Lessons Learned from the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

WRAG recently hosted its Brightest Minds series with Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. Two participants were asked to reflect on the session and its meaning for the Greater Metropolitan Washington area. We’re grateful for Hanh Le, executive director of Weissberg Foundation, and Yanique Redwood, president and CEO of Consumer Health Foundation, for sharing their views below. We invite you to join this conversation. Please share your thoughts.

by Hanh Le, Executive Director, Weissberg Foundation and
Yanique Redwood, President and CEO, Consumer Health Foundation

WRAG kicked off its 2017 Brightest Minds speaker series on February 3rd with a provocative talk by Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, the president of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. Ms. Dedecker helps lead the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable, which convenes more than 30 community leaders from public, private, nonprofit and faith institutions to advance racial equity and promote the change required to accelerate a shared regional prosperity in Buffalo, New York. The Roundtable is focused on building a more inclusive workforce pipeline using a systems approach, creating more inclusive workplaces, stemming the trends for boys and young men of color and juvenile justice through a policy approach, and strengthening the reentry system.

As the Washington area philanthropic community works to develop our own regional approach to advancing racial equity, the efforts in Buffalo are quite instructive. Many of us in private conversations and group meetings continue to express our shock and outrage at our country’s reversal of civil rights gains and the re-emergence of explicit forms of racism and xenophobia. This time in our nation’s history calls for both truth-telling and rigor if we are to finally rid our systems of racism and the devastating impacts that it has had on communities of color. In that spirit, in this reflection we highlight what we see as upsides and downsides of the Buffalo approach, offer up several key process-related takeaways for consideration, and discuss potential applications and cautions for our region.

Upsides of the Buffalo Approach

  • A regional initiative needs both broad-based engagement as well as a strong coordinating organization that is appropriately resourced and uniquely positioned to be a trusted convener. In Buffalo, the Community Foundation has stepped up to play that important role with the Roundtable and seems to have garnered the political will and resources needed to do so effectively.
  • The Roundtable approaches racial equity work from an abundance mindset as opposed to a scarcity mindset. The framing and messaging is about opportunity and potential, which helps to bring people into a conversation that can be otherwise fraught with misunderstandings and feelings of shame, anger and guilt.
  • The Roundtable has clearly articulated its guiding principles that the work is data-driven, has a focus on systems change, calls people in instead of calling people out, identifies and promotes promising practices, and promotes racial equity impact analysis.

Downsides of the Buffalo Approach

  • The Roundtable’s strong focus on opportunity and potential could have the unintended consequence of disaffirming the long history of racism and how central it has been in determining outcomes for communities of color. From housing and neighborhood segregation to employment and income inequities, racism has structured opportunity for white Americans that has largely been inaccessible to communities of color. Without shining a bright light on this history, the solutions that our communities so desperately need will be based on faulty assumptions about how we arrived at the kinds of inequities that we see in communities across our country. We must tell the unvarnished truth about what has happened to communities of color in order to realize our vision of racial equity.
  • From the outside looking in, it appears that the Roundtable places greater focus on C-suite engagement with apparently much less engagement with communities that have suffered due to racism. Solutions are only as progressive as the experiences of those at the decision-making table allow. As well-meaning as we all might be, we are privileged in the C-suite. The more distant we are from the everyday grind of being poor and a person of color, the easier it will be to move incrementally and the harder it will be to advocate for transformational change. Communities, too, must be organized to achieve racial equity.

Key Takeaways About Process

  • Region-wide racial equity work is complicated because it is replete with numerous stakeholders who have various perspectives, histories, biases and motivations. So, the work needs to be approached with strong processes, a comprehensive strategy and partnerships.
  • Philanthropy is in a special position to support racial equity work because we are freer than most institutions to take risks, and we have the resources to support the “grease and glue” needed to sustain and advance multi-year, cross-sector, multi-partner, region-wide initiatives.
  • Communication is extremely important in racial equity work—from the discrete words used (which can have the effect of calling people in or calling people out), to the stories and narratives that are crafted and told that can inform, enlighten, and inspire.
  • Strong consultants and facilitators with deep expertise in both process and content are essential to moving this work forward. They bring valuable perspective from other regions and a certain degree of objectivity.
  • Relationship building is key. Because of the tensions inherent in this work, we will need to spend time with each other. We will need to speak truthfully with one another. And at times, we may need to agree to disagree yet still come back to the table, always keeping the vision of racial equity at the center of all that we do.

Applications and Cautions for the Washington Area

We are so proud that under the leadership of WRAG, the philanthropic sector in the DC region has committed to “putting racism on the table.” We have chosen to tell the truth about structural racism, implicit bias and white privilege. It is not easy, nor is it comfortable, but it is necessary. Ms. Dedecker said, “When you give good smart people good information, they will make good decisions.” Therefore, we caution against using tempered language so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable. We cannot sacrifice authenticity and urgency for comfort. As we move forward with our work, let us not lose the boldness with which we are approaching truth telling.

We are inspired that Buffalo has been able to bring the business sector to the table. We are working to do the same here in the DC region. WRAG has formed a planning group made up of business leaders who participated in the Putting Racism on the Table series. Moved by what they learned, they want to help develop educational opportunities that are even more relevant to the business sector. We have a lot to learn from the Roundtable in this respect. At the same time, let us continue to place great value on the experiences and recommendations from communities with lived experience and from the social profit sector. These are the leaders who are on the ground working every day on very deep and personal levels to achieve racial equity.

Let us not succumb to our propensity to work on low-hanging fruit, which we believe is why we are still dealing with racism in 2017. Now is the time to work on the really hard issues—racial residential segregation, a bloated incarceration system that targets black and brown people, the fact that it will take 228 years for the average black family and 84 years for the average Latino family to accumulate the wealth that the average white family enjoys today. Policies created these inequities, and policies can and must undo them.

Finally, let’s do a better job of acknowledging both the strengths and weaknesses of the efforts that have come before ours. Where there have been advances, what were the essential ingredients? Why have some efforts stalled? And how are these lessons then incorporated into the work of racial equity going forward?