On Wednesday, January 18 the Alliance for Metropolitan gathered over 40 organizers from around the region for our first Organizer Roundtable of 2012: Organizing for Equity – Sharing Lesson’s from PolicyLink’s Equity Summit. During this session, four members of the Minnesota Delegation to the summit shared their personal experiences of the conference, how it applies in their work and our region, and what they think stronger work, both together and individually, for equity could mean for our region moving forward.
Neeraj Mehta, Nexus Community Partners program officer
Last summer, Nexus began working with Alliance for Metropolitan Stability and Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing to organize a delegation of Minnesotans to PolicyLink’s Equity Summit in Detroit in November. Initially the team envisioned that the delegation would be 50 or 60 people from our region who were either working on equity issues or concerned about integrating a more equitable approach to our region’s growth and development. However, when more than 100 people applied to be a part of the delegation by the application’s deadline, it became clear that we needed to do more to ensure that as many people as possible were afforded the opportunity to go to Detroit. And so, together, the team solicited foundations and other organizations for scholarship money and we raised over $100,000. As a result, we were able to have a delegation of over 150 people, the largest delegation in the country.
There were several goals for our delegation. We wanted it to be cross sector, and represent a myriad of organizations, cultures, faiths, who were working on a variety of equity issues. We also wanted the delegation to be able to increase their knowledge and be able to move forward collaboratively to work on equity issues in our region, putting our learning into action.
Throughout the conference, Neeraj spent the majority of his time in the hallway and lobby areas. This was important for him because he wanted to use that time to get to know people who he did not already know. He wanted to get to branch out of his work and develop wider connections that could only be built through networking with others.
Sessions that Neeraj participated in during the summit solidified several ideas that were in some ways nobrainers for him while at the same time it prompted him to ask questions about moving equity forward in our region. He already understood that not everyone benefits from the investments in the region. He already understood that having our heads stuck down in our own work and in our own silos, disconnects us from the larger work that is being done across the region. And he understood that equity is important in ensuring benefits for everyone and building cross-sector connections. However, he wondered how we move forward in building a strong region, while at the same time strengthening smaller local communities, neighborhoods, and place-based organizations? And with this, how do we ensure that we do not privilege certain communities over and above other communities? And finally, as we are making more investments in infrastructure, transportation and employment opportunities for all people, what is the larger work that needs to take place so people do not have to leave their communities to access these opportunities?
Nancy Pomplun, Asian Economic Development Association Community Building and Organizing director
As a child, Nancy was quite an introvert and observed everything around her. Yet this drove her to be an active participant as she grew older, and get involved in the issues affecting Asian Americans. She believes that as we gain knowledge about different issues, it is our responsibility to do something about them. This caused her to develop her voice to speak out on behalf of certain injustices and ultimately led her to become an organizer.
Since she has been an organizer, she has realized the importance of having the right messaging. Reflecting on the disparities within various Asian American communities, and other cultural communities, she saw that many people try to frame their issue as the most important because they have the worst disparities. She questions this messaging strategy, and is motivated instead to tell about the strengths of the community.
This is not to say that the disparities are not there, because they are. Nancy attended the summit because she wanted to join a movement committed to eradicating those disparities. While there she learned of several initiatives around economic development in different communities across the nation. She is inspired to bring these ideas to her work along the Central Corridor. With the construction of the light rail transit and other development opportunities that it brings, many in the Asian-American community fear gentrification. However, Nancy sees that development could be a positive and could also lead to improving the wages and standard of living for the communities that she serves if implemented with equity in mind.
Hashi Shafi, Somali Action Alliance executive director
Hashi shared that he has been involved in the Somali community in Minnesota for the last 15 years. He has worked on a variety of issues that have affected the wellbeing of his community such as education, transportation and jobs.
Accessibility of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit has been one of those issues that Hashi has organized around as the director of Somali Action Alliance (SAA). In 2007 the SAA organized around the West Bank station so that it would be a benefit to the Somali community in the area. With the help of the community and allies from the University of Minnesota, SAA was able to move the station closer to the West Bank residents, which allowed those residents to understand the political power that they had. As construction of the CCLRT is underway, one of the issues that has emerged is the availability of affordable housing. SAA has been able to engage the surrounding community to advocate for equitable development to ensure that residents are not displaced as a result of this construction project.
When Hashi learned of PolicyLink’s Equity Summit, he was immediately intrigued. Although he had been to other conferences before, the fact that this particular one had a strong policy orientation stood out to him because inequitable policy decisions had affected his life and the life of his neighbors. For Hashi, the conference gave him confidence to build both local and national allies in the fight for justice and equity.
Joan Pasiuk, Transit for Livable Communities bicycling and walking program director
Minneapolis is one of four communities around the U.S. selected as a pilot demonstration project to show that biking and walking is a viable transportation option. $28 million has been invested in the Twin Cities to create bike paths and bike lanes on main streets. The investments have paid off in that last year, the Twin Cities was noted as the top bicycling community in the nation.
Yet what do these things mean for equity? How can bicycling and walking be a part of the equity equation? These questions surfaced in Joan’s mind as she prepared to attend the Equity Summit.
The conference emphasized that equity, or just and fair inclusion, is the superior economic growth model for our nation. For Joan this meant that “if people of color in our nation do no succeed, then our nation will not succeed.” In this regard, Joan posed the question of how we can frame equity through a positive economic lens noting that by continuing to frame it only as a social justice issue that “we are only preaching to the choir but not expanding it.”
With these ideas in mind, Joan has been looking at strategic opportunities to integrate her learnings into her work. One of the things that has already begun to happen for Joan is raising the awareness of equity and what that means for transit among staff at TLC. Prior to the summit, Bike Walk Twin Cities, which is a project of TLC, had begun to implement ways to serve the community through different projects. The Sibley Bike Depot’s Community Partners Bike Library is one of those projects and collaborates with 19 organizations to make bikes and education accessible to under-served communities, encourage lifelong bicycle use and increase livability and access throughout the Twin Cities. Other Bike Walk Twin Cities Projects are the Nice Ride Minnesota bicycle program, Bike Walk Ambassadors Community Outreach program and the St. Paul Smart Trips program. As inspiring as these programs are, Joan noted that it is often easier to find funding for a start-up initiative rather than funding for maintaining initiatives and projects that are already on the ground. Yet funding for ongoing work is key to creating a more equitable, sustainable community.
Although each presenter came away from the summit with a different experience, each echoed the need to anchor equity more prominently in our region. Many organizations and communities are already doing great work in raising awareness around and reducing racial disparities in employment, transportation, the environment and affordable housing, yet there is an opportunity to build a collaborative, cross sector network of organizations and individuals committed to equity. If you are interested in this work, please check out EquityNow TC on facebook.