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Building Effective Coalitions for Racial Equity

By Danielle Sherman on October 18th, 2017

Last month, a group of around 500 people and I participated in a webinar covering the launch of the fearlessly groundbreaking Walking Towards Justice Series. It was organized by America Walks and moderated by Charles Brown, Senior Researcher with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center. The first episode of the series addressed race and residential segregation. Webinar panelists included Robert Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Government Segregated America; Tamika Butler, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust; Sonia Jimenez, Business Manager and Lead Consultant of Ximenes & Associates, Inc.; and Sahra Suliaiman, Communities Editor at Streetsblog LA.

During the panel conversation, Rothstein mentioned his preference to neither use nor focus on the term “white privilege” when discussing housing disparities. Instead, he mentioned avoiding making white people feel guilty for policies they are not responsible for in order to build the coalitions needed to correct those injustices. As a person of color, I struggled to continue listening to the conversation about building a coalition to work on racial injustices when this statement revealed that key foundational structures weren’t in place for this work to succeed.

As we delve into collective action to address racial injustices between white people and people of color, we must build effective coalitions among these two groups. In doing so, we can form relationships and trust, acknowledge and identify the role that white privilege plays in racial equity work, and understand community context in order to recognize how people of color move through this world.

Immediately after the webinar, Suliaiman explained that uncomfortable conversations are the point at which better solutions can form. These uncomfortable conversations are also necessary when building effective coalitions between white people and people of color. Some of the foundational components of these conversations include:

Building relationships and trust over time

Relationship building and trust are at the core of feeling comfortable working together, and they take time. Communities with a history of racial injustices may require a more intentional, transparent, reciprocal, and action-oriented process in order to build mutual understanding and the trusting relationships that are necessary for a successful coalition.

Identifying and acknowledging the role that white privilege plays in advancing racial equity

Privilege affects how we conceptualize problems and the solutions we are likely to propose which, in turn, impact how people of color and white people work together. This article demonstrates the role of white culture and privilege in advancing racial equity within an organization and offers tools to address these challenges, such as the practice of exploring accumulated privilege and disadvantage within coalitions.

Understanding community context to recognize how people of color move through this world

Community context plays a vital role in racial equity work. Every community has its own culture, assets, history of achievement, and challenges on which to build. Policies and practices that do not align with a community’s unique context can end up perpetuating the same inequities they are trying to correct. For example, this article highlights how placemaking—a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or, region—can and does replicate inequalities and exclusionary practices.

We must honor and respect social and cultural differences that make communities unique and implement strategies identified by and with them to address racial injustices in our coalitions. This includes moving beyond quantitative data collection to include qualitative measures (such as lived experiences) by listening and understanding a community’s culture, conflicts and tensions, and racial history.

The webinar conversation ultimately focused on the difficult, yet important, topic of white privilege more than the scheduled discussion of discriminatory housing policies and its implications for planning. This was evidence of the ongoing need to have uncomfortable conversations between white people and people of color in order to more effectively advance racial equity.

Danielle Sherman

Project Manager

Community advocate, planning superstar, and work-life balancer.