Kris and I spend a lot of time talking about how ineffectively we talk about ourselves as an organization. I suppose that I am particularly condemnable, considering I have never even posted to our blog. I know that there are opinions (both deserved and undeserved) about our work and our intentions; and we do not do enough to confront this. Some of this is because, as a staff of 2, we are doing so many different things, it is difficult to really focus and get deep into the communications of our work. Some of it is because we do not know how to properly convey our intent. And a small bit of it, at least for me, is because diving into these challenges can be nerve-wracking and it is very easy to miscommunicate. But, as an organization that is growing in many ways, we need to take these challenges head on.
A close colleague has often expressed the following to me: “How things are rooted is how they grow.” So… how are we rooted? And more importantly, how do we want our work to be rooted moving forward?
I explored this idea in a letter to our Board of Directors for our annual Board Retreat a few weeks ago, which created a lively and challenging conversation in our meeting. You can read the letter below. It is then followed by an update after our Board Retreat about our direction going forward.
Privilege, Equity, & New Ways of Working:
A Letter to the North Limestone Community Development Corporation Board of Directors
A short time ago, thanks to the Blue Grass Community Foundation, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend PolicyLink’s 2015 Equity Summit along with some of the most wonderful people I know in Lexington. The Summit brought around 3,000 city officials, community leaders, activists, and economic thinkers to Los Angeles to discuss and explore the concepts of Equity.
The Summit, and the resulting conversations that we had amongst our Lexington cohort (and others) forced me to reflect on our work as an organization, and evaluate it through the lens of Equity. And what I realized is that we have a long way to go. We need to be open about that and acknowledge it in order to be able to make steps toward that goal.
Some of the equity issues with our work can be chalked up to how we talk and think about our work; not necessarily what we are doing, but how it is presented and how it is received. But not all of them.
To set this up, I think that NoLi CDC needs to restructure how we talk about our existing work and how we evaluate and guide our work moving forward. We need to be clear and transparent with our intentions. I will propose that we restructure our work into three overlapping sectors: Housing, Design & Construction; Economic Opportunity; and Community Initiatives.
Each of these are easily understood aspects of comprehensive community development, and I believe it makes sense for us to clarify our intent by delineating things in a straightforward way. I want to make sure we are clear that this is not starting over, but rather a next step in evolving our communications and intentions.
Privilege & Equity
As an organization, we are not doing enough. Yes, we have enough programs and projects. That's not what I am talking about. We are doing much for our community, but we are not doing enough with our community. We are certainly working on it, but we need to come to terms with the fact that the status quo is simply not good enough.
Our organization, and some of us, the decision-makers behind it, are in places of privilege. This privilege is a result of the history of our country, and the continued resonance of race- and class-motivated oppression. That privilege, combined with the good fortune we have found with funders, puts us in a place of power over the people we serve. This position comes with a responsibility to our constituency - the neighborhood we live and work and play and worship in. I believe that we are in a place where we can either perpetuate issues that have dominated and divided communities for decades, or we can interrupt those issues, and try to forge a new way moving forward - one that is rooted in Equity.
The choices we make everyday have ripple effects into the community that are beyond our control. We need to be honest about that. The socioeconomic and racial backgrounds many of us come from give these ripples an unspoken meaning that many of us cannot begin to comprehend or understand because of our positions. This, more than anything else I can imagine, has the potential to undermine our work and make us unsuccessful, even if it looks like success to us on the surface. We need to make sure that we are thinking beyond our personal opinions and viewpoints when we make decisions that impact others.
So, let’s talk about Equity.
We need to make sure that the decisions we are making are equitable, and in the best interests of the community we seek to serve. To start to learn how to do this, I can think of no better resource than the Equity Manifesto, released at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit.
Please absorb this. Take a minute and read it again.
Our current mission statement is as follows:
“We are a non-profit organization working on the livability of the North Limestone Corridor.”
But a community can only be truly livable when it is equitable.
We, as an organization, and as individuals, need to ensure that equity is one of the main lenses through which we view and evaluate our work. It needs to permeate every program, every board decision, every email, every conversation, every Facebook post. This needs to be part and parcel of NoLi CDC’s mission and goals. And our communication about this needs to be direct, intentional, and clear.
Now, I know this is a lot of talk - and talk is great, but what we need is action. While I believe we are making progress on this (honestly, I do), I think it is essential that we seize on this time of growth in our organization to redouble our efforts on cultural, social, and racial equity.
New Ways of Working
At our November 8th Board Retreat, I will propose a restructuring of our work, and a complete overhaul of how we talk about and think of our organization.
This is not coming from nowhere. This is coming from a place of interaction, listening, and growing. It is coming from us listening to our peers, to our funders, to our partners, and to our neighbors. We need to do something, and this is where I propose we start. Please understand that without us adopting these measures, and placing equity at the core of our work, it will get increasingly difficult for us to accomplish our work, and eventually, we will be working against ourselves.
The following are my recommendations:
We change our mission statement to incorporate equity, and take it to our closest partners and neighbors for feedback and any recommended alterations.
We announce a restructuring of our work through the publishing of this letter through our blog.
We formally acknowledge, as an organization, the “Equity Manifesto” provided by PolicyLink, copied above.
We form an equity committee that reflects on major decisions. It could potentially be and evolution of the Communications Committee. It has a voting representative on our board, and on our executive committee, that looks at everything through the lens of equity.
- All CDC staff and board undergo Equity training led by a representative of the Equity committee, or a consultant.
Restructuring of our work - Statements of Intent:
Housing, Design, & Construction - Statement of Intent
Our Housing, Design, and Construction work seeks to create spaces that the entire community feels comfortable in; create affordable places that allow self-sufficiency and economic mobility for all residents; and to assist the community in designing the future of its physical spaces. It acknowledges that true community growth comes when those who live in a place shape a place, and that affordable, quality housing is a human right.
Economic Opportunity - Statement of Intent
Our Economic Opportunity work seeks to facilitate economic mobility for our all of our neighbors through a variety of low-barrier platforms and programs. It acknowledges that true community growth only occurs when every member of that community has access to platforms of economic mobility regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or income level.
Cultural & Community Initiatives - Statement of Intent
Our Cultural and Community Initiatives seeks to highlight the culture and history - past and present - of our community; to advocate for the needs of our community through facilitation and leadership; and to work with community, not for community. It acknowledges that true community growth only occurs when we are cognizant of history - both positive and negative - and the impact it has on the present; when we place the perspectives of all community members on an equal plane; and when the leaders for the community are the community itself.
This is not radical. This is equity - or, at least a first attempt at it.
The presenters at the Equity Summit discussing these issues were not young progressives (well, many were), but they were also Mayors and Congresspeople, Professors and Non-Profit leaders, and even the Presidents of Foundations (including Rip Rapson, the President & CEO of Kresge Foundation who recently approved the collaborative grant with the Blue Grass Community Foundation for $675,000).
Many of these people have their eyes on us. Funders, Government, other non-profits - most important of all, our neighbors. So let us seize this opportunity to become an example of how an organization can grow and help others grow by placing equity at the center of our mission. Let us reinvent ourselves in the image of what a community should be. Let us understand that our goal should not be to do - but to enable others to do.
Let us commit to building an equitable community.
The letter was well received! I’m happy to say that our Board of Directors took me up on many of my recommendations:
We have formed an Equity Committee as a special project of our Communications Committee. The chair of the Equity Committee is Shayla Johnson, who is the Assistant Director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council. Shayla has been a voting member of our board for the past year and a half, and was recently appointed Secretary of our Board, and has a position on the Executive Committee. So check that box off! We will be filling out our Equity Committee over the next month or so.
This Equity Committee will make recommendations about our programs and projects, as well as help us reframe our mission statement around Equity. Check off that one.
I am posting this blog post - in which, we are committing to our Statements of Intent for our three program areas. So check that box off as well.
We definitely acknowledged the Equity Manifesto. Come to our office, and you can even grab a copy of it to take with you! Check.
The Equity Committee will also be making recommendations to our Board for Equity training over the next few months. Half-check that one.
While this is the head-space that Kris and I have been in for the past year or so, the most important thing is that it is now institutionalized in our organization (or in the process of becoming so). If we get hit by a bus tomorrow, the next folks to take our place will have to consider Equity as part of their work.
This is a starting place, but it is a good place to start from. Over the next few weeks, I will make a few more posts regarding updates that came out of our board retreat, as well as some more about our work and equity. We also have some very big announcements coming down the pike, so stay tuned.