In order to become agents for advancing racial equity, local governments will often need to change the way they work. One powerful way government agencies can build racial equity into their operations is through racially inclusive collaboration and engagement. Done well, the practice of inclusive public engagement can be a critical tool embedding the consideration of racial impact into the policy making process.
The practice of intentionally engaging community members can help drive racial equity, although a challenge facing many engagement efforts is that they’re conducted as one-off projects and aren’t connected to broader, systemic change efforts. In order for public engagement to actually drive toward more equitable communities, the engagements need to directly inform strategic planning and policymaking efforts.
One example where deep public engagement is being effectively used to inform institutional and structural changes is in the City of Tacoma’s recently launched police and community listening sessions, known as Project PEACE (Partnering for Equity and Community Engagement).
Advancing Racial Equity through Public Engagement
By hearing from community members directly about how they experience city services, local governments can develop and implement policies and strategies more equitably. Indeed, under Tacoma’s racial equity work, purposeful community outreach and engagement was established as one of 5 equity goals in the city’s equity and empowerment framework.
In line with Tacoma’s equity framework, Project PEACE is a series of 6 deep listening sessions between Tacoma City Police, the city manager, and the community. The engagement series arose following the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson. At that time, one of Tacoma’s newspapers engaged local leaders in a conversation about police relations. The conversation revealed the need for better understanding and trust between community members and the police department.
Most importantly, these sessions are tied into the Tacoma Police Department’s planning efforts for the upcoming year. The potential for actual structural change to come from the engagement is thus strong. The feedback and insights generated from the listening sessions can help determine, for example, what kinds of training and policies the Tacoma Police Department implements in 2016.
Also important, that police themselves are fully engaged in the process. The police chiefs were part of the design process and somewhere between 15 and 20 police officers attended each listening session to date.
Project Peace: Nuts & Bolts
Sessions themselves last between approximately 3.5 to 4.5 hours. The bulk of the listening sessions are conducted in small groups, with each group having two trained facilitators and a recorder taking notes of conversation to feed back to the police department.
The first portion of the session is focused on race and racism and sets the stage for participants to talk about structural and institutionalized racism. This initial segment is followed by a mini lesson on the history of racism in the United States (adapted from the larger ‘Undoing Institutional Racism’ workshop by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond). Both of these listening session components serve to educate and build awareness about racial equity, priming participants to make connections between individual experiences and structural issues in the remainder of the listening session.
Back in small groups, participants then dive into two conversations. First: what did you learn about police growing up, and what has been your experience with Tacoma Police Department? Then: what advice or guidance would you suggest that the police department pay attention to?
Having established a structural racism frame earlier in the session, community participants are guided to reflect on personal experiences and then propose concrete suggestions for improvement the Tacoma Police Department can make. Once all 6 listening sessions are completed, the city will share its main findings in a larger culminating event in February.
Engaging people deeply affected by city services, in this case African Americans by the Tacoma Police Department, can be an effective equity tool if connected to actual change in policies and practices. Project PEACE is one example of how meaningful community engagement efforts can be done to make structural and institutional change.