Editors’ note: This article is part of our ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project in collaboration between NPQ and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.
“When Trayvon Martin was killed, I was heartbreakingly reminded of just how deep-seated racism and racial inequity are in American society. This not only can affect a young person’s opportunity prospects but also put his or her life in jeopardy. But I also thought that this should be our work, and we are really unprepared to take it on.”—Living Cities staffer
On February 26, 2012, a seventeen-year-old Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman. Martin’s death ignited a national debate about racism and justice. It was on the nightly news and in the editorial pages. We heard from legal and criminal justice experts, historians, artists, Martin’s parents, and President Obama. And, across the country, people were having their own conversations. They were having them at dinner tables and at real and metaphorical water coolers. They were having them on social media and in the streets as a protest movement took hold.
At Living Cities, we were having them too. The days following the Zimmerman verdict were particularly tense at our office, as staff members found themselves in informal but reflective and sometimes emotional conversations about Martin’s death, Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the pervasiveness of race in America. Several staff members felt that a robust interrogation of the impact of racial inequity on cities was noticeably absent from Living Cities’ work. These conversations eventually set us on a course to radically reconfigure the way the organization works around race.
Living Cities is a twenty-five-year-old collaborative of foundations and financial institutions working together to improve the economic well-being of low-income people in American cities. Living Cities’ staff facilitates, seeds, and executes the work of connecting the priorities and expertise of its diverse funders and partners. Our mission is focused on advancing change at the systems level. In service of this, we are testing several approaches. For example, through our nine-city Integration Initiative, we work with cross-sector leaders in each city to move the needle on such outcomes as, in New Orleans, connecting low-income people to jobs, and, in Newark, improving the health and wellness of children. We provide a mix of grants, loans, learning opportunities, and thought partnership to these efforts. Another initiative, called the City Accelerator—a partnership with the Citi Foundation—supports cohorts of public-sector leaders in eight city halls to implement innovative strategies to address the needs of low-income people. As part of a cohort of the City Accelerator focused on resident engagement, for instance, Baltimore aims to ease the transition from incarceration to community.
While Living Cities’ work addresses racial equity and inclusion at different levels and in different ways in cities around the country, we were not explicit about this focus. Meanwhile, the historical and prevailing context is that the majority of low-income people in U.S. cities are people of color. How was it possible, we were asking ourselves, to achieve our mission without addressing the intersections between poverty and race with intentionality? Further, there was a sense among staff members that conversations about race were not encouraged at Living Cities, both in terms of how we engaged with each other internally and in terms of the story that we were telling the world about our work.
This conversation spread rapidly, with primarily junior-level staffers taking the lead on moving it from the hallway to a conference room. As it became clear that so many people from across the organization felt very strongly about the need to move racial equity and inclusion from the periphery to the center of our work, a group of three staffers—a director, an assistant director, and one of the authors of this article (who was a senior associate at the time)—raised the issue with Living Cities’ CEO Ben Hecht.
One of Ben’s most frequent reminders to Living Cities’ staff is that no matter where you sit in the organization, you are being paid to think. He encourages all staff to participate in meetings, to speak our minds, and to bring our best ideas to the table. Still, acknowledging that conversations about race often get difficult and messy, we wanted to do the necessary work to ensure that we were prepared and productive.
As staff, we had gone through training in adaptive leadership, including around having “courageous conversations.” That training proved to be extremely valuable, as there was an emphasis placed on seeing things via multiple interpretations and considering the core values and perceived losses of key stakeholders in terms of what one was proposing.
Ben has said that his initial reaction to hearing that his staff felt that Living Cities was not being as effective as it could be in terms of advancing racial equity and inclusion both internally and externally, was, “How could this be?” He expressed his commitment to these issues and said that he was surprised that others did not see it adequately reflected in our culture or work. However, after taking some t