Q&A with inSite
Racial equity work acknowledges that systemic racism has impacted disproportionately communities of color. Can you tell us more about how this has played out in Phoenix, and why you think this work is so important?
Many of the most controversial race-related laws passed over the last decade have emerged from Arizona. Legislation, including SB1070 and HB2281, the racial profiling law and the banning of ethnic studies in Tucson, respectively, are both examples of systemic and structural racism working to keep communities of color incarcerated and displaced from access to power. The higher courts largely defeated these bills, but the impact on the Arizona and national community in the wake of their passing has been destructive beyond measure.
Partly as a result of these bills and other forms of systemic racism, we see a 14-year lifespan difference between south and north Phoenix communities, for example. Imagine that every mile you move north a person lives two extra years. Or reverse this – you die faster the more south you live in Phoenix. We have many sobering statistics of systemic neglect, which speaks to the histories of displacement of Indigenous, Black, and Brown bodies in this area.
For InSite, our work is about addressing these historical issues of disparity, naming them, and reconciling these histories to make possible a transformed future. We cannot build a more just and equitable future on a foundation of invisible oppression. We have to acknowledge, transform and envision a future for people of color that is thriving.
Phoenix is actively engaged in transit-oriented development. Can you talk about the impact that infrastructure projects have historically had on existing residents, particularly residents of color?
Across our nation, and around the world, we are witnessing the mass-mobilization of communities to combat displacement from their homes. This displacement is most often caused by large-scale infrastructure projects that ostensibly bring prosperity and improvement to the city. The challenge we face is that these projects improve the lives of some, while simultaneously hurting others. We know that infrastructure projects that run through historically marginalized communities displace those residents at exponential rates, particularly lower-income women of color.
At Insite, we think of displacement along three-lines: Dispossession (gentrification out of homes), Disappearance (increasing people of color in prisons), and premature Death (decreasing life expectancy). So, we are not just talking about people losing their homes, which is devastating, but more importantly, the ways that losing one’s home is the beginning of a process of slow premature death as it connects to poor health, lack of community infrastructure, homelessness, and imprisonment. We can longer accept a false logic of progress that has us believe that for some to live then some must die. It is not true and not necessary.
What was the state of play when LISC Phoenix decided to their equity and infrastructure project?
Our partnership with LISC Phoenix was a natural fit, because at their core, LISC’s mission is about addressing the root causes of displacement and to keep communities of color on their land and in their homes. Our relationship, beyond just consulting and projects, has deepened into what is best described as a thought-partnership in the service of large-scale systemic change that considers communities of color, women and immigrants at the center of the transit project, rather than at the periphery. This is no small or easy process, considering transit projects are really about creating access to capital flows, which usually represent white middle-class consumer interests and not lower-income communities of color. We have asked for a lot of courage in our partnership with LISC Phoenix, and we are seeing some very important results.
You all start your engagements with a “Testing the Waters” meeting. Tell us more about what those are and why they are necessary. Who do you think are the key stakeholders when incorporating a racial equity lens into community development planning? How did this play out in Phoenix?
To speak of racial equity and/or systems change is really to talk about a massive disruption in the status quo of power. As one might imagine, a disruption of this kind will not be taken lightly or with open-arms, but often will be met with considerable push back. We think it is important to be transparent about the risks associated with this type of work, so everyone is prepared for the challenges. It takes a long time to build trust and value for leaders to make these changes. And it only happens if there is a considerable pressure from outside forces, like those community organizations that mobilize to make visible the injustices of policy-brutality, deportations, and gentrification (all of which are connected to transit projects). There is a calculus to the work of institutional change and it is forged through the partnerships with local organizers on the ground, NGOs and organizations like LISC. Once we have made these relationships, we can then decide who is willing to act in solidarity. Most people want to do the right thing, but do not have the tools for the work. Inviting people is often about building a critical mass and requires a lot of resources, of which we are thankful to work with LISC in the ongoing work that happens behind the scenes.
We think it is important to share that LISC Phoenix’s leadership has been transformative in influencing how other institutions navigate the transit conversation in south Phoenix. Terry Benelli has been a key player in facing her own power as a white woman, and has decided to act in solidarity with folks on the ground, instead of through a top-down approach. This fundamental shift has signaled to other leaders that this type of ethic (and it is an ethic) is a new way forward that will offer more fruitful results. It is definitely more risky and requires sharing power and funding, and often not receiving credit, but the work is in service to those most impacted, and that is what is important and transformative.
In the report, you describe the tension in the room during the first meeting as “palpable.” What are your strategies for facilitating conversations around racial equity?
At InSite, we believe that all racial equity conversations and strategies must de-center “whiteness,” not white people, but whiteness. What this means is that if we are going to do the work of creating equity, which at its essence is about power-sharing, we must place at the center of the equation those communities most impacted by the disparities we are addressing, which are most often people of color, women, LGBTQ, immigrants and youth. When we do this, we receive push-back and tension from those who have enjoyed the privilege of the center for centuries. We have learned a few things about thiss. First, we must build capacity for white people to navigate their racial discomfort without shutting down. In other words, we must teach white allies how to thoughtfully and consistently confront their racial discomfort. Second, we must create spaces where communities become the leaders and thought-partners at every level of the conversation. Finally, we must build what feminist scholar, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, calls a “feminist insurgent solidarity” among institutions and communities to help us all see a new future outside of the historical confines that limit our imaginations. This takes time and trust.
Who and what have you found to be essential resources and partners at both the local and national level, specifically as it relates to racial equity?
There are some really wonderful folks doing critical work and have been for decades. Not surprisingly, they are mostly women of color and organizations who are led by people of color. At InSite, we think the work of Race Forward and the Government Alliance for Race & Equity are wonderful starting points for any organization who wants to do this work. It is also vital for us that we are following the lead of political organizations like Black Lives Matter, Mijente, Southerns on New Ground, Trans Queer Pueblo, and Poder in Action to name just a few. These organizations are more adaptable and responsive to the inequities facing their constituents. They are more nimble and imaginative than most institutions or NGOs, and therefore should really lead our thinking and practice on this topic. This is hard, because it means that we have to give up power, but it is essential for equity.
Lastly, we should be reading people who have made it their life’s work to create space for racial and feminist justice: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Marie Brown, Virginia Grise, Dr. Maribel Alvarez, and so many others who have dedicated their lives to bridging institutional missions with communities to make solidarity together.
What would be your advice to other practitioners getting started in Racial Equity work?
I’ll go with a list:
Know who you are accountable to. If you are accountable to your funders, it is very difficult to do transformative work. Be accountable to communities most impacted.
Follow the lead of women of color, LGBTQ communities, migrants, and Black Lives Matter. They will reveal where the disparities are, and only then can you understand how to create systems change.
Know the difference between intention vs. impact.
Read women of color. Follow women of color. Support women of color.