Brett Grant, Research & Policy Director
“America makes policies but they’re not for us. Why shouldn’t we make policies that will allow us to work with our people in the Caribbean, in Central and South America, in Africa, in the Isles of the Pacific? We are an international people. Why don’t we begin to act like it?” — L. F. Muhammad
A Vision of Racial Justice Grounded in Culture and Community
Voices For Racial Justice is committed to a vision of racial justice that honors the cultures, knowledges, and systems of governance of black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous communities. We believe that we can never grow with or communicate with people to build a collective village unless we begin to make time to hear our languages, share our foods, learn our cultures, and respect our identities and ways of being in the world. This is what we mean when we say that we are committed to developing research and policy tools that are grounded in culture and community. To support this vision, our policy tools will be developed in collaboration with people from our diverse communities.
Caring for the Soil of Racial Justice Organizing
Voices For Racial Justice is grateful to local artist and organizer, Ricardo Levins Morales, who played a profoundly supportive role in inspiring us to reframe our organizing and healing processes in ways that respect the fullness of humanity in deep relationship with our ever-changing and complex political, economic, social, and ecological environments. He says,
“The soil is more important than the seeds. Almost anything will grow in rich, nutritious soil, whereas it’s hard to get anything to grow if the soil is barren and toxic and won’t hold moisture. So the seeds are our projects, our initiatives, our campaigns, our organizations, our institutions, that we want to build and the soil is the compost of beliefs, ideas, values, narratives that create the environment within which we are working.”
Among our staff, there is debate as to whether the soil is more important than the seeds, whether the seeds are more important than the soil, or whether the soil and the seeds are equally important. The beauty is that we are seeing soil and seeds as part of culture shift work that has many parts. Ricardo’s quote is open to many interpretations and creates conversational spaces for those interpretations. In caring for the soil of racial justice organizing, we work to create spaces that honor multiple perspectives and interpretations. In doing this, we learn that it is not always about being right, but about being heard.
History and Impact of our Policy Tools over the Years
The landscape of racial equity policy making is changing in Minnesota. Today, there is some movement in government to embed racial equity in their practices and policies. Yet this wasn’t always the case. According to one of our founders, Sam Grant, “In the early 1990’s, we were struggling to begin to articulate a cross-cultural approach and culturally specific approaches to organizing. And I think part of the critique from our apprentices is that OAP [our former name Organizing Apprenticeship Project] itself wasn’t helping them navigate this difficulty.”
Grant went on to share his appreciation of OAP and how it had enough wisdom to slow down, bring in some help, and figure out a new way. As OAP looked for help in navigating the difficulty of being an organization led by people of color with an explicit commitment to racial justice organizing, they encountered the Applied Research Center (ARC), which had an explicit approach to racial justice. As a result of that relationship, OAP grew from a training center to an organization that would develop accountability strategies on racial justice through policy tools. One of the policy tools that emerged from this was the Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity. In the words of Voices for Racial Justice senior organizer, Julia Freeman, the racial equity report card “…actually held legislators accountable for the laws that they made that impacted communities of color both positively and negatively. It was very empowering…to have this moral document.”
One of the major impacts of the report card was the discursive space it created for racial equity conversations in organizing, in advocacy, in research, and in public policy. Our other policy tools which contribute to the conversation of racial equity policy making in Minnesota include the Racial Equity Legislative Agenda, the Racial Equity Impact Assessment, and the Legislative mid-session Bill Watch. Together, the goal of these tools is to help legislators make better policy decisions by helping them ask key questions pertinent to racial equity before adopting and implementing new policies. The effectiveness of our policy tools is measured by our practice of authentic community engagement. This ensures that the communities we are in relationships with feel that their voices are embedded in the policy process from the beginning.
New Directions in Policy
After 25 years of being in community, we thought it was important to hear from communities about the effectiveness of our policy tools. Over the past few months, our policy team has been working in collaboration with community partners to determine how we are going to engage with communities and legislators in this review of our policy tools. This is important because after over a decade of grading legislators, we found that while the number of racial equity champions (legislators who receive a grade of A or B in the Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity) had increased at the Legislature, racial equity in Minnesota had not. The deeper process of working in and with community to design policy tools that are rooted in our unique cultures is difficult to reflect here in this essay. Some of the questions we have grappled with in thinking about our new directions were formed during a year long process of collaborating with each other in internal visioning sessions. One question that continues to inspire us is how we came to the realization that we had to be more expansive about how we were thinking about policy and its relationship to racial justice.
One of the first things we decided to do was form a policy team. The idea informing this decision was that we wanted to share in the process of thinking what our new direction in policy would look like. We wanted to work collaboratively and we wanted to work in a way that was transformative. We did not want one person to feel as though he or she was responsible for coming up with all of our policy ideas alone. Rather, we wanted to work in a way that reflected the spirit of Our Mnisota, a place that imagines the beauty of a world where many worlds fit.
We also wanted to work in a way that was informed by popular education. We move in this work with the recognition that the answers and solutions are in our communities. Popular education is an approach that honors that. It is an approach where people engage each other as learners to critically reflect on the issues in their community and then take action to change them. We are attracted to popular education as a way to have deep conversations with community members because it is a practice that dismantles a top-down approach to knowledge and functions as an exchange among all participants.
With popular education as a way to have conversations, we invited artists, healers, community members, lobbyists, advocates, and organizers into small, intimate gatherings where we explored how to balance self-care with our work and ground a healing justice approach in policy. These gatherings are held the last Thursday of every month in the evenings from 4-6 p.m. The space is for people of color and indigenous (POCI) voices. We are creating space for voices and experiences that are not part of the culture at the Legislature and other policymaking spaces. In this way, we develop both the capacity to move into those spaces, while also creating a different vision, a different way of doing policy.
Our first gathering was held in March, 2018. Four months later, in July, we held our first public event, Our Mnisota: Growing our New Public DNA. This was based on an event held last year called Breathe and Heal after the 2017 legislative session. Both events were held as spaces for people of color who work in policy to come together and share stories of success and challenge. Healers from the People’s Movement Center and other local healers were invited to share healing practices with different groups throughout the evening.
We use the term “Mnisota” instead of the more popular term, Minnesota, to honor the original Dakota words, Mni Sota Makoce, a term that Dakota elder, Chris MatoNunpa, translates to “land where the waters reflect the clouds.” We believe that racial justice and the end of all racial disparities isn’t possible without first acknowledging the history of the land that we occupy, land which was stolen from Dakota people, people who lived here since time immemorial and were killed or forcibly expelled in order for us to live here today. As we continue to center healing justice in all of our work, gatherings such as Breathe and Heal and Growing Our New Public DNA are reflections of this new approach.
Growing Our New Public DNA was a title that was given to us by local organizer, MK Nguyen. Over fifty people gathered at the East Side Freedom Library to share in an evening of food, conversation, and healing. In a fishbowl style of conversation, we discussed ideas from Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, such as “clean pain” and “dirty pain,” and the work we have to do in our own POCI communities to address these types of pain. In the question that was asked during the discussion, dirty pain was described as the violence that travels across our bodies when we don’t give ourselves the time, place, and space to heal. Clean pain was described as the work needed to be done to clear up the clutter in our bodies, such as ego, vanity, and greed, that keeps us from being able to achieve Our Mnisota, a place where the waters truly reflect the skies. People were vulnerable. Mistakes were made. Things were said that should not have been said, but apologies were made, and as a result, we worked through difficult situations together and people said that they were free to be their whole selves. The event was magical! It gave us a glimpse of what an event designed in and with community looks, tastes, smells, sounds, and feels like.
Assessment of Policy Tools
In order to ensure that our policy tools are relevant and useful in new and innovative ways, we have begun a series of assessments. The first assessment went to all 201 state legislators at the end of the 2018 legislative session. It consisted of eight open-ended questions in which legislators were asked to write-in their responses. Hard copies of the questionnaire were delivered to state representatives in the House and to state senators in the Senate. Digital copies were also provided via email. Additionally, telephone calls were made to all legislators. Following the phone calls, digital copies of the questionnaire were mailed out at least two more times, once before the end of session, and once after session ended. In total, we received less than ten responses.
We also created an assessment for our community partners. The purpose of this assessment was to learn how our policy tools can support our partners’ understanding and leadership for racial equity in Mnisota. We are interested in creating policy tools that are culturally rooted in our communities and that are helpful in tangible ways for organizers, advocates, and lobbyists who are leading for racial justice. We will be spending the fall months deepening our understanding of our assessments through one to one conversations and small group conversations. Our goal is to begin the 2019 legislative session with a plan that is informed by our legislative and community assessments.
The elders said, “We get scared when people bring us thick reports that are bound together and have tabs on them…Educated people are impressed by those thick reports. So their symbols must be that. You know, they must really like to write these thick reports. Some of us say that they write their reports in too small letters because we can’t read them, and we get a headache by the time we get a little ways into it.” — Community Based Research Focus Group Participant, Seattle
Voices for Racial Justice (VRJ) is committed to research that honors the multiple histories, truths, and wisdom of black, brown, immigrant and indigenous communities. Given our principles of authentic community engagement, we utilize Research Justice, a framework that centers the expertise of communities of color and indigenous communities in the process of designing, gathering, and sharing stories. Research justice is based on the assumptions that the greatest impact in achieving justice is done with people who are directly affected by injustice and that our experiences must inform each phase of the research, analysis, storytelling, planning, and implementation processes.
Community-Based Participatory Action Research (CBPAR)
As a framework, research justice lends itself to a practice in which community members are equal partners in all stages of the research process. This practice is known as community-based participatory action research (CBPAR). At VRJ, our research projects, questions, focus, and analysis are informed by CBPAR.
Through dialogue with our partners, CBPAR strives to build research strategies that challenge systems, institutions, funders, and policy leaders to invest in community-based research practices that build capacity with communities of color and indigenous communities to develop solutions that serve our interests and recognize our expertise. This practice resists oppression and systemic and institutional violence by creating knowledge WITH communities rather than FOR communities. Our practice of CBPAR redefines research as a collaborative process rather than as something only produced by “experts” from academia. CBPAR envisions research as a process of knowledge creation where communities’ experiences and wisdom are central pieces of the entire research process.
Consequently, we value evidence that is reflective of multiple forms of knowledge, including experiential, spiritual, cultural, place-based, theoretical, quantitative, qualitative, interpretive, and evaluative. We also believe in a wide range of approaches to facilitating knowledge exchange, including storytelling, oral histories, interactive activities, music, poetry, visual art, community visioning, and deep relationship building. CBPAR enables us to build relationships and trust with communities in ways that cause us to constantly reflect on our own attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we do not. Yet, this is a process that requires a deep structure of accountability so that we can learn from our partners and our mistakes.
Two of our recent CBPAR reports are the JDAI Report and the Unfit for Human Consumption Report. Both reports give concrete examples of our research values, some of the mistakes we made, lessons learned, and the powerful stories of our research teams. Both reports share the necessity of a healing justice lens in CBPAR and provide examples of the impact of hearing stories from people deeply affected by incarceration.
Our Research Values, Assumptions, and Principles
We are committed to the following values, assumptions and principles to guide our research:
- Awareness, acceptance, and valuing of cultural differences.
- Awareness of the range of dynamics that result from the interaction between people of different cultures.
- Developing cultural knowledge of a particular community in collaboration with that community.
- Ability to adapt research practices to fit the cultural context of the individual, family, or community.
- There is no “one size fits all” way of doing research.
- Respect for deeply held values, general worldviews, patterns of communication and interactions.
- Sharing food is a way of being in deep relationship with others.
- Traditional spirituality and practices are integrated into research practices.
- Specific practices of ceremony, prayer, and ritual are valued.
- People may convey knowledge through humor, visual art, poetry, song, stories, oral histories, and dance.
- We value respectful disagreements of ideas
- We value spaces that are intergenerational.
- We value a shared sense of collective and community responsibility.
- We value a world where many worlds fit.
- We learn to adapt tone of voice, volume, and speech patterns to that of the highest expression of respect and grace.
- We observe others and allow them to create the space and initiate or ask for any physical contact.
Looking into the Future
Voices for Racial Justice is on a journey to build creative approaches to grassroots policy and research that tend to the soil of our movements and that honor the culture and healing of our communities. In this effort, we are constantly asking what does grassroots policy and research look like that is life-giving, that shifts culture, that is rooted in beauty and real governance, and that bridges the divides within our communities? To answer these questions, we continue to hold spaces for communities of color and indigenous communities to share our stories and experiences. We believe that through sharing our stories we will move through our commitment to center trust-building across cultural groups in our movements.
Looking into the future, some of the transformative grassroots policy and research ideas that we are dreaming of include:
- Community based participatory action research (CBPAR) that continues our efforts to end mass incarceration.
- CBPAR that evaluates the implementation of legislative policies from previous years, such as Ban the Box and the Urban Agriculture Bill.
- CBPAR that focuses on the development of cooperative economic development practices and cultural centers for black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous communities.
- Using local civic engagement technology to deepen collaborations among partners on policy projects.
- Working collaboratively with community partners, including youth and legislators, to ensure that all legislation passed undergoes a racial equity impact analysis.
- Working collaboratively with community partners, including youth and legislators, to write legislation that reflects our commitments to racial justice.
- Holding conversations about historical forms of governance in POCI communities.
- Constant engagement and reflection with our partners to ensure that our policy and research tools are rooted in culture and healing.