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Learning to Be Accountable for Anti-Racist Impact

By Vrunda Vaghela

The Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) is a multiyear initiative investing in and amplifying local efforts in six regions to ensure that public investments in the built environment reduce racial disparities, build a culture of health, and respond to the climate crisis. The initiative’s long-term goal is to change the way metropolitan regions grow, invest, and build through integrated, cross-sector and community-driven approaches that benefit low-income people and communities of color. SPARCC’s work leads with racial equity, but how do we know if we’re achieving the impact we are intending?

After three years of grounding our collective work on racial equity, we realized that we couldn’t clearly answer that question. We needed a results-oriented methodology to understand whether our work was meeting the goals we set and if we were making a measurable difference for communities of color. Three years into SPARCC, we sought a deeper approach to measuring change and impact in the communities we worked with. We partnered with Equity & Results, a national expert in anti-racist results-based, systems change, and asked co-Principals, Erika Bernabei and Theo Miller, to support a process with SPARCCC’s national partners and local community partners across six regions to create a shared impact framework.

Equity & Results has seven principles of using community-centered, racial equity principles as the foundation for results-focused work:

  1. Organizational staff and community members are mutually responsible for identifying, collecting, and using data in a participatory, respectful process.
  2. Transform the usual punitive data culture to transparent, non-punitive culture around data analysis and use.
  3. Hold a practice that doesn’t “prove” or blame communities for institutional and systems failures.
  4. Share data with the community regardless of outcome.
  5. Use data consistently to inform practice to improve strategy and prevent harm.
  6. Identify potential solutions with an eye to root cause so that they will be more likely to disrupt and shift racially disproportionate outcomes.
  7. Foster authentic, trusting relationships so that when data goes in a scary direction, we will seek solutions together rather than blame each other. (This involves considering how current policies and ways of doing work maintain or reinforce structural/institutional racism.)

As we better understood these principles, we learned that this work wasn’t just about defining impact in the communities we worked with, rather there were three layers we actually needed to focus on:

  1. How our work as national intermediaries might be maintaining or reinforcing structural/institutional racism. For example, are we anti-racist in how we make decisions? (Internal)
  2. How we work between national partners and local partners. For example, how might we, as national partners/intermediaries, be reinforcing institutional racism in how we provide resources and capacity to local partners? (Internal-External)
  3. What’s happening in the regions we work with? (External)

Image Credit: We All Count

So, how do we get there?

As our team started to learn about an anti-racist approach to results-based work, we recognized that this was going to be a more developmental approach than we anticipated, and that it was going to take time to build shared understanding in partnership and to co-create strategies through a layered process.

The first step in the process was to clarify the result we were working towards and recognize that achieving that result requires collective action.

Second, we identified a few indicators of disparities and racial inequities related to the result we named.

Third, we analyzed the root causes of those disparities and the factors that contributed to the racial disparity we see in the data. By continuing to ask “why?,” we went deeper in building shared understanding about the forces at work to move past superficial understandings of the sources of racial inequity and got to the underlying causes and history. Not surprisingly, the deepest root of racial disproportionality was white supremacy.

Fourth, we identified the critical roots that we felt we could address by leveraging not just our resources and capacity, but our positions as national intermediaries in partnership with six regional collaborative tables.

Fifth, we collaborated on identifying key strategies and actions that address the key roots we identified. This included considerations for how current ways of doing work maintained or reinforced structural and institutional racism.

Sixth, we identified the people and institutions we are directly impacting through our specific strategies and level of accountability.

Lastly, we defined “better off measures” for each strategy to help us understand our impact and who is better off because of our actions

RBA triangle

Image credit: Equity & Results

So, where are we now?

We started this process in December 2019 in collaboration with national and local partners. Since then, we have built a shared understanding about structural and institutional racism, created a framework of strategies, actions, and performance measures that align with our work to date across the regions we work with, defined our key strategies, and are now in the process of identifying better off measures. Entering 2020, a year that challenged many of us— between climate crises, the rising chorus of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a global pandemic– the need to understand our impact became more critical. The ongoing surfacing of racism embedded across systems has underscored the necessity of true accountability to Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities. This forced us to slow down and hold more of the spaces we were long overdue creating. We held affinity spaces, we connected on a human level with our partners, and we came to recognize that this work isn’t just about racial equity, but also addressing where inequities are truly rooted. This led us to understand why we needed to be more explicit about centering on Blackness. White supremacy thrives in anti-Blackness, and this has harmed all of us. As Alicia Walters, creator of the Black Thought Project, has said:

“Centering blackness removes both the fuel and the constraints of white supremacy, allowing everyone to be free of its tyranny.

Doing so acknowledges the historical root of this racial hierarchy that has intentionally placed black people at the bottom of society and gives us the opportunity to see the world through the lens of the black experience. It requires us to imagine how our rules and structures would be reorganized and envision a world where we all thrive because the bottom is removed. When we remove blackness from the bottom, everybody gets to be seen.”

Defining our impact isn’t just about collecting data; it is a rigorous and intentional practice that requires changing the narratives and structures that perpetuate racial inequities. This work requires culture change, institutional change, personal change, and eventually systems change, and it takes more time and sitting with discomfort than many may have anticipated. We can only be as impactful as our willingness to change. If our hearts and minds are aligned, we can begin to break down the systems that hold us back from equality and achieve true transformational change.

You can read more about the power of systems and why we are explicitly centering Blackness in our companion piece: Onions and Gravity: Why We Are Addressing Anti-Black Racism.