Lesson Learned: The Necessary Power of an Outside Strategy

By Vina Kay and Jake Virden

The question on the table had to do with how to define appointments and representation of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Calhoun-Harriet Master Plan. There was some agreement that the CAC process would be better with more voices from underrepresented communities involved in the planning. How could the MPRB authentically build the relationships necessary to invite that participation?

As consultants from Voices for Racial Justice and Hope Community, we were offering some strategies that involved communicating among political appointers (including City Council members and Parks Commissioners) to coordinate appointments, allowing staff input in the appointment process, and engaging with us and other partners as community organizations with strong community relationships.

Then we offered an additional suggestion, one that grew out of conversations with our community partners: making it part of the CAC charge to address the renaming of Lake Calhoun, named after vice president and outspoken supporter of slavery John C. Calhoun. For a few seconds, the room was filled with awkward silence.

One commissioner said that would make it impossible to support the CAC composition we had been discussing. A high level staff person said that it was important to consider, but how could we best offer the space for that conversation. Another commissioner thought it should absolutely be part of the defined process. There were practical questions, like whether the MPRB could do anything about the name in the context of the Master Plan.

In all of the back and forth, one thing was clear. We were no longer talking about the CAC composition and appointment process. We were talking about a larger, historically charged issue.

A few weeks later, nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study at their church in South Carolina. Among the wounds this violent act opened up was the symbolism in South Carolina and other southern states of the Confederate flag. Leaders of all political affiliations are now calling for Confederate flags to be taken down as public symbols, recognizing how very alive and real racial hatred remains in our country.

And the movement to rename Lake Calhoun, which has been simmering for years, woke up again. But this time, the movement grew from grassroots communities, from people with a stake in the issue because they enjoy the lake but not the contradiction. It grew from the outside, not from inside around a large board table. Now the conversation about a name change is alive and growing – because of that community drive.

So we have learned a lesson in our work to develop an inside-outside strategy. Sometimes the right strategy is an outside one.

As people working and organizing with communities of color in Minneapolis, we know that we need a name change for Lake Calhoun. But we also want so much more. We need a deeper conversation about how our country’s historic system of slavery still impacts us today. We want to challenge the racism that continues to ground so many public decisions and practices. We want to see the name change as part of a larger commitment to address inequities in our parks system and in other spaces. The growing community demand has the possibility of delivering the name change and more.

Had the drive for renaming Lake Calhoun come from that inside table, we might have gained a more immediate win and the satisfaction among leaders of doing something big. But we would have lost something greater. We would have lost the chance to engage in deep truth telling by the voices of communities most impacted by our legacy of racism – a process that can be transformative and affect how we collectively confront our history rather than deny its real impact on our lives. We would have lost the opportunity to grow something with deeper roots in the rich soil of a community-led process.

The outside strategy that is quickly emerging also belongs to many, rather than a few. This core principle of organizing – of the power of many coming together for change – has always fueled the most revolutionary and transformative movements. Of course, the eventual partnership of elected leaders will be necessary. But when those leaders answer to the demands of the people, we are all better for it.

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Advancing the Inside-Outside Game for Racial Equity

When Voices for Racial Justice released the OUR MPLS racial equity agenda in January 2014, parks equity was a strong priority. Our work is always done in partnership, and our partnership with Hope Community to address inequities in the Minneapolis parks system has spanned several years. My colleague (and Voices for Racial Justice board member) Chaka Mkali has been organizing for parks equity at Hope Community for nearly 10 years. In addition to being a powerful organizer, community leader, and artist, Chaka is a self-described “parks geek.” So, of course, parks equity was part of our agenda for racial equity in Minneapolis.

Early on, we met with parks commissioners and shared the agenda. We heard some commitment to advancing racial equity in the parks system, from analyzing and prioritizing budget decisions to engaging more authentically with community partners about their priorities for the parks. We knew the grassroots support was building for a more equitable parks system. Now we were hearing that leadership was also moving in that direction.

But change is hard, and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board is like many large institutions. It takes multiple shifts to change deeply embedded practices and policies and turn toward a racial equity analysis. Even with the will and intention, breaking through layers of institutional practice – what we at Voices for Racial Justice call institutional racism – takes more than good intentions. It takes a strategy.

As a community organization committed to organizing and the power of people to influence change, we understand the outside game. We work with organizational partners, we engage community residents, we ask hard questions of leaders, and we hold them accountable in public forums. This outside strategy takes years. But its roots run deep and the work of building true community passion and power pays off by leading to the kind of outside push that creates transformative and sustainable change.

We have come to realize that an additional strategy is in play, especially as we increasingly work with institutional players who want to advance racial equity. They just don’t always know how. They work within a system that is hard to change and that does not always share a racial equity vision. If these internal racial equity champions exist, how do we on the outside take hold of the opportunity that this offers?

We form an inside strategy.

The opportunity to develop and apply an inside strategy has presented itself to us. Following the release of the OUR MPLS agenda, multiple meetings and conversations, and our presentation to a group of government leaders at the Government Alliance on Race and Equity convening in August, we caught the attention of MPRB staff who are working to develop a racial equity framework to guide their planning and action. So when Voices for Racial Justice was approached by MPRB staff to consider a consulting role to guide them in a racial equity process, we said yes. But not without first making some important inside strategy commitments to how we do our work:

  1. Engage partners. We immediately reached out to Hope Community and developed a plan to engage them as co-consultants in the work. We did this with complete transparency to both the MPRB staff and to Hope. The trust and credibility with our longtime partner was the first priority and we would not take on a project that would undermine the organizing and vision around parks equity.
  2. Maintain the outside strategy. We made clear to the MPRB staff that we would only do this consulting work while also maintaining our outside game. We would continue to engage community partners and develop parks equity forums and other community events that would engage community members in articulating their vision for our parks. Not only would we continue our community-based grassroots strategy – we might use the knowledge we gain from being an inside partner to advance our outside game.
  3. Stay transparent. Our credibility with our community partners is important and core to how we do our work as organizers. Those relationships are based on years of building trust and being accountable to each other. So our transparency is first to those partners. We will continue to write about what we are learning and share how developing this inside-outside strategy is advancing parks equity. We will also share the challenges to this work, knowing that many lessons will emerge. Similarly, we will be transparent with our institutional partners. They deserve our honesty in this hard work of building racial equity and we believe that commitment will actually help them be successful as internal racial equity champions.

So stay tuned as we practice all three commitments in the months to come. We are at a turning point in how we achieve racial equity in Minnesota and across the country. The urgency is shared by many of us, regardless of which side of the door we are on. We hope to practice the courage and humility to follow through on what we in our shared communities want for a more racially just and fair world.

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OAP is Now Voices for Racial Justice

We are Voices for Racial Justice. On October 28, we are celebrating this name change, as well as the journey that got us here. And, of course, we are looking forward to the movement-building that continues through organizing and training, advocacy with (not for) engaged communities, and the research and policy tools that tell our story.

Why the change? For several years, the staff and board of OAP have thought about a name change. But these things are challenging. Although Organizing Apprenticeship Project no longer described all of the work that we do, and did not make clear our commitment to building racial justice, it has been around for 21 years. People know us as “OAP” and love what “OAP” means.

But the best organizations grow and evolve. We know that to build a shared network and movement for racial justice in Minnesota, we need to draw more people in. More equitable communities, where all people have the chance to learn, work, and live well, without running into barriers to those opportunities, are good for all of us. We also know that we must break down institutional and structural racism in order for those opportunities and equitable outcomes to be a reality.

The board and staff agreed that we wanted to more boldly claim our vision – racial justice. We also agreed that what we are building doesn’t live inside an organization, but stretches out to the communities of color, American Indian communities, and many allies who lead this work with us. All of our multiracial, multicultural voices are part of building racial justice. After many sessions of giant sticky notes, we arrived at our new name: Voices for Racial Justice.

Which isn’t such a new name after all. For two years, we have used the name Voices for Racial Justice as the OAP blog site. This grew out of our Voices for Voting Rights campaign to defeat the voter ID amendment in 2012. We have grown comfortable in our Voices – so an already familiar identity will be easy to slip on.

Not much else has changed. We will still lead with the importance of organizer and leadership training. We will still practice the authentic community engagement that guides our strategic convenings and all our work. We still lead campaigns for change, whether in education equity, health equity, voting rights, or criminal justice. We will continue to work with communities to develop the policy tools that help organizers tell a powerful story and hold leaders accountable to building racial equity

Actually, there is one more change, but also one that feels comfortable. I am honored to have been named Executive Director of Voices for Racial Justice. I feel grateful for the 21 years of leadership that Beth Newkirk has brought to this role, and the ongoing mentorship she offers me. I continue to love working with my bold and creative colleagues, and value the support of our board who have walked with me through an eight month interim role.

I welcome you to visit our new website www.voicesforracialjustice.org. And, of course, we welcome you to visit us at our same office on Franklin Avenue or call us at our same number. We are Voices for Racial Justice. We are here.

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