Three Levels of Racial Equity Work


It’s become increasingly clear that large scale social change efforts need to directly tackle structural racial inequality in order to be truly impactful and effective. For this reason, racial equity has become a central focus of the work at Living Cities, especially within its collective impact portfolio which focuses on changing the systems in cities that consistently produce poor outcomes for many city residents. As both of us have contributed to Living Cities’ internal work on racial equity, we’re excited to see the Collective Impact Forum and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ take on this important topic in Collaborating to See All Constituents Reach Their Full Potential.

This memo is a great first step to infusing a racial equity lens into the principles and practices of collective impact, but it is still only a first step—a foundational document. The resources and approaches presented in the memo can help collective impact initiatives start on their journey toward racial equity, but much more work needs to be done to accelerate the pace of that exploration. Since any attempt to undo the complex web of structural forces that lead to racial inequalities can very easily and quickly become overwhelming, we’ve found it helpful to think of 3 different levels at which racial equity work needs to happen within the context of collective impact: from the individual to the partnership to the broader community.

Within ourselves: To begin, the journey towards advancing racial equity and inclusion often begins with the hearts and minds of the actual people involved in the initiative. All people – including those involved in a collective impact initiative – have different levels of understanding and comfort discussing issues of structural racial inequality.   Advancing equity requires continuous learning, so if leaders and participants of a collective impact initiative want to truly achieve greater change, then the first steps to take are with your/their/our own understanding of the issues. Dedicated reflection and introspection on the complex nature of racism, power, and privilege are often critical to understanding the ways in which we can actually move towards racial equity. For example, Living Cities as an organization went through an intensive, months-long process with Frontline Solutions to build our own internal understanding of how racial inequities have influenced our own lives as well as the lives of low-income people in the cities where we work. A number of different organizations, workshops and learning resources exist to help build people’s understanding of structural racism (and many can be found in ‘the memo’) which are helpful starting points for these individual journeys.

Within the cross sector partnership: A second frontier of racial equity work in collective impact is at the level of the cross-sector partnership itself. In our experience with Living Cities’ portfolio of over 70 collective impact initiatives across the country, we’ve seen leaders tackle racial equity in many different ways. Some carve out specific working groups to target or address disparities, whereas others include explicit racial equity goals in the overarching frame of all of their work. The Strive Partnership, in Cincinnati, OH, for example, developed a 90-day Race and Equity Task Force that focused on identifying specific strategies for reducing disparities and helped initiate the development of a partnership-wide equity statement. However, the Network for Economic Opportunity in New Orleans, which Living Cities supports through The Integration Initiative (TII), does not have a work group focused on racial equity and instead has embedded a racial equity lens into all of their work supporting unemployed African-American men. The Partnership for Regional Opportunity, focused on the Minneapolis-St. Paul region and a former member of TII, is somewhat in between the Strive Partnership and the Network for Economic Opportunity: It has work groups focused on different equity-related issues, but also has an overall equity frame for its work.

As can be seen across these three examples, different collective impact initiatives can approach racial equity in different ways. In the end, local context will determine the most effective and appropriate approach you take. Unfortunately, structural racism exists and operates outside of collective impact initiatives themselves, so the work doesn’t just end with the creation of a racial equity workgroup or the establishment of a shared result targeting disparities. Which leads us to our next area…

Within the larger community: Collective impact initiatives exist within larger communities with many different stakeholders. And for large scale progress to be made on addressing structural racial inequalities, collective impact partnerships will need to engage people and institutions across the broader community around racial disparities. The individuals leading collective impact initiatives are often familiar with these gaps—such as graduation rates or test score performance between whites and students of color—and usually have some understanding of the root causes that create the disparities. But other stakeholders that aren’t leading initiatives, or aren’t working on these issues day-to-day, may not be as familiar or as comfortable talking about disparities. And if they aren’t aware of these disparities they probably don’t have a robust understanding of what needs to be done to close them.

Often, this discomfort in discussion can be compounded by the institutional and/or personal biases that partners may have about why the disparities exist. For example, a collective impact initiative focused on decreasing the unemployment rate of people of color may have local employers committed to their mission, but these employers may be hesitant to actually hire the target population because of unconscious biases of individuals or historical institutional biases against the target population. How can collective impact initiatives manage this tension to achieve their goals while not alienating partners who may not be as far along in their racial equity journey?

One thing Living Cities and its partners are experimenting with is using a “strengths-based” or “asset-based” frame to communicate racial disparities. So, instead of talking about gaps between whites and blacks in employment, and the moral imperative to close that gap, initiatives can instead talk about the opportunity that exists to increase economic activity by reducing unemployment rates. One great resource for using this frame is PolicyLink’s “Equity is the Superior Growth Model” briefing.

Living Cities will continue to explore these components of racial equity in collective impact and we hope to find some solutions to these persistent problems. We invite you to check out the organization’s work on racial equity and let us know if you’ve found ways to overcome the challenges presented here.

Read the Report: Collaborating to See All Constituents Reach Their Full Potential

More Voices from the Field

Contributors to this research scan share more recommendations on how organizations can add an equity lens to their work to help better serve their communities.

If You Don’t Know Who You’re Impacting, How Do You Know You’re Making an Impact? by Kelly Brown (D5)

Pitfalls to Avoid When Pursuing Equity by Sandra Witt (The California Endowment)


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