State of the Cities: Leading the Way in Racial Equity Through Speech And Action

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NLC’s 2017 State of the Cities analysis reveals how much mayors are using their public platforms to call attention to the issues of inequities based on race and ethnicity facing their cities. The Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative at NLC supports local elected officials to build a foundation on this first step to create real change through the levers that local elected officials and city governments can control.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss of Grand Rapids, Michigan, used her state of the city speech to explain the reason for choosing “A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids,” as her Book of the Year, in order to build on the city’s series of conversations “to gain a deeper understanding of our city’s history and the origin of structural and managerial racism that still exists today.” Understanding the historical and current impacts of structural racism is a key part of the work that REAL is supporting cities to undertake, including the 15 cities participating in the National Municipal Learning Community for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.

When residents look to understand the direction of their communities, the reassuring or challenging words from their local elected officials play a major role. For some mayors this has meant highlighting their city’s positive relationship with immigrants and refugees, through a number of recent statements to the media reaffirming sanctuary status and clarifying the city’s intended relationship between immigrants and law enforcement. “If the federal immigration service wants someone held in our county jail because it thinks they’re dangerous, all they have to do is to get a warrant. It’s that easy,” said Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas.

Using his state of the city speech to help build the nuanced understanding of our history that lays the groundwork for healing, Mayor John Hamilton of Bloomington, Indiana, said “For most of our history, we kept many runners sidelined from democracy’s relay race. To our perpetual damage and shame, our relay was run with generations of great Americans barred from the main track: People of color. Women. Native Americans. Immigrants. People of different faiths or no faith. LGBTQ+. People with disabilities.”

Referencing the role of the past and the future, Mayor Adler also highlighted the city’s recent Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities, noting the role the Task Force played in acknowledging that “people of good will can find themselves in social constructs they didn’t create and that produce results they don’t like.”

And in Charlottesville, Virginia — a city whose struggles to address racial injustice by removing confederate monuments made international news months later due to violent, white supremacist backlash — Mayor Mike Signer’s speech showed the opportunity local elected officials have to connect the past with actions that will shape the future:

“We prevented the proposed re-zoning of the Booker Hill neighborhood, protecting a historic African-American neighborhood from increased gentrification. We allocated $80,000 to the rehabilitation of the historic Daughters of Zion cemetery, which tells an important chapter of Charlottesville’s history—that of our robust African-American middle-class. And we created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race and Public Spaces, which produced a thorough and thoughtful report that we’ll be discussing tonight.”

Both Mayor Adler and Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta addressed gentrification and the resulting displacement as two equity issues that needed to be tackled head on. In his speech, Mayor Reed asked: “How do we make sure that people who have been in Atlanta all of their lives aren’t forced to push their noses up against the glass to look into a window of success and prosperity, but remain locked out of it themselves?”

Mayor Chris Coleman of Saint Paul, Minnesota, highlighted the geographic patterns of disparity that result from residential segregation, stating “while we do have many success stories to tell, I know that the economic recovery has been uneven—that the global economic restructuring has left whole segments of our community behind. And that the painful legacy of racism continues to keep us all from achieving our dream of a community rooted in fairness. Where no one’s path is defined by their zip code or constrained by race or income.”

While Mayors play a major role in influencing norms by sparking these conversations, they also yield the power of city policy and procedure to take action. Linking these two strategies, Mayor Bliss talked about the significant commitment the city has made as a member of the first Racial Equity Here cohort: “This work is helping us identify ways in which government plays a role in perpetuating disparities in our community – and how we can transform city operations and policies to embed racial equity in all city decision-making.”

Both Mayors Bliss and Coleman’s speeches highlighted the need to build diversity among the makeup of city boards and commissions, with Mayor Coleman noting the city’s work to increase the diversity on the city’s boards and commissions and that several boards “are now comprised of more than 40 percent people of color.”

In a city with rapid growth and economic development that is now using a racial equity tool to look at budget decisions, Mayor Adler has sought to use city tools like a rewrite of the land use code to prevent housing prices from skyrocketing to the point so that “someone can return here and still find the character of Austin.”

By linking a bold commitment to the action needed to make good on these commitments, Mayors and other local elected officials across the country are positioning their cities to make the changes necessary to build an equitable future.

At City Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina, a general session and several workshops highlighted the work of Mayors and Councilmembers leading their cities’ racial equity journeys, along with several opportunities to learn about strategies to advance racial equity in cities across the through NLC University. A series of four City Profiles and a Municipal Action Guide released in November 2017 by the REAL initiative highlight examples of local elected officials making these commitments and how to follow through to concrete actions.

About the author: Aliza R. Wasserman is the senior associate with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative.