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Cross-Racial Civic Participation: Shifting Power to Support Policy and System Change

Philanthropy has long recognized the importance of engaging and working with communities to address inequities underlying persistent and growing disparities in physical and mental health, education, employment, entrepreneurship and other economic outcomes. Often these communities are defined geographically and/or by their racial, ethnic or socio-economic status. As the country becomes more diverse, there is growing understanding that similar system-level factors contribute to adverse outcomes faced by many disadvantaged communities, including communities of color and low-income white communities. However, non-profit organizations serving these communities tend to work separately on these issues rather than together as partners with common goals. To address this gap, philanthropy has started to explore strategies for building organizations’ capacity to establish, strengthen and leverage cross-racial partnerships as a tool to increase civic participation and advocate for policy and system changes. One common philanthropic strategy is to fund a lead group or organization to act as a convener and support system for cross-racial partnerships and collaboration. Community Science evaluated several such initiatives and gleaned the following lessons for maximizing the likelihood of fully realizing the promise and impact of cross-racial partnerships.


Invest the time and provide the additional support needed to build the lead group’s organizational capacity to serve as the convener. Building and leveraging cross-racial partnerships for policy and system change is complex work that often requires dedicated time and commitment from an organization that is willing to act as the convener. This is a new role for most organizations and their capacity to implement such a role should not be assumed. Depending on the size, scope and timeframe of the initiative, the convener organization may need to work with participating partners to create a set of agreed-upon group rules, mission statement and/or principles to guide how partners work together on specific (and not necessarily all) concerns. It is important that these values, guidelines and principles be grounded in transparency, respect, continual cross-racial learning, and inclusivity to support the betterment and empowerment of partners’ respective communities. It is also important to clearly articulate roles, responsibilities and expected contributions of each of the partners. This clarity helps create a shared understanding of expectations and makes it easier for partners to hold each other accountable, as needed. Time should also be set aside for regularly scheduled meetings to ensure work is equitably executed and moves towards improving partners’ communities. Lastly, having a dedicated staff person whose primary focus is supporting the cross-racial partnership is critical to keeping partners engaged, on task, and productive.


Build on the similarities and the differences of participants. Cross-racial partnerships often occur because of the recognition of a similar purpose or goal (such as increasing voter registration and participation) or the desire to enact, change or discontinue a policy or system-level practice. These shared interests provide the foundation for collaboration. However, when partners take time to understand differences in each other’s organizational structures, relationships with local networks and partners, strengths, and areas of expertise, this information can be used to foster stronger, more complementary collaboration. Partners can select, plan and implement activities that build on these different areas of expertise to more cohesively advance the goals of the cross-racial partnership.


Acknowledge and navigate power differences. It is important for partners to recognize and acknowledge power differences within the cross-racial partnership and in their individual relationships with external funders. For example, one organization and/or its’ staff may have a longer history and stronger relationships with a funder, and as a result, the partner is able to exert more influence on the direction and work of the cross-racial partnership. Similarly, power differences due to the conscious/unconscious replication of racial and ethnic hierarchies borne out of histories of systemic oppression can play a role in determining the partnerships’ agenda. These differences, when not forthrightly acknowledged, can deepen feelings of mistrust and lead to unspoken and unnamed tension. Continuous honest and courageous conversation to discuss these differences and their impact on partner relationships is critical. Partners should also actively seek, create and engage in opportunities for cross-racial learning and racial healing to better understand both the root causes of, and productive solutions for, these tensions. By doing so, partners will be better equipped to create sustainable trusting relationships grounded in transparency, mutual respect, intentionality, and the understanding that the power inherent in a cross-racial partnership is greater than the sum of its parts.


Recognize that “collaboration moves at the speed of trust.” Often cross-racial partnerships ask organizations to work together in new and vulnerable ways on issues of critical importance to the communities each organization serves. This work requires a level of familiarity and trust between individuals, organizations, and communities that has not been historically present. Lack of engagement and lack of a shared understanding of commonalities and differences also contribute to mistrust, especially in the face of perceived competition for limited attention, resources, opportunities, and benefits. To do this work successfully, it is imperative that partners are open to centering the goals of the cross-racial partnership while balancing the needs of their respective organizations. It is also critical for partners to h take time to proactively engage in activities to learn more about each other.  such as site visits to other organizations to learn about the needs, strengths, and challenges each community faces. As knowledge, empathy, and cohesion grows, so does the partners’ trust in each other and their collective ability to advocate for the policy and system changes needed for their communities.


Community Science’s experience evaluating the role, influence and impact of cross-racial partnerships on civic participation has taught us there is no magical formula or wand to wave to make this work successful. However, we hope that sharing what we have learned thus far will help ensure future efforts have sufficient funding and technical assistance to support the time, attention, and intention partners need to build and strengthen the organizational capacity of the convener and participating partners; capitalize on their complimentary strengths and differences; recognize and successfully navigate power differences that could otherwise undermine their collaborative efforts; and, perhaps most importantly, build the trusting relationships that allow partners to harness their collective power to increase civic participation and help communities realize the policy and system changes needed for more equitable outcomes.   


References
Covey, S.M., and Merrill R. (2008) The Speed of Trust; The One Thing that Changes Everything. Free Press. New York


 

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