Reflections on PolicyLink’s Equity Summit 2018
Earlier this month, I packed my bags and headed to the great city of Chicago to join over 4000 people, from activists to city officials, concerned with bringing equity to marginalized communities at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit 2018. The summit was incredibly inspiring on a number of levels, and as I reviewed my notes, I decided to share some quotes and take-aways that I found particularly impactful for my work at New Brunswick Tomorrow; notes that I’m sure to continue to reflect on over the next year:
“This is BIG Scary stuff, but when BIG scary stuff happens, look for the people who can help”
Before getting to the scary stuff, let’s be honest and admit that community work is messy. Having worked for nonprofits for most of my career, I especially know how challenging collaborations can be. However, one thing that I have always found true is that when help is sought, help is found. In New Brunswick, this is especially true. When I look across the table and see organizers, policy advocates, artists, academics, entrepreneurs, faith leaders, philanthropists and civic officials, I’m encouraged by the fact that we are leaning into the issues… together. And, most importantly, we are all committed to making a difference.
Now, that difference is rooted in some real scary realities; realities that affect the lives of the people we serve on a day-to-day. So when we are sitting around that table, it is critical that our investments produce immediate gains that benefit our people today, but also have long-term systems change to ensure lasting and sustainable impact. At NBT, we strive every day to ask the “tough” questions around purpose and impact in order to surface the long-term changes needed to be made in our systems that will ensure success for all.
“The closest to the pain are the closest to the solution.”
Community change, whether from the “grassroots” or the “grass-tops” requires organization, leadership, energy, vision, and collaboration - - what it DOESN’T require is a fancy degree or any accreditation or award. It starts with a shared vision around equity and is led by the voices of oppressed people who understand the need to challenge systemic barriers. To be clear, this is both a self-criticism and an admonition… Too easily we forget to leave room at the table for the people that know first-hand what’s best for them and their families. A transformational program, policy and culture will only come from leaders’ ability to garner, listen, and support the ideas of individuals with lived experiences.
“If we’re going to change the narrative, then we’ll have to change the narrator… The easiest way to destroy a false idea is to tell your story.”
There is a lot of power in storytelling. When you share an experience, a challenge or a success with a friend, your spouse, a neighbor, it may seem small or insignificant, but it really is not. In fact, stories have a remarkable ability to shift ideas, from individual choices and behaviors to driving social change. This makes sense, especially when you consider the fact that we all think in story form, in metaphors, word-pictures, and examples.
With that information, as we at NBT work to shift the context of people’s lives, a key element is to change the story or, more appropriately, create a new and better story - - one of life in a vibrant, supportive community. And, it isn’t me, or you, telling that story, but out of the mouths of my neighbors and our city residents.
“Is there room among the WOKE for the still waking”
This one spoke to me most… it’s about compassion. Every day we work hard to operationalize an intention rooted in our thoughts of what an ideal community looks like. But when we acknowledge that this work is messy and imperfect… that it is personal and painful for the people who experience inequity, oppression, racism, bigotry, etc.. on a daily basis, then what we find are varied thoughts on what it takes to effect change. We are not “woke” because we are moved to speak out, we’re “woke” when we take responsibility for our own prejudices and help others by “showing up” for them on the issues most important for them and their families.
"...we’re “woke” when we take responsibility for our own prejudices and help others by “showing up” for them..."
Like many organizations, New Brunswick Tomorrow is learning how to operationalize equity through its values and strategic framework. As citizens, residents, neighbors, parents and individuals, it is our duty to remove ourselves from neutrality and join the conversation, to call out and not let racist or bigoted comments go by without reproach, and to be a part of the solution, however you’ve defined that to be. As President and CEO, I recognize that this is work that is never “finished” or “achieved,” but through a steadfast commitment to be more sensitive in the manner to which we work; to engage the issues of grievous and persistent injustice, we can effect meaningful, long-term change to inequities in the communities it serves.