The first time I truly questioned race – both my own and that of others – I was spending a year working for a grassroots educational nonprofit in Bangalore, India. In addition to my day job there, I also lived with and served as a warden to five 12th grade students. These five boys had grown up in slum communities in Bangalore but had shown strong academic promise in school. With important state-wide exams looming and without a home environment conducive to studying, the nonprofit gave them space in an apartment with me. It was in this setting, and in India in general, that for the first time I was the “other.” Though my treatment was far different – and far better – than the treatment of non-white communities in the US and elsewhere, this experience provided me the groundwork for a perspective on race and equity that I had looked to deepen ever since.
In this long search, I found a community with the People of Color Network (PCN) and the delegation that it sent to PolicyLink’s 2015 Equity Summit. With attendees from philanthropy, nonprofits, state and local government, and communities from each corner of the country, the Equity Summit brought together over 3000 people. The learned or lived experience that each of these attendees brought allowed for immensely interesting session, from pre-conference guided tours of historic and gentrified neighborhoods in Los Angeles to hands-on workshops on the role of philanthropy or impact investing in advancing equity. The Equity Summit delivered content that proposed to me new ideas, stretched the limits of my thinking, and challenged my previously held wisdom.
Particularly interesting to me was a session on collective impact and equity. The organization for which I currently work, FSG, authored the first article on collective impact in 2011, outlining the conditions under which collaborations on social issues between government, business, and civil society can be successful. In working on collective impact initiatives focused on cradle-to-career education in the Rio Grande Valley or on community development in South Dallas, issues of equity had often arisen, but they were rarely a – or the – central tenant of our work. This session, packed to standing room only with practitioners, funders, and community organizers from New Orleans to Seattle to Stamford, fearlessly dove into these difficult questions involving equity. We spoke about bringing all the stakeholders to the table; about true versus exploitative “community buy-in;” and about the distribution of power between the people “bringing change” to the community and the community itself. These questions reshaped our conventional wisdom, bringing to the forefront not the foundations, the nonprofit leaders, or the government officials attempting to create the change, but rather the intended beneficiaries of that change and the wisdom, contributions, and experiences that they bring.
This is a powerful idea – one that reshapes the very core of how we and our clients and partners create social change. But at the Equity Summit, it was not merely an idea. The belief that change happens with – not to – communities, especially those who have been historically unempowered, was a practice that PolicyLink intentionally, and beautifully, made real. Rather than have this idea be presented by a probably-white, probably-male CEO or academic to the conference audience (and thereby reinforcing the very power structure that partially underpins many issues of equity), the Equity Summit featured a majority of attendees, panelists, and keynote speakers, that were people of color or those with real, lived experience. The session on collective impact and equity featured not a single white male panelist; a session on food insecurity in Native American communities attended was well-attended by Native Americans, many of whom were on scholarship and had never been at a national conference before. The cocktail reception included at least as many community members, organizers, and activists as it did foundation and government officials.
PolicyLink had intentionally built the conference so. To PolicyLink, equity is not an issue in the abstract to be discussed only by the privileged, but rather a living goal that can, and must, be further realized with every action. The result of bringing disadvantaged or historically underrepresented people to the discussion is not merely broadening the discussion of equity; it is a tangible act to create a more equitable world. With every new person of color actively engaged and invested in the conversation, they are increasingly gaining efficacy and power by shaping the conversation, rather than having it shaped for them.
This was my most profound discovery during the Equity Summit: that all of it was not actually about me. The new ideas, insights, and connections that the Summit offered were meant to excite and empower the local community organizer from New Orleans and the Native American from a reservation in North Dakota. While we have a role to play; it is not about – at least not primarily – the national or international foundations, the consulting firms that continually work with them, or other arbiters of privilege and power.
To some, the thought of not being the primary audience of the conference may seem disempowering. But I see the opposite. To give ideas, tools, and power to the countless individuals and communities who have long been shut out of or underrepresented in conversations about social change; to give them the ability to both set the agenda and realize change is immensely empowering. I think about the immensely capable attendees of the conference – the community organizer from New Orleans or the Native American focused on food insecurity in her community. I think about the members of the communities we have worked with, in South Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere. And I even think about the five boys in Bangalore and the plethora of brilliance, knowledge, ability, and change that each of them can bring – when the focus is on them.
On the final day of the conference, I had to leave early to catch a flight. A coworker of mine told me I’d be missing a remarkable closing session. “Will everyone else be there?” I asked, smiling, and hopped in a cab for the airport.