From Ferguson to Charleston, a Renewed Focus on Race, Equity and Leadership

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This is a guest post by Leon T. Andrews, Jr.

Baltimore is just one of many cities across the nation that have experienced tragic events during the past year related to issues of racism, inequity, economic development and police-community relations. (Getty Images)

During the past year we have witnessed several events in cities across the nation that call on each of us, as Americans, to examine more critically issues of race and equity and how they impact so many facets of our society. These issues are not new; the tragedies that have occurred in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, North Charleston, Baltimore, McKinney, Charleston and other cities across the nation do not represent the first time this country has confronted racial injustice.

But the events in the last year have elevated the consciousness of so many of our citizens. These events create an opportunity to examine critical issues of race, institutional and systemic racism, implicit and explicit bias, and how these issues manifest in our individual lives, communities, policies, systems and structures. Local elected officials have been called on, in ways we have not seen until recently, to show leadership on these issues.

In March 2015, at its annual Congressional Cities Conference in Washington, D.C., the National League of Cities (NLC) launched a new initiative called REAL, which stands for Race, Equity And Leadership. Recognizing that systemic and institutional racism and bias has had a negative impact on public policy over time, the REAL initiative aligns NLC’s unique strengths and resources across the organization to proactively prepare city leaders to create meaningful conversations and actions that apply a racial equity lens to policies, initiatives, programs and budget issues.

When the city of Seattle applied a racial equity lens to the examination of their emergency response system, they learned that their complaint-based system for responding to street light replacement or police officer assignment based on 911 calls did not accurately reflect need and, in some cases, had a devastating effect in neighborhoods that experienced more criminal activity than others. By applying a similar racial equity lens to their efforts, city leaders can more accurately assess how policies, projects, initiatives and budget decisions benefit and burden communities.

The REAL initiative is NLC’s effort to equip its membership with the capacity to address the historical, systemic and structural barriers that further inequality and racism in our communities. REAL offers local elected officials:

  • opportunities to discuss ways of addressing race and equity issues in their communities
  • assistance with applying a racial equity lens that clearly articulates the differences between individual, institutional, and structural racism, as well as implicit and explicit bias in policies, practices and systems
  • resources for elected officials and city staff to help them:
    • facilitate racial healing
    • improve outcomes for boys and men of color
    • strengthen their communications and messaging on race, equity, and justice
    • outreach and partner with the community
    • identify opportunities to increase and retain diverse talent
    • support professional development for city leaders in using a racial equity lens
  • solutions for elected officials that apply a racial equity lens to city issues

Racism is arguably the most difficult and prevalent equity issue to discuss and take action upon. Slavery, and the perpetual evidence of institutional and systemic racism, is a shameful and embarrassing part of our nation’s past – as well its present. Racism is not a new issue, but recent events present a new opportunity for our country to respond in meaningful and measurable ways to some of the hardest and most prevalent challenges we have confronted in our nation’s history. NLC’s REAL initiative empowers local elected officials to authentically engage and act in collaboration with the community to rethink how local government better serves and celebrates our rich diversity.

We implore city leaders to take action and proactively address issues of racism and inequality in their communities. To that end, we’re excited to announce that city leaders may now register for register for NLC’s third REAL Talk Forum. Additionally, NLC will be offering a training and a peer learning session at the upcoming NLCU Leadership Summit in Orlando September 16-17. We also encourage you to share the progress you are making and challenges you confront in your own communities as you strive to apply a racial equity lens to policies, practices and systems in your city. Please send us your stories, or contact the Director of the National League of Cities’ REAL initiative, Leon T. Andrews, Jr., for more information at or (202) 626-3039.

About the Author: Leon T. Andrews is the Director of the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative at the National League of Cities.