EquityNow: Reflections from EquityNow Convening with Partnership for Southern Equity

by Owen Duckworth, coalition organizer

Nathaniel Smith of Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) got up in front of a room full of Minnesota’s equity leaders last week and stated, “Equity is not a tactic; it’s a way of life.”

Smith was speaking to the leaders who came together to form EquityNow Twin Cities, a group of advocates, organizers, public servants, philanthropic leaders and community members who are committed to make racial equity a priority in our region. To this point, much of the conversation within EquityNow Twin Cities has focused on making the case for why promoting an equity agenda is necessary in the region. This network has also strengthened the group’s collective understanding of equity issues and has identified strategies to approach our day-to-day work with a broader equity perspective. But how might EquityNow Twin Cities maintain the energy of the group and move an equity agenda most effectively in the region? How might the delegation work to make equity a way of life in the Twin Cities?

PSE is working through many of these same issues as they build, develop and move a coalition of people and organizations committed to equity work in Atlanta. Smith started his presentation with a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. based on the concept of the network of mutuality which states that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  This mantra of shared destiny is the spiritual foundation of PSE and guides Smith’s approach to working with close allies and opponents alike.  For many people, the case to invest in communities who are the farthest behind must be based in an idea that there is something for all to gain from a more equitable model of economic growth. He explained how important it is to create a new, unified narrative of shared prosperity based on love, which can challenge the existing national narrative of scarcity and fear.

Smith also shared details about PSE’s approach to coalition-building and management. He stated that any partnership’s work must serve as a “mirror and a magnifier” for participating organizations and individuals to remain committed and involved. If the work properly serves as a mirror, people will see themselves and their work in the larger work of the coalition. A partnership that successfully serves as a magnifier highlights, strengthens and showcases the work that organizations are already doing as well.

This work can be intimidating because there is so much inequity and the problems we encounter every day can seem overwhelming. One way that PSE attempted to make the work more manageable was to break the work down into different categories:  transportation equity, equity of opportunity and equitable development. They then formed groups, titled Equity Circles, to develop specific strategies to address each impact area. The Just Transportation Circle (JTC) is focused on organizing around transportation equity issues including a regional transportation funding referendum.  JTC also mapped out equitable target areas to push for investment in future projects.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Equity Atlas (MAEA) circle works on equitable development by mapping out data and crafting a narrative to influence discussion and decisions on creating a more equitable region. A key example of MAEA’s work is a pair of maps of the Atlanta region that track where low-income workers live and where low-income jobs are located, highlighting the problems presented by sprawling development patterns in restricting access to employment opportunities. Finally, the Economic Opportunity and Jobs Circle is working to promote a continuum of economic opportunities for low-income people, starting with education and workforce development, to jobs placement, and ultimately higher education.

Another strategy that Smith found very effective was anchoring equity in the structure of institutions that PSE is working with or targeting. He cited an example in his work in which PSE was able to work with partners inside of Atlanta’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to create an equity committee within the MPO. This worked to connect allies working inside of the institution to outside equity advocates and built in a degree of accountability to move equity within the MPO. Many in the room felt this could be a powerful tactic to use in the Twin Cities region as well.

Smith finished his presentation by refocusing on the spiritual mantra at the heart of PSE’s mission: that the approach to moving an equity agenda effectively must come from a place of love and understanding of a shared destiny. He again used a powerful quote from Dr. King to explain, saying, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

EquityNow Twin Cities can certainly learn a great deal from the experience of the Partnership for Southern Equity, though the specific path of the delegation here in Minnesota is still to be determined and could be very different from that of PSE in Atlanta. Neeraj Mehta of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs highlighted the many possible directions EquityNow Twin Cities could move from here by presenting a list of potential mission statements. His final suggestion stated, “by working together, a diverse group of passionate people will achieve equity for the region.” If the goal is to make equity a way of life in our region, this could serve as a core value at the center of the work, as the delegation decides on the specifics of what to do next.