OUR Alliance: Dan Cramer on Centering Equity & Grassroots Organzing
In 2019, the Alliance marks its 25th Anniversary — and a leadership transition! We know that our successes have come from coalition and community power so we’re lifting up the reflections and achievements of leaders from our network who have advanced our collective campaigns for regional equity. We want to hear from you! Share your reflections in this short survey to be recognized in our 25th Anniversary celebrations.
Fighting sprawl and promoting smart growth. For years, those were the framing concepts around many urban sustainability campaigns nationwide. In the Twin Cities, the Alliance helped to bend the arc of regional efforts to center community organizing and equitable development.
Dan Cramer was engaged in that shift nearly 20 years ago. The co-founder of Grassroots Solutions was working on a project for the McKnight Foundation in the early 2000s, assessing the landscape and engagement around smart growth issues in the region. In 2003, the Smart Growth Organizing Project was created to convene a variety of allied organizations from the nonprofit sector. Given the Alliance’s work, from advocating for state and regional policy changes to leading the annual Tour de Sprawl, Cramer knew the Alliance was a natural home for that initiative.
What he didn’t know was how much the Alliance would shape the project — and how that project would shape the wider conversation.
“The main objective of the work was to better connect and align all the different organizing efforts around regional growth,” Cramer recalls. “The thing that I most remember working with the Alliance in the early days was defining the values of the new project, and front and center were the values of equity and grassroots organizing.”
Those values elevated principles of environmental justice, including “confronting issues of race, privilege, culture, and ethnicity and developing a strong understanding about how these issues and disparities manifest themselves within growth and development policies and decisions throughout the region.” The Alliance also centered collaboration and capacity building for community-led campaigns around issues like affordable housing, rather than dictating direction or stepping into a traditional leadership role.
“While the project was educating people about these issues of growth equity and stability, the Alliance also emphasized to funders and other groups the impact and need to invest in grassroots organizing,” Cramer says. “There was an evolution, really focusing on who’s at the table and how decisions get made. The Alliance had a profound impact on equity and grassroots organizing being the central components of the work. It made clear that you simply couldn’t do the work without that. If you trace investment in organizing, it’s certainly nowhere near where it should be, but the Alliance really propelled more people to understand the power of organizing versus simply mobilizing. That’s a big legacy of that work.”
After several years, the Smart Growth Organizing Project had reshaped the broader, regional narrative, moving away from a focus on “smart growth” to equitable development. For Cramer, though, the Alliance also had a profound personal impact.
“Working with the Alliance was the first time I was working with an organization that was centering questions of race and privilege and it really helped to start me on my own journey around the importance of equity,” he says. “That’s a journey that continues for me and all of us, but that tie with the Alliance was really formative in that.”