How Cities Can Advance Racial Equity Through Community Conversations

pittsburgh
pittsburgh
Led by Chief Cameron McLay, police in the city of Pittsburgh are mirroring efforts in other cities around the country to build trust with the communities they serve. (Sean Pavone/Getty Images)

These cities are proving that progress is possible when dialogues are sustained over time and a wide range of stakeholders are included to create opportunities for healing.

This is a guest post by Aileen Carr.

The National League of Cities (NLC) has been working with the White House and U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) to encourage local officials to convene 100 community conversations on race relations, justice, policing and equality. NLC’s work on this project reflects our broader commitment to race and equity, which is embodied in our Race, Equity And Leadership initiative (REAL). REAL is NLC’s effort to equip its membership with the capacity to respond to racial tensions in their communities, identify the systemic barriers that sustain racial injustice in our nation’s cities, and build more equitable communities.

NLC member cities have accepted the call from President Obama, and we have exceeded our goal. To date, 105 cities have committed to hosting White House Community Conversations, and the White House has convened more than 300 local law enforcement agencies from around the country to discuss community policing. REAL staff have been actively engaging with and supporting city leaders as they plan their convenings as well as offering consultation and technical assistance with framing dialogues effectively, developing agendas, engaging a diverse range of stakeholders, and identifying facilitation support.

Efforts to bring politicians, police, activists and community members to discuss racial tensions can be a great first step toward real progress on racial equity in cities. Such progress is possible when the dialogues are sustained over time and a wide range of stakeholders are included to create opportunities for healing.

Here’s what we’ve learned about what’s working from Wichita, Kansas; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; New Orleans; and Minnesota.

First Steps

A community convening is a first step in building relationships and rebuilding trust. To advance racial equity in cities, community dialogues need to be part of a sustained community effort. As President Obama said after hosting a closed door meeting on this issue with civil rights groups, law enforcement and state and local government officials, “Not only are there very real problems, but there are still deep divisions about how to solve these problems… We have to, as a country, sit down and just grind it out, solve these problems. And I think if we have that kind of sustained commitment, I’m confident we can do so.” Hosting a series of community conversations about race and policing can start the process of solving the larger community problems related to racial equity. In Wichita, Kansas – home of City councilmember LaVonta Williams, who serves on NLC’s REAL Council – police hosted a “First Step Barbecue” that brought more than 1,000 citizens together, and they plan to follow up with sustained efforts in the months to come.

Building a Big Table

Community conversations should include a wide range of stakeholders. The bigger the table, the better the outcome. Elected officials, police, clergy, civil rights groups, millennials, activists, and families of people affected by police violence should be joined by businesses, educators and coaches, students, professional sports teams or players, local celebrities, local media outlets, and other community leaders who have the trust of the community. See this short video about one “big table” conversation hosted by a local news outlet in Seattle:

Racial Healing

Dialogues between community and police officers should be explicit about racial bias in policing and acknowledge the historical role of policing in the creation of racial inequities. Having that tough conversation can lead to the kind of real healing in our communities that is necessary for establishing a strong foundation and taking actions that result in more equitable outcomes. As Pittsburgh Chief of Police Cameron McLay notes, “It’s critically important to have the moral courage to say sorry. I’m sorry for the shared history. I’m sorry for the role my profession has played in the harm that has been caused to our communities of color. And I’m sorry for the days where we didn’t have our best day, but I’m going to hold myself accountable for making sure that from now on that we’re going to try to work together with you to find more just ways to deliver our police services. Trust is something we have to earn.” For more from Chief McLay, listen here:

Other cities that are weaving racial healing into their police-community engagement and broader racial equity efforts are New Orleans and Tacoma.

 

 

  • Project PEACE – Tacoma, Washington:

 

 

Beyond Policing: Applying a Racial Equity Lens

Racial equity efforts at the city level are not just about policing. Local government policies, practices, and programs of all kinds can perpetuate existing racial disparities or help to dismantle them. With a sustained commitment to applying a racial equity lens to decisions across government, cities across the country are building inclusive, equitable communities. One example of these systematic efforts is in Minnesota, where the League of Minnesota Cities is working with our partners at the Government Alliance for Racial Equity to engage more than 10 cities in a long term effort to operationalize racial equity in their city governments. Here is a video describing their efforts:

We implore city leaders to take action and proactively address issues of racism and inequality in their communities. If your city is hosting meaningful conversations on race, justice and equity, please email us your stories and videos.

About the Author: Aileen Carr is the Manager of NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) initiative.