OUR Alliance: Caty Royce and Tia Williams on Changing the Narrative

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.

(From left) Tia Williams and Caty Royce, co-directors of Frogtown Neighborhood Association

They weren’t on the list of speakers, but Caty Royce and a dozen other members of the Community Stabilization Project (CSP) showed up with signs that spoke volumes.

It was 1995 and the Minnesota state legislature was considering a measure that would become the Livable Communities Act. A still-new organization with just a single staff member, the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability called a press conference on the steps of the capitol to promote the bill and elevate the need to invest state funds in environmental remediation and housing redevelopment.

The event caught the eye — and ire — of Royce, then the director of CSP. Like many other neighborhood leaders, she was appalled by a dog-whistle goal embedded in the bill’s approach to community development: deconcentrating poverty. Not to mention the $500,000 set aside to demolish a full block of housing on the East Side of St. Paul that communities of color called home.

“This is about race; you can’t talk about it any other way,” Royce recalls thinking.

To set the record straight, CSP turned out more than a dozen community members to the Alliance press conference, lining up with signs that called out the racist framing and funding for demolition. Frank Hornstein, the Alliance staff member at the helm of the event, responded immediately.

“He came over and said we’ll work with you to get that language changed; we will not use that language,” Royce, now the co-director of Frogtown Neighborhood Association, says. “We became a member there at the press conference and, as we got super involved, they never used it again.”

As an active Alliance member for the majority of the organization’s 25 years, CSP led fierce and innovative campaigns against the demolition of housing developments that communities of color called home. In an effort to save Lakewood Apartments in East St. Paul, they not only raised awareness with a public burning of the “Three Pillars of Pernicious Planning,” which included deconcentrating poverty, but also worked with community members to create a development plan for the site that centered residents’ visions and needs — and came in under the city’s proposed budget for the project.

While they lost that particular fight for Lakewood Apartments, their work was central to shifting the redevelopment conversation from destroying and displacing communities of color to reversing racist policies and resourcing in place. The Alliance, Royce says, played a key role in amplifying and integrating that narrative into organizing and development regionwide.

Through the creation and continued convening of Equity in Place, the Alliance has sustained a community-based coalition space centered around those values and led by organizers of color. For Tia Williams, co-director at Frogtown Neighborhood Association, EIP has been critical in building her knowledge about development and connecting to other leaders.

“It’s a place where I feel surrounded by people with like minds at a table that’s majority people of color,” Williams says of EIP. “A lot of these larger issues fracture into our own neighborhoods and EIP is where we figure out how to address those issues in our communities.”

For Royce the power of that alignment is evident in the progress that’s been made since that first Alliance press conference. From the state legislature to the Metropolitan Council to municipal governments across the region, policymakers and agency leaders are pushing back against deconcentrating poverty as an accepted approach to development.

“We have a tacit agreement from most of the city leaders that it’s a destructive strategy, that it’s racist and we need to resource in place,” Royce says. “The fight is now in the details. We wouldn’t be fighting on the details if we hadn’t been fighting the larger narrative all along.”

But that’s certainly not the end of the story. While there’s less need to fight off funding for demolition, there’s still plenty of work to advance true equity. “We’re seeing opportunities in very powerful places but white supremacy still operates in these structures,” Williams says. “We need to make sure those discussions are reflected in the Alliance as an organization, as well as in funding conversations.”

Learn more about the specific work of Frogtown Neighborhood Association and the wider efforts of Equity in Place.

Share your reflections in this short survey to be recognized in our 25th Anniversary celebrations! And don’t forget to sign up for our party on September 26!