REAL Talk to REAL Action: Undoing Racism in America’s Cities

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NLC held its second REAL (Race, Equity And Leadership) event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on August 25. Undoing Racism in America’s Cities and Towns explored how city leaders are advancing racial understanding and healing within communities across the nation. (photo: Tim Mudd)

For most people, race is a difficult topic to discuss. The very mention of race can spark a myriad of emotions ranging from denial, guilt, anger and frustration to hopelessness. The discomfort or unease associated with these emotions can lead people to respond in different ways. Some choose to avoid conversations about race entirely, whereas others refuse to shy away from the conversation and speak out boldly and confidently about issues of race and injustice. Others are willing to have a dialogue about race but feel more comfortable limiting their interactions to members of their same race instead of reaching out across cultures. And then there are others who, according to according to Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, muster up the “keyboard courage” to post their comments on social media and engage in conversations from behind their computer screen but refuse to have the conversation in public.

As a result, it can be difficult for local elected officials to figure out how best to facilitate racial understanding and healing in their communities.

Overwhelmingly, the panelists at the National League of Cities’ (NLC) REAL Talk series Undoing Racism in America’s Cities and Towns reiterated the idea that, if we are going to create a more equitable society, we have to have this conversation no matter how difficult it may seem. The panel, which included Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Cleveland Councilmember and NLC 2nd Vice President Matt Zone, and Tim Wise, anti-racism activist and author of the memoir White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, challenged city leaders to confront issues of race, racism and racial equity.

This is especially poignant for me given my experience with NLC’s Learning Collaborative on Health Disparities. In working with the collaborative, I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand just how difficult it can be for local elected officials, their staff, and their community partners to talk about race. Cities participating in the Collaborative were challenged to think critically about the root causes of health disparities in their city. It’s nearly impossible to have these conversations in a meaningful way without examining the impact of historical, systemic and structural racism on the unequal distribution of quality schools, affordable housing, employment opportunities, access to healthy, affordable foods, and safe spaces to engage in physical activity. In some cases, candid discussions about race, disparities and equity have been hampered by feelings of discomfort. For example, one city leader shared that, as a white male, he often feels uncomfortable speaking about race and that his fear of “saying the wrong thing” prevents him from actively engaging in these conversations.

While the REAL Talk panelists acknowledged the difficulty of these conversations, they refused to accept that as an excuse for not moving forward, issuing a call to action to city leaders to be bold in helping move people past their discomfort and create meaningful conversations. To that end, the panelists outlined concrete actions that city leaders can take to advance racial understanding and create more equitable communities.

  • Start Early, Start Young — “Individual attitudes are passed down from generation to generation. So as I talk about this conversation locally and as I talk about it in other places, it’s really to challenge how we are training, how we are teaching, and how we are challenging our children because we get a lot of things from our parents…some parents are passing down hatred [and a] belief in inferiority that certain races, certain genders, certain people are less than [which] that informs everything they do and how they relate to people not like them,” said Mayor Freeman-Wilson. City leaders can work with parents, caregivers, teachers, faith leaders, and other early education stakeholders to educate young children about the importance of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance.
  • Review Current Practices, Procedures, and Policies City leaders can apply a racial equity lens to their policies, programs, initiatives and budgets to identify intentional and unintentional consequences. Effective data collection and statistical analysis is a critical component of this review process.
  • Engage the Community — “These are conversations we need to have not only in city hall but in the community,” said Matt Zone. “Being a convener is a tremendous opportunity that local government leaders have. To convene people in a way that allows them to feel equal and that their opinions matter is critical for moving this conversation forward.” City leaders can create a safe space for the community to share their lived experiences, clarify their needs, and participate in the decision making process on an ongoing basis.
  • Call out Racism — “We have to be willing to acknowledge that [racism] exists and be willing to talk about it” said Mayor Freeman-Wilson. Local elected officials are uniquely positioned to leverage their position and visibility to speak out against racism, injustice and inequality. “Our first role is to understand and to take the time, just like [we take the time] to understand the budget, crime rate, and all of the other important statistics. Once [we] understand those dynamics then we can do something about it.”
  • Expand the Conversation — “If you are going to understand the events that happened in Baltimore six months ago you can’t start with Freddie Gray and you cannot start even with the police department in Baltimore… We talk about housing and education and we talk about neighborhoods as if they are not racism,” said Tim Wise. Conversations about race and race relations should not be limited to discussions about police brutality. Throughout the forum, the panelists reiterated that we have to analyze the systemic and structural violence and inequities occurring across a broad range of sectors including education, transportation and health that impact the quality of life of individuals living in cities and towns.

In just the last year, tragic events in cities across the country have highlighted just how difficult it is to talk about race — but they have also highlighted the urgent need to have these conversations. According to Tim Wise, “If you own your piece of it, it’s easier to get others to own theirs.” As I reflect on my work with the Learning Collaborative on Health Disparities, I am encouraged by the passion and commitment of city leaders to address inequities and build more equitable, inclusive communities. NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership initiative is uniquely positioned to provide NLC staff and local elected officials the tools, techniques and resources to prepare them to advance the conversation and translate these important conversations into action.

Alyia Head ShotAbout the Author: Alyia Smith-Parker is a Senior Associate for Health and Community Wellness at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Contact Alyia at