How Cities Are Creating Opportunities for Racial Healing

December 20, 2018 - (4 min read)

2018 has been a critical year for the National League of Cities (NLC) Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) initiative. REAL supports cities developing opportunities for racial healing through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded project on Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation. Our cross-site convening in October brought together six city teams to learn from the unique work in the city of New Orleans to address the city’s challenging history, to gain new skills and approaches for their own cities’ work, and to learn from their peers.

Participants in the cross-site convening participated in a walking tour of New Orleans led by Malik Bartholomew of Know NOLA Tours. This primer on New Orleans’ history provided context for the evolving racial dynamics throughout the city. Attendees participated in skill building work on racial healing led by Initiatives of Change racial healing practitioners and a fireside chat featuring Sue Mobley and Carolyn Carter, both leaders in racial healing and racial equity work in New Orleans.

City teams participating in the convening have been part of a 16-month intensive technical assistance cohort. Sites were chosen based upon their city leadership’s existing commitment to advancing racial equity work and exploring opportunities to support racial healing. Each city’s core team of municipal leaders meets virtually with REAL staff each month, participates in regular webinars, and works toward developing or improving racial equity plans for their municipality.

One component of each city’s racial healing practice is to develop opportunities for communities to be in conversation with city government about what racial healing means to them. For example, as part of a broader effort to create dialogue, to educate residents about historical context, and to acknowledge past wrongs, the city of Wichita, Kansas, has created public space for residents to answer the question, “What does racial healing mean to you?”

City staff in Wichita, Kansas, build a space promoting conversations on racial healing. (Photo Credit: City of Wichita)

The cities in the cohort will mark the upcoming National Day of Racial Healing (NDORH) on January 22, 2019, with a variety of actions to demonstrate their cities’ commitments to embracing open and personal conversation about race. Actions that cities can take include issuing official proclamations, hosting dialogues, and fostering cross-sector partnerships to create space for a breadth of stories to be shared. We invite cities to mark the third annual NDORH by preparing to move from talk to action, to promote understanding of how local government may have caused or perpetuated harm and must change systems to address this harm. Racial healing can only stem from acknowledgement of harm followed by an intentional and sustained commitment to long term reconciliation.

The city of Eureka, California, has embarked on a powerful process, moving towards returning 202 acres of surplus city land to the Wiyot nation, to which the land originally belonged and remains a sacred ceremonial site. The city believes that this action, which was requested by the Wiyot tribal leadership and which the city council recently voted to approve, is only the first step in the important process towards racial healing.

Some suggested city-led activities for the National Day of Racial Healing include:

  • Hold conversations with city employees or in partnership with schools or community organizations to explore what racial healing could look like for them. This could include working with employers and schools to explore ways to incorporate racial healing into events they are already hosting for MLK Jr. Day.
  • Work with the philanthropic sector in advance to promote a public pledge for local foundations to invest in anti-racism work, frameworks, and strategies for communities, and hold them accountable.
  • Work with the business community to write an op-ed or pitch your local editorial board as a “solutions story,” using economic data to show that businesses have a stake in racial healing, and that the racial equity approach makes good economic sense.

Finally, NDORH presents an opportunity for municipal leaders to show their commitment to bringing explicit conversations about race to the forefront of government’s role to build equitable communities. One visible way to bring attention to this commitment is for Mayors and City Council members to issue a Proclamation on or before NDORH. Some suggested language can be found here.

We invite all cities that plan to acknowledge National Day of Racial Healing in some way to please fill out this questionnaire to share any proclamation language and other activities with the REAL team.
About the author: Aliza R. Wasserman is the senior associate with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative.




BernadetteBernadette Onyenaka is a program manager for the Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) initiative at the National League of Cities.