What does it mean to repair decades and centuries of ill-treatment, discrimination, exploited labor, death, and massacre? How do city, town, and village leaders grapple with the legacy of what governments have wrought on people of color and indigenous people throughout the United States in ways that are actionable, restorative, and authentic to the experiences of the people who live in their communities?
NLC Race, Equity And Leadership’s (REAL) three-year exploration focuses on what racial equity and racial healing mean for local leaders across America. Themes such as repair of harm, strategies for changing policy, and changing hearts and minds were front and center at REAL’s first ever academy for local leaders, which took place April 11-12 in Washington, D.C.
Through the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, eighteen local leaders from ten cities came together to learn from each other, troubleshoot challenges and take a deeper dive into the concept of repair.
A session featuring Councilmembers Kim Bergel and Natalie Arroyo of the City of Eureka and Chairman Ted Hernandez and former Chairwoman Cheryl Seidner of the Wiyot nation highlighted a timely example. “Listen with your eyes; listen with your heart—not just your head. Watch how people are perceiving you. Be the peacemaker,” said Seidner.
The Eureka City Council has been quietly working to return two-hundred acres of Wiyot land located on Indian Island back to the tribe, following several administrations listening and relationship building with the goal of repair.
The need for repair in this section of Humboldt County, Calif., is deep. The Wiyot were nearly erased after a band of white settlers murdered indigenous women, elders, and children in 1860. During the city’s reckoning with the history of the massacre and land theft, city officials struggled to create a public apology that was both authentic in taking responsibility for the atrocities, while balancing legal concerns about liability. Ultimately, after a segment of the island was purchased by the tribe through fundraising efforts in 2014, Arroyo and Bergel knew the city had to do more to make the Wiyot whole by returning the rest of the island.
The first steps in this process were building relationships with Tribal leaders like Seidner and Hernandez and asking them what the tribe wanted from the Eureka city leadership. When the tribe easily identified the return of its sacred land and the Tuluwat village as its top request, the city council began a long process of determining how levers of city governance could be used to return the remainder of the island to the tribe.
The goal of April’s convening was to deepen local leaders’ understanding of racial healing after they witnessed and participated in a conversation with Arroyo, Bergel, and Hernandez. In addition to asking how relationships were built and what initial steps other cities, towns, and villages could take to begin a similar process, NLC REAL staff contextualized the legacy of historical racism to build shared understanding and fluidity with navigating the way resistance shows up in the city leaders’ everyday work on racial equity.
Dialogue during the convening focused on how to put current racial equity work in the context of longer-term visions and goals, building up the muscle to understand how historical events and current actions exist within a broader system of white supremacy and applying power mapping skills to moving concrete changes forward. The conversation created space for participants to help their peers navigate resistance and challenges.
As more municipalities delve into the history of colonization and erasure of indigenous populations on the land they inhabit, a number are beginning to recognize the importance of building government-to-government relationships with these tribes.
Tacoma, Wash. started holding the first joint-governmental meetings with the leadership of the Puyallup Tribe, and Albuquerque, N.M. recently passed a historic ordinance recognizing Tribal sovereignty and mandating government-to-government relationships. While other cities, towns, and villages may not have the same specific history of land theft or may lack federally-recognized Tribal governments locally, there are other opportunities to address the local histories of structural violence due to racism.
The goal of the REAL initiative is to equip local leaders, elected officials, and staff with the courage to face painful histories and the tools to navigate discomfort when the legacy of this history is brought to the surface. For more information about the REAL initiative, visit nlc.org/real.
About the Author: Aliza R. Wasserman is the senior associate with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative.