The COVID-19 pandemic, like many crises before it, has disproportionally affected Black and LatinX communities, once again exposing the ingrained racism limiting people’s access to health care, employment, education, and stable housing. Achieving deeper racial equity in communities across the country requires taking on existing power structures and working to change the systems that sustain racism.
A new set of place-based initiatives is working to change these systems through three avenues: structural changes in policies, practices, and resource flows; relational changes in networks and power; and transforming attitudes. The initiatives we studied bring together actors across public, private, and nonprofit sectors to tackle systems shaping access to housing, health, education, public infrastructure, and other life essentials. This work happens across multiple locations, creating a patchwork of many local, cross-sector site teams pursuing similar goals.
Although no single initiative has found a perfect formula for achieving racial equity, some have certainly made progress.
- In California, the 10-year Building Healthy Communities initiative heeded the voices of young people on the racialized harms of discretionary school suspensions across its 14 sites, which led to legislative action and reduced suspensions (PDF) of African American, Native American, and Latino boys.
- In King County, Washington, Communities of Opportunity shifted power to its nine sites and cultural communities by guaranteeing majority representation on the initiative’s governance board to community members and allocating resources toward organizations that operationalize racial equity.
- SPARCC, or the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge, a six-year initiative in six sites across the country, began integrating racial equity into their explicit goals and processes, which shifted stakeholders’ mindsets and prompted changes such as the shift in leadership at one site from a white-led implementing organization to a Black-led one.
We talked to the stakeholders of these initiatives and others to explore their different goals, structures, and processes and distilled four lessons on what it takes to advance racial equity through systems change.
1. Make racial equity a goal and embed it in practices
Advancing racial equity requires helping all initiative stakeholders make progress in their understanding of and commitment to antiracist action. By making unravelling racism an explicit initiative goal, funders provide political cover and enable communities to take public action to center racial equity in their work. Initiative designers can embrace antiracist principles in how they select communities and hire, manage, and train initiative staff. They can also include time to explore and acknowledge the history of underlying racial disparities in life outcomes they seek to change, and they can commit to measuring progress in both process and outcomes.
2. Shift power, take risks, and build trust
Inequitable outcomes stem from inherent power imbalances. Shifting power means offering more authority over goal setting and decisionmaking to those affected by an issue, including hiring community members as staff and paying them as participants. Traditional actors with power and control over resources—funders, business leaders, government officials—can take greater risks in their commitments by investing in communities with less capacity and allowing those communities to set goals, take action, make mistakes, and change direction based on lessons learned. Powerful interests should also be held accountable for their own actions and alter course if they are not furthering an initiative’s goals. Sharing power and risk builds trust and respect that allows for continued collaboration toward common goals.
3. Bridge communities, initiatives, and sectors
Place-based initiatives can advance racial equity and amplify their outcomes by intentionally building connections with other communities and initiatives doing similar work. Initiatives and their sites can learn best practices from peers, compare data and evidence, and collaboratively drive city, state, or federal policy reform by leveraging their combined evidence of broad-based needs for systems change. Pulling together representatives from all parts of a system—including public, private, and nonprofit stakeholders—can ensure everyone involved in producing racially inequitable outcomes is accountable for changing them.
4. Commit for the long haul
The roots of racism run deep, and all these changes and outcomes take time to achieve. A long investment horizon, and an even longer timeline for measuring outcomes, fosters trust with the community, enables a focus on structural changes instead of short-term gains, and allows for adaptation and learning. With a long-term outlook, initiatives can attend to all conditions necessary for systems change, which promotes more durable results. We found this to be true in initiatives with deep and long commitments and in some that built upon past place-based initiatives involving the same stakeholders and communities.
Although this generation of initiatives has created positive changes, many of which will endure, there is still a long way to go in uprooting oppressive structures. The next generation of initiatives should draw upon the insights from past initiatives and pursue authentic relationships, shift power, and work toward durable, structural changes.