Racially Equitable Resilience

  • Stephen Gray Associate Professor of Urban Design
    Graduate School of Design
    Harvard University

Racial ideology in the United States has stratified society and space since the nation’s founding such that we can neither talk about equity nor resilience without also talking about race.

“In the US, the idea of racial difference was not only inscribed on Black bodies to rationalize slavery but has since justified exclusionary planning and development patterns (neighborhood segregation and federally co-sponsored redlining), public and privately-mediated racial terrorism (Jim Crow laws and community massacres enacted through informal neighborhood patrols), land and property theft (block-busting and predatory lending), targeted community destruction (urban renewal and federal highway programs), racially- and ethnically-tinged criminalization and disenfranchisement (mass incarceration and deportation), or simply exclusionary policies to create stratified benefits and disadvantages by race, class and identity”. Gray, Stephen, and Anne Lin. “Introduction to Race, Identity and Ideology” in The Routledge Handbook of Architecture, Urban Space and Politics, ed. Bobic, Nikolina, and Farzaneh Haghighi. Routledge. Forthcoming 2022.

To this day, the design of cities concentrates urban resources in some places and racialized communities in others. What we need are social and economic policies and practices that take on the underlying, longstanding, and persistent problems of structural racism so that those disproportionately impacted by climate change, health disparities, and economic instability can finally determine what’s best for themselves. We need ways to redistribute resources, redistribute opportunities, and redistribute power.

Equity toolkits and resilience frameworks have become important resources for cities grappling with their own legacies of inequality and uneven exposure to risk. Yet with few exceptions https://www.boston.gov/departments/resilience-and-racial-equity , the subject of race remains largely absent from resilience discourse, and even more so from planning and design practice. Race is treated more as an area of specialization than the endemic cornerstone of society and space that it is. The triple threat of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and continually increasing economic inequality (all of which disproportionately impact communities of color) alongside trending public conversations around resilience, racial equity, and twenty-first century infrastructures present opportunities to finally address racial injustices head on.

Developed by the High Line Network https://network.thehighline.org/ , in collaboration with Harvard University Graduate School of Design https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/course/urban-design-and-the-color-line-spring-2022/ , and Urban Institute, the Community First Toolkit has a single aim: “embedding equity in public spaces.” It is designed to help cities and civil society organizations contextualize their projects within legacies of racialized policy and practice—illuminating the complicated relationship between systemic racism and the production of space—and equip them to tackle impediments to community resilience.

Organized into four sections, this toolkit provides a promising framework for challenging business-as-usual planning processes and revealing how race has shaped (and will continue to shape) the design, administration, production, and protection of space. The sections are described below, along with sets of questions that can help practitioners address the specific goals of each section: Examining History, Centering Racial Equity, Preparing Internally, and Building Partnerships. The questions invite us to consider how internal operations and external partnerships can impact a project’s outcomes (equitable or not) and can either support or impede community resilience.

Examining History
Equity work is about centering, preferencing, and uplifting otherwise marginalized communities. Doing so requires a deep understanding of oppressive histories as well as expressions of community resilience in the face of that oppression. This section helps establish the contextual foundation for successful equity work.

  • Know Your Demographics: Who should your project serve? Who will the project impact most? Who are you already working with? Who are you leaving out? What disparities exist around your project?
  • Map Community Assets: What are the community’s assets? How do your existing efforts relate to, support, or threaten community assets? Which assets should be incorporated through programming, partnerships, or a physical connection?
  • Create a Timeline: Where does your project fit into history and the present? How have surrounding communities been impacted by the past? How might you use history as a tool for ongoing community engagement?
  • Connect the Dots: How has your city been impacted by infrastructural racism and racist urban policy of the past? What are the long-standing community anchors that should be built upon? What historical events are important to the community’s identity?

Centering Racial Equity
Good intentions and intentionality are not the same thing. Intentionality requires developing an explicitly anti-racist, equity impact-focused agenda aimed at supporting community resilience. This section helps establish a framework for organizational accountability toward successful equity work.

  • Craft a Theory of Change: What is your vision for advancing racial equity? How do you define equity, justice, and fairness? How do you think equity and justice are achieved? Have equity and justice been achieved for the neighborhoods surrounding this project? If not, who is most affected by a lack of equity? What are the core issues affecting those who lack equity? How can or should the organization address these issues?
  • Craft a Theory of Action: What actions will you take to advance racial equity?
  • Review Your Initiatives: Are there equity gaps in your current work? How does your work impact other aspects of community life (a thriving civic and cultural life; affordability and equitable economic development; health, wellness, and resilience; and equitable organizational growth)?

Preparing Internally
Not everyone has the same idea about what’s important, nor do we necessarily share a common definition of equity. Getting on the same page about why and how to work with others may require a bit of housekeeping. This section helps assess the internal organizational changes necessary for successful equity work.

  • Check Who’s Included: Do you make project decisions equitably? Is your staff and board racially diverse, gender balanced, varied in age, representative of the communities and populations that our project is meant to serve? Who holds power within your organization? Who makes decisions? Who is left out of decision making? How should they be included?
  • Examine Your Budget: Do you allocate funds equitably? Who are your programs are designed for? Do your contracting and procurement protocols prioritize hiring local vendors, in particular minority- and women-owned businesses? Are there clear policies on salary ranges that promote pay equity and transparency within your organization?
  • Share Power: How do you share power with community members? Do you continually invite and incorporate community feedback? Are formal systems for this collaboration in place to hold your organization accountable?
  • Publicly Commit: How do you publicly communicate your values and goals?

Building Partnerships
Equity work should not be done for communities. It should be done with communities, valuing their lived experiences and empowering them to be key decision-makers for the future. It also acknowledges that while the goals of your organization may differ from those of communities, they should always be complementary and supportive. This section is a guide to establishing mutually beneficial partnerships for successful equity work.

  • Align with Partners: Are current and potential partners a good match? How does your work impact the work of others in the community? Are there opportunities for strategic partnering with share goals, share work, share benefits, and shared power? What do others have to gain? What do you have to offer? Advocacy and influence count!
  • Review Your Partner Network: Who do you work with and who is missing? Are your partnerships concentrated in particular areas? Are your partnerships adequate? Should you be adding other types of partners? If so, what kind?
  • Review Your Community Network: How will you connect with new communities? How should your engagement differ among communities to involve the broadest cross-section?
  • Maximize Your Impact: Where can you make the most impact? How should you spend your time and funding? We identify and explain four different possible ways organizations can leverages political capital to lobby for change.
  • Create a Work Plan: How will you achieve equitable outcomes? What are your metrics for success? Do surrounding communities share your definition of success? Are you tracking change over time? Are your current efforts and those of your partners sufficient to reach the targets you set?
  • Track Your Work: How will you measure your efforts? How and when will you review data with partners to check in on progress and make any needed adjustments to ensure success?
  • Tell Your Story: How do you convey the impact of your work? Are you encouraging participation from community stakeholders? Are you seeking to inspire trust? Is the story supporting a key message? Does the story inspire you to action?

When planners, designers, civil society organizations, and city officials engage more honestly with the social and spatial manifestations of systemic racism, we will naturally center community aspirations, anticipate community impacts, and create inclusive processes aimed at mitigating the harms caused by systemic racism, social inequality, and uneven power dynamics. These steps are necessary to finally build a world not predicated on winners and losers but instead on a firm commitment to fairness, justice, and racially equitable resilience.