On Wednesday, November 17, 2022, GARE, its programmatic partner State of Equity, and the Federal Initiative for Racial Equity (FIRE) co-hosted Working Together: Advancing Racial Equity Across Government. Two hundred attendees convened for a day of learning and reflection on how building and using infrastructure for community participation and interagency coordination can contribute to achieving racially equitable results. Registrants from GARE member jurisdictions were joined by interested participants from state and local government, federal and state agencies, the private sector, and philanthropy.
Throughout the day, participants heard from those centrally involved in the ReGenesis Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Time was built into each of the session segments for individual reflection, peer exchange in pair-shares, and table discussions about questions designed to prompt participants to think critically about their work and how it can be more aligned to support racial equity. Segments were hosted by GARE practitioners Michelle Melendez, Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at City of Albuquerque; Katherin Canton, formerly the Race and Equity Manager for the California Arts Council; Holly Nickel of State of Equity; and Glenn Harris, President of Race Forward.
The desired outcomes for this first-of-its kind gathering were that participants:
- learn how community participation in decision making and interagency and intergovernmental coordination requires creating and using infrastructure
- learn about the ReGenesis Project and how government institutions can work together to encourage transformative change.
- consider how lessons from ReGenesis can be applied to our current work (e.g., leveraging American Recovery Plan Act or Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act investments to support community-driven solutions).
The first segment Advancing Equity Starts with Us emphasized the role of leadership. Panelists discussed the importance of acknowledging our role as public servants as being stewards of public trust. Being a steward compels us to use whatever power and discretion is available to us in our official capacity to ensure that all people receive the protection of government and access to the resources and support necessary to succeed. Government also needs to build infrastructure that supports long-term participation of community and the building of relationship for accountability.
Panelist Dr. Clarice Gaylord built the supportive infrastructure for agency coordination and community participation within EPA by creating an interagency working group and employing the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) to ensure there is a seat at the table for residents to provide recommendations to government agencies on decisions that impact their lives. Scanning over the packed room from the stage, Dr. Gaylord commented to all, “In all of the years that I was working in the agency to create change, I never could have imagined there would be this many people interested and involved in this movement.”
The second segment, The Cadence of a Whole-of-Government Intervention While Being Community-Driven focused on how local, state, and federal officials rolled up their sleeves and worked with the impacted neighborhoods of Arkwright and Forest Park in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This Black community served as an example for “collaborative problem solving” that resulted in leveraging $300 million of investment to improve the living conditions of people whose health and well-being was severely negatively impacted by years of hazardous industrial waste dumping.
Harold Mitchell, former State Representative and Founder and CEO of The ReGenesis Institute, provided important background context on the role of community organizing, and the power of reaching out and connecting with receptive local, state and federal government officials who are receptive to engaging and extending assistance – oftentimes above and beyond what their job descriptions and work hours dictate. Harold and Cynthia Pureifoy, retired from Region 4 EPA as Director of Outreach and Community Engagement, recounted her unplanned, in-the-moment visit to Arkwright to “put a name to the voice” of the person who were calling about local conditions, and how that unplanned visit led to confirmation of a lack of longstanding agency oversight. Elana Rush, retired from Spartanburg County Community and Economic Development, also spoke of the efforts made to ensure that meetings occurred in the community to spotlight issues of concern and create an official forum for documenting poor health and living conditions resulting from the site that the county would later be compelled to acknowledge and remediate as a priority in its economic development planning.
Elana Rush recounted the power of finding common denominators for bridging perceived differences. In this case, a group of Black and white women finding common ground for agreement in the realization that they all have daughters that they love and want to support.
A third segment Applying Lessons from the Past. Imagining Approaches for the Future provided time for individual and shared reflection to explore and discuss what is needed to govern toward a vision of racial equity. Some of the reflections shared in table discussions include:
“Those of us who work in government are challenged to seek out and work with others who have similar mindsets. We need to find others in government we can trust with this work. Regional connections can be key to this!”
“It’s been fashionable to talk about community engagement and community participation – but the reason we are doing this is to achieve COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIPS so that we are working with the support we need in government to make change!”
“We as government employees have agency. We must return to the agencies we work in and figure out when to push, who to push, and how hard to push. There’s a lot of power in this room.”
“If racial equity is to occur in government, we must be willing to take some risks. As change makers, you may be working for a government you don’t trust, that doesn’t serve you, or that has a history that is totally against you. It can be so hard to be that person in that space. BUT there are not enough people like that serving in government.”
Closing Comments were moderated by Glenn Harris, Chitra Kumar, Director of the Office of Policy, Partnerships and Program Development at EPA and Keisha Long, Environmental Justice Coordinator at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Attendees were reminded that public institutions need to be bold and creative, and structures must be pliable to solve racial inequities. Collaborative problem solving among levels of government can create the conditions for the thriving, multiracial democracy our country needs.