With a long history of racial and environmental justice organizing, Richmond CA has been a beacon for the shift to community ownership. Leaders there recently engaged the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership to accelerate this shift with staff and elected officials in the city, county, and school district.
A Shift Toward Community Ownership
Community voice, power and ownership over local decision-making is ever more important in cities like Richmond, CA, facing the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism in the United States. For these reasons, a dynamic group of 60 leaders, including residents, community-based organizations, the school district, and local government, convened around the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership.
In the three years leading up the workshop, the city of Richmond experienced a huge shift in leadership on many levels: three long-term city council seats went up for reelection, the City Manager position was filled by a series of interims, and there were several transitions and retirements with the Human Resource Director and Police Chiefs. This string of transitions in combination with the pandemic and social uprising against police brutality created an atmosphere that was ripe for transformation.
A group of parent leaders, including Yolanda Vierra-Allen, brought the concept of a workshop on the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership to Healthy Richmond, a local nonprofit who in turn formed a design committee with city staff who serve on the GARE team.
"I work with African American parents and students in WCCUSD (West Contra Costa Unified School District)," Yolanda says. "I want to raise our engagement to ownership of our public schools. I want to equip parents with the tools to claim ownership of our public institutions. They are ours, but we don’t understand what that can mean nor have access to decision making systems to effect systemic change."
~Yolanda Vierra-Allen, Parent leader
Using the CE2O Spectrum
After collectively defining racial equity and reviewing the CE2O spectrum in depth, small diverse groups participated in breakout conversations to explore centering resident voice and power to advance seven equity goals, established by Richmond's Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE). These goals included topic areas such as Equitable Housing, Policy Development, Hiring & Human Resources, and Budgets (see table below for more details).
Within each of these breakout groups, participants used the stages along the spectrum of community engagement to ownership to critically assess the issue, starting with a question around who is most impacted and what barriers to participation do they face? For example, the group discussing Equitable Access to Affordable Housing articulated the ways in which communities of color tend to be locked out of the development of housing solutions as a result of both explicit and implicit biases and related inequities, such as assumption that communities of color can’t understand the issue, are okay with current living conditions, or in some way at fault. This lack of voice limits the range of solutions to the problem and allows for racial and class assumptions to drive policy decision-making that affects housing accessibility.
Looking towards solutions, breakout groups used the CE2O spectrum to discuss:
- How to improve information flow
- When and how to consult impacted communities
- Best practices for centering resident voice and power
- When and how to best foster collaboration between community-based groups and public institutions
- Opportunities for investing in community ownership over key resources and processes
The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership (CE2O) offered a shared framework and language for communities to collaborate in centering community voice and leadership in local decision making. In this workshop, the CE2O Spectrum was used to organize participant contributions during the breakout sessions. Then after the workshop, the spectrum was used to reflect back the ideas generated in the workshop dialogue as a documentation tool.
Community Generated Solutions
From the workshop dialogue, series of participant surveys, and interviews with core team members from GARE and Healthy Richmond, several key themes and paths towards racial equity were raised. These solutions represent an overall shift in culture in how we see and engage community members in policy planning and implementation that is achieved by:
- Repairing the historical harm enacted upon black, indigenous, and low income communities by shifting the culture of civic participation
- Improving accessibility to information and decision-making spaces
- Collaborating across multiple systems to collectively invest in capacity building with both residents and systems leaders to better center resident leadership in advance equity goals
Repairing Historical Harm By Shifting Culture
Richmond workshop participants uplifted the need to acknowledge and repair the historical and ongoing harm that local systems have enacted upon Black, Indigenous, and economically marginalized communities. Many participants highlighted the need for practices that build trust, many of which represent a cultural shift away from an "us versus them" mentality and towards a culture of inclusion and empowerment.
Valuing Resident Voice
In numerous ways, participants affirmed that centering resident voice and power is key to achieving racial equity. As Vy Vo from the Community-Based Organization (CBO) Healthy Richmond put it,
"We know that residents have the skill, capacity, and knowledge to actualize the things they want for themselves. They just need the access to resources, spaces, and institutions to make things happen."
~Vy Vo, Healthy Richmond Organizer
This could involve re-imagining public hearings and meetings by shifting the architecture of decision making. Participants cited the need to move away from "podium speeches" and lining up to give comments by moving instead towards circle processes in all arenas of decision making.
Community Asset-Based Approach
Participants highlighted the importance of organizations and governments tapping into existing community networks and assets when creating programming and policy. This could look like hosting events in venues that people know, working with local leaders that are already trusted, and spending time researching and observing the many community-driven solutions already at work in Richmond and then orienting programming and policy to support these structures. Moreover, participants raised the need to support these changes with a shift into deep collaboration across communities, jurisdictions, agencies.
In addition to shifting the culture of public meetings, participants raised the need for these meetings to be more accessible to community members in location, timing, and language. Several participants described the geography of oppression, or how neighborhoods are laid out in ways that prohibit participation. In North Richmond, for example, public transportation is inefficient, making meetings in Civic Center inaccessible to residents in that geographic area.
In regard to timing, pointed out that many public meetings happen during the day when people are usually working and urged for meetings to happen in the later hours or at various times so that people with different schedules can attend.
Finally, language justice was raised as a key accessibility issue. This pertains not only to having information printed in multiple languages and interpretation services, but also to shifting away from jargon and academic language.
Participants also highlighted the need for improved access to information. Many voices pushed for government websites to be revamped for language justice as well as user-friendliness, and some suggested that governments could improve their social media use to inform and engage community members.
There was also a call for more equitable access to the internet itself. The digital divide was an often-cited issue when it came to community disempowerment and disengagement from the policy process. Solutions raised to address this issue include providing more free internet access points as well as improved mobile network capability for free and subsidized phone programs.
Dual Capacity Building
The final theme that emerged from dialogue across surveys, workshop groups, and interviews was the need for capacity building both with systems leaders and residents:
On the systems leader side, participants called for increased education to improve city employee and organization leader capacity to work with residents. These trainings would aim to create understanding of community-owned processes, such as participatory budgeting, since the shift toward community ownership is generally a new framework for approaching the work of local governance for many systems leaders.
Then within this realm, "you need someone in management or city council really championing the idea of community ownership," says Johann Fragd from the GARE team. Many others echoed this need for someone in governance who persistently brings the conversation to the language of community ownership and racial equity.
Then on the grassroots side, there was a call for increased training to help residents read and understand budgets, policy processes, and ways to participate in the budgeting process.
"I believe empowering communities by ensuring they understand the structures and functions of the systems that serve them, as well as how to navigate, actively participate and become leaders in these systems are critical components of transforming schools and increasing student achievement."
~Johann Fragd, City of Richmond Dept of Children and Youth
The key goal of this training would be to get resident leaders into decision making spaces to amplify their solutions. Then to supplement this training, Johann and others suggested that there be a group of city employees who are consistently interacting with residents in such a way as to create a push for community ownership and racial equity, creating a "foundation of support from the grassroots."
Energized by the discussion and consolidation of community generated solutions into a single document, the workshop participants and facilitation team began to map the next steps to build from their collective progress.
First, the main participating organizations including GARE, WCCUSD, and West Contra Costa County government plan to incorporate the approaches and solutions outlined above and detailed in the Workshop Documentation in their respective areas of work. GARE plans to incorporate these recommendations into their racial equity plan and the school district and county plan to draw from the workshop documentation to inform their community engagement plans.
Second, this Richmond Workshop can be viewed as a catalyzing event, resulting in new insights, connections and potential collaborations across the region. In our exit survey, for example, one parent organizer wrote about the action she's inspired to take post-workshop:
"I will be more strategic in my work to empower parents to fully participate in the systems that serve them, particularly the school district. I would like to move forward with planning a second Families Rising Together Summit."
- Shakira Reynolds, Parent Leader
Over time, we will see how shared learning from the workshop ripples out in new ways, but there are already some exciting indications of things to come.
Richmond’s Racial Equity Goals
Key Actions for Centering Resident Voice & Leadership
Cultivate Equitable Housing Opportunities
HiAP 4F efforts to ensure affordability and protect residents from displacement
Enhance Community Equity Profile
Promote community engagement through the open data portal, share equity indicators, promote data sharing w/ community partners and include racial demographics.
Assess and Improve Diversity in Boards & Commissions
Use a Racial Equity Tool to Determine Local Budgets
Apply a Racial Equity Lens to Improve Hiring & HR Practices
Incorporate and Use Racial Equity Tools in hiring practices and individual employee supervision and interactions
Develop a Shared Framework for Equitable Community Engagement
Establish Practices for Equitable Policy Development & Racial Equity Departments in each Major Jurisdiction