finger on the pulse of racial equity? It can sound like we have to rely on community to bring up these issues because you’re so ingrained in your day to day work, doing what you’ve been told to do in the best way possible.
Rinku: Having a consistent practice of applying a racial equity impact assessment, I mentioned doing it for small and large things so that kind of thing can be built into. If you looked at code enforcement and citations for abandoned cars that are sitting on the street. If you just had the requirement of a monthly or a semi-annual or even an annual, racialized data gathering around where car citations were going out and then you could see whether there was a pattern of more citations in particular places. It might even be that in those places, there are simply more abandoned cars since people can’t afford to get them fixed or whatever the case may be. Then once you saw the pattern, the next question would be, “so this is a racially alarming pattern but we don’t necessarily want abandoned cars out on the streets, what’s a different solution that might work? I guess a question that would come up for me is for an example like that. Is giving out these citations actually getting cars out the street or are citations just piling up and then the consequences of having multiple citations also piling up on a particular family of color? So the racial equity impact assessment leads you through 10 questions that you can apply to everything, where you have your monthly meetings or a state-wide legislation that you’re examining. Getting into the habit of asking about the racial impact of our practices will start to reveal things that don’t look right and start getting people to focus on the need to get alternatives.
Audience Member #5: Hi. Thank you. I’m going way back, baby steps back to the beginning. What resources, other than GARE here and your organizations, [can we use] to even begin to develop the skills to have those discussions? What resources have you used to train staff that you’ve used yourself in your thirty years to be prepared because to have these type of discussions with electeds and wider communities, I think ours and many other jurisdictions will really need to develop those skills ourselves. Any input tips or resources you have would be great.
Rinku: There’s a website called Racial Equity Tools that really compile tools, like us are creating, across the country— some locally or regionally oriented. We also use a lot of articles and pop culture videos in our teaching. Couple of people I would point to. There’s a guy named Jay Smooth. More people on the East Coast know him out West. Jay Smooth is actually a DJ and hip hop historian and he does these very accessible videos about different issues regarding race. They’re like two minutes long and very fun to watch. He uses language that non-academics use. They’re very sharp. He’ll just like drill down into something and break it down into two minutes and do it in a very entertaining way. His stuff, the comedy of Kamau Belle, Hari Kondabolu, there’s a guy out of Australia— I can’t remember his name. If you look at Color Lines, which is the daily news site that we produce, we cover culture and a lot of that culture is artists, comedians, and entertainers of color who are doing different things. That’s a good resource. When you need something to spark a conversation without getting up and doing a standup comedy routine, I think those are good. A site called Racialicious has things like that. I think you want to use news and pop culture and the things that are happening in the community as much as possible so it’s not all a big abstraction. Another great resource is a site called Everyday Feminism where they do really accessible broken down lists of things: “5 reasons why Lemonade isn’t for white ladies”… I mean I made that one up. I would check those out.
So in our country, we are at the 240 years out from the impression and established identity of an American is a white person. The default universal, the default all is white. If you want to reach people of color, all is not going to get you there.
Julie Nelson: Just to give you guys a head up. We’ll do a training in August. When it comes to changing your organization’s culture, training is a key part of it. We will give you a curriculum that you can use with your colleagues, your elected officials– a wide range of people. Part of it will be walking you through the curriculum, part of it will be practicing the curriculum and talking about facilitation tips and I want to be really clear. One of the reasons why we love training the trainer is that in doing that, you build your own skill and capacity. In training the entire breadth of an organization, you will have a much better sense of the opportunities from a grammatical perspective, policy perspective. So it’s not just about providing information, it’s actually about changing the organization as well. It’s August right? Did I get that right?
Audience Member #6: When you first started speaking you said how we use names of vulnerable communities: underserved, unserved, what language should we use? Will you give some examples?
Rinku: Latinos, Cambodian- immigrants, inner city is one of the codes that really makes me laugh now because there are no people of color in most inner cities because they’ve been redeveloped out. So just to actually name the community…
Dwayne: I think that sometimes there are terms that can draw a picture if you don’t drag it to the point you’re trying to make with that picture. It’s really falsifying. We never use the term undeserving to Latino groups….
Rinku: Right. Ofcourse yes. Exactly.
Dwayne Marsh: But we don’t talk about why we’re talking about that group specifically as being underserved then we can just go back and…
Rinku: Right right you can take a both end approach to it.
Audience Member #7: One other comment I think I learned at our last GARE conference was that whatever you’re calling community, if you lead with people who are or people who have, it personalizes it and it’s not just that.
Rinku: Like people of Latino descent and people who identify as….
Audience Member #8: I wonder though. Don’t you run the risk of leaving out certain communities if you try to name some but haven’t captured all of them. And then in a sense, that does a disservice to those populations you haven’t explicitly named.
Rinku: Well if they’re not part of the effort you’re trying to move, then there’s no need to name them cause you’re actually trying to target a particular group of people.
Audience Member #8: But that might cover a whole broad range…
Rinku: Yeah but it usually actually doesn’t. Underserved, usually really we use it… it may cover a range of population or you can in fact list them all certainly online you can do that or in speech. In writing you can do that. What I want to point to is the futility of using universal and all and hoping that all will actually see themselves in it.
So in our country, we are at the 240 years out from the impression and established identity of an American is a white person. The default universal, the default all is white. If you want to reach people of color, all is not going to get you there.
Maybe at some point we’ll get to a place where all really does mean all but to date, all has not meant all and that’s why we tend to insist on explicitness and naming for communities. And if that means naming 30 different communities, then so be it. It’s a diverse country. It’s better to name them all then to use some universal shorthand that won’t compute with people.
Years ago, before the affordable care act passed when it was being debated, I went to a gathering here in the Bay Area with a couple of 500 people and a man came up on the stage and made an argument for the Affordable Care Act before it passed and he said, “Uninsured people are just like you and me. They’re white. They’re employed. They’re etc. etc. etc.” That’s an example of how we unthinkingly use “just like you and me” and the assumption of who’s in the universal and who’s in the all. I think it’s a tough one for white folks because there is a gut level clarity or gut level notion that all, when I say all, I’m including everybody. But the actual historical experiences of people of color have been that policies about the “all” have left us out.
A good example of that is that when the social security act was created in the 1930s, it explicitly left out farm workers and domestic workers from being able to access social security. It was an enormous benefit. It is the thing that got elders out of poverty. Domestic farmers and farm workers who were excluded at the time, who were they at the time? They were black people, latinos, asians, and native people. So social security was a supposedly universal program that applied to all and yet this one little regulation cut out millions of people and that’s the history that people and communities of color have lived and understand so that’s when we hear all, we’re cynical about that and we need to see ourselves listed in order to believe we’ve been considered in the all.
A good way to think about it, about policy making in this arena, is to aim for targeted universalism— we want universal goals, we want everybody to have social security, we don’t want any elders to be living in poverty without any support and we’re going to target our strategy toward different communities specifically because we know they’re entering elderhood. We know that the different conditions that different communities enter elderhood with really determine the quality of their lives. Maybe at some point we’ll get to a place where all really does mean all but to date, all has not meant all and that’s why we tend to insist on explicitness and naming for communities. And if that means naming 30 different communities, then so be it. It’s a diverse country. It’s better to name them all then to use some universal shorthand that won’t compute with people. Thanks for asking that question.
Audience Member #9: I work for the San Francisco development a lot. You mentioned working close with the community. Often we find ourselves in the middle that you described in the beginning and we have been doing more and more working for the community but it’s very very hard. I was wondering if you can describe some successes.
Rinku: What are the things that are hard? Is it trust or…
Audience Member #9: It’s definitely trust. Trust is definitely a big thing. People don’t trust the government and I give them credit for not trusting us. But we get pulled by development companies and we can’t provide all these benefits and we’re in the middle working with people of color because of trust and money issues.
Rinku: There are a couple of things I’ve seen in Salinas that have made a difference. City staffer, particular city staffers, have a long history of showing up to community things. Even if they weren’t born and raised in Salinas, at times when there wasn’t a crisis, they would go. The community got used to seeing them and knowing that they don’t just have to come now but it was their way of being a part of city government. Another thing is when you get input or feedback from the community, to respond back to it. If some of that stuff ended up in your ultimate plan, then show people that that happened. If some of it you rejected, say why you didn’t! it’s really frustrating to turn out to things and give your input but never to hear anything back about what happened with that. Unless we expect people to granularly follow your policy and practice changes, they’re not going to know. Some of them are going to be so subtle that the newspaper’s not going to report on it. Even if they did, there’s a lot of news. It’s easy to miss. I think showing up for community especially when it’s not crisis time and reporting back on these community engagement times, those are two things that really help.
Audience Member #10: Can you help us to articulate how racial justice makes things better for everybody? For example, how do we get the people from the Oakland Hills to care about the African Americans in West Oakland. How do you get white politicians in mostly white communities to get on board on a countywide or citywide racial justice.
Rinku: So if you’re trying to get somebody on your program or on board. The thing you should not do is throw a bunch of data on them. A lot of our persuasion mode is “let me show you the data” and the data is always the disparity data with no explanation about how the disparity came to be. Your storytelling has to reveal to people the mechanism by which the discrimination took place and that means you have to tell a bunch of stories about history. That’s just life. Life in the racial justice fast lane: you learn a lot of history and you learn to tell stories with a historical component in like two minutes. So storytelling and not over relying on data, using data to enhance your story rather than expecting your data itself to tell the story. That’s a set of skills that are important. I also did say, I’m going to note that, it makes things better for vulnerable people. Oakland Hills, maybe racial justice beyond making stronger society and public safety— a cohesive community— those are the arguments you can make. But you’re not going to get everybody and at a certain point, you have to out organize the naysayers.
Dwayne: I just also think that an important thing are the disadvantages of a system. Our system is not potentially discrimination and it hasn’t for a long time, so it’s really going to be okay. But the fact that these systems initiated with discriminatory acts, there’s deep historical roots and there’s a momentum that will continue and racial inequity will perpetuate unless we counter it. It’s not going to stop on its own and that’s the important thing decision makers need to recognize.
Rinku: Yes… making the case for equity-conscious decision making rather than colorblind decision making.