Adopting an Equitable Future

Understanding what it takes to implement lasting, meaningful community change
by Elizabeth Reynoso, Associate Director of Public Sector Innovation at Living Cities | August 31, 2020 AT 11:00 AM
Long Beach is rebuilding public trust in city government through partnerships with community organizations. David Kidd

The following blog post is part of the City Accelerator initiative, a collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities that aims to speed the adoption of innovative local government projects within and across cities that will have a significant impact on the lives of their residents, especially those with low incomes.

Over the last six years, we’ve seen how innovative solutions catch fire between cities through the City Accelerator. Through in-person and virtual convenings, webinars, online and printed guides, podcasts and blogs, every city in each cohort not only exchanged ideas with one another, but also inspired cities that didn’t participate in the City Accelerator to make local government more effective, efficient and equitable. How we’ve shared information has not changed much over the years, but we have noticed an evolution of who is seeking information and what they are looking for.

Initially, innovation officers charged with finding new solutions to pressing problems by leveraging data and technology were the early participants or early adopters. When Dallas’ Chief Innovation Officer Laila Alequresh was setting up the city’s Civic Innovation Fund with their local community foundation, she contacted Louisville Metro’s Chief of Innovation and Technology Grace Simrall. Grace shared what worked and what didn’t about creating a fund that was started during the City Accelerator so Dallas could avoid making similar mistakes. (Other cities can learn what Grace shared with Laila in her Accelerate This! talk.)

As our City Accelerator themes turned to closing racial income and wealth gaps, we began to meet economic development professionals seeking out-of-the-box ideas. The cities of Charlotte and Los Angeles learned about the Diversity and Inclusion program developed for the Atlanta Olympics from the City of Atlanta’s former Director of Contract Compliance. From those lessons, the Los Angeles team began to develop a pipeline of underutilized vendors for the 2028 LA Olympics as part of their City Accelerator project. Meanwhile, the Charlotte team was inspired to leverage their existing conversations with the NBA as an opportunity to present vendors of color for the NBA’s 2019 All Star Game needs. The partnership led to a number of contracts with MWBEs, and the City of Charlotte has continued to replicate and scale this effort beyond one-off events. They have since partnered with the airport and hospital to expand the pool of vendors considered.

More recently, equity officers have emerged with the mandate to spark change and reimagine equity in their cities. Sheryce Hearns wrote about strategies that she picked up from listening to the final report out of City Accelerator cities. As the Deputy Equity and Inclusion Officer in Economic Development for the City of Boston, she implemented changes that led to results. For instance, to create opportunities for MBEs, eligible vendors were paired with city departments for upcoming requests for proposals. Before the recent changes, many of these potential vendors were notified of opportunities too late for them to put in a bid and were effectively shut out of the process.

Maybe you’ve heard about these stories before because you are one of the seekers and early adopters. Perhaps you went to the Government Performance Innovation Summit in the past and absorbed the dizzying number of promising practices and pilots that cities have developed where the next innovation story is brighter than last. Just from our partnership with Governing, the City Accelerator alone has produced over 200 blogs, tip sheets, five implementation guides (one example), 10 inspirational podcasts, and 4 videos about or by public servants themselves or their City Accelerator coaches with solutions from nearly 30 cities. And while we became proficient at identifying the lessons that resonate with public sector practitioners and storytelling, we’ve wondered:

With all the roadmaps, playbooks and implementation guides like ours out there, why is it easier for cities to maintain the status quo than to make meaningful change when what is at stake is a community’s well-being through racial equity?

Oftentimes, what passes for innovation does not address the root causes of intractable problems in our cities. Local leaders can find dozens of ways to make changes that are cosmetic, fast, and cheap.  For example, more energy and publicity often goes into creating a taskforce or even an app. It’s not uncommon to see an app for summer youth employment applications to be developed to connect youth to opportunities instead of actually addressing the transportation equity issues that surface when youth can’t get to the jobs offered or have a reasonable commute. Even though economic mobility would increase for all residents, many decision-makers forego making the commitment of resources and time to change policy or create additional transportation solutions. In the effort to implement solutions and strategies that work, efficiency and visibility may win over long-term results for the community that the solutions were intended to serve.

Anjali Chainani, whose Philadelphia team was part of the City Accelerator, reflects, “Urgency is a factor in the policymaking context. But acting solely with urgency can be a barrier to being inclusive and encouraging democratic decision-making. Thoughtfulness about the process is a critical component to achieving progress towards a racially equitable agenda and strategy. Urgency often works hand in hand with highly visible results, which creates circumstances that reinforce white supremacist culture. It sacrifices the number of allies you can actually include and confer with. Often an urgent process can sacrifice the interests of communities of color. To address this sense of urgency, we must set goals for inclusion, ensure power is shared across an organization with people of color, have realistic workplans, apply resources to sustain the effort, be clear that decisions will be made to ensure long-term results for communities of color, and have leadership who value the process as much as the outcomes.”

We’ve begun to see what it takes to implement and sustain innovations with a racial equity analysis. Cities that do have several characteristics in common, they:

Respond to community demands for change and understand their role in leading that change. In South Bend, a disparity study was conducted to respond to requests from community activists for data on the city’s spending. One result, a loan fund, was developed to expand capital access to MBEs. When El Paso businesses owned by people of color told the city they were excluded from capital, training, and resources within the city, they formed a partnership with seven local organizations to expand access to all the needs raised by the business owners.

Recognize harm they may have caused and commit to re-building trust through partnerships with community organizations. Long Beach conducted listening sessions to engage the community to provide insight and solutions for creating economic opportunity in November 2017. Recommendations informed the City’s creation of hubs of entrepreneurship in historically disadvantaged communities, including North Long Beach and Cambodian Town to increase access to technical assistance, mentorship, and other resources. More recently in June 2020, the City hosted virtual community conversations “to restore public trust in City government, and how to reconcile a gap in the experiences of impacted and vulnerable people with current City policies, especially the Black community.”

Have internal organizers who champion culture change and institutionalize changes. Philadelphia has annual city-wide learning days to inspire changes in institutional practices and processes that improve services and outcomes for residents. Majestic Lane from Pittsburgh leveraged his positional power by working across departments and with city leadership to institutionalize citywide practices, including increased purchasing dollars to go to businesses owned by people of color that he shares regularly with the community.

Because the problems are systemic, they are not just the responsibility or cause of one person or department. That’s why we are seeing a mix of who is searching for solutions from innovation and procurement offices to mayoral chiefs of staff and equity officers. The work is messy and multi-term. And it requires more authentic partnerships with residents, organizers and community organizations.

How cities emerge from pandemic restrictions and repair relationships with organizers and protestors will require public servants committed to undoing policies, practices and budget decisions that perpetuate inequities. They will continue to seek a community of peers to learn with and exchange ideas. They will need support as they rebuild credibility with their residents and respond to demands for racial justice that they may have de-prioritized until now. To help facilitate the learning and collaboration that will be critical as we move forward, Living Cities, Citi Foundation and our partners will be part of a network of support. We’ll be there to empower the seekers and adopters seeking an equitable future.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.