A Conversation with Glenn Harris, President of Race Forward and Publisher of Colorlines

Glenn Harris has 25 years of experience working on issues of race and social justice in partnership with community groups, foundations, and government agencies dedicated to building a more just and democratic society. In 2017, Race Forward merged with the Center for Social Inclusion, and Glenn became the President of the new Race Forward and Publisher of Colorlines.  In this interview, Makiyah Moody, Senior Consultant, speaks with Glenn about the values that lead his work, how he responds to “fequity” (fake equity), and whether or not America is possible.

It’s always a treat to speak with you, so let’s dive in. I love the intention and explicitness of Race Forward’s values that drive your work: People of Color, Justice, Transformation, Bridging, Expression, Adaptability, and Delight. This work is so complex and tiring that delight and “making space for laughter, beauty, and joy in the work of social change” resonates deeply. In the context of these values, how does Race Forward define success – and are you reaching it?

Glenn HarrisI think we define success as meaningful change in the daily lives of communities of color and other oppressed communities. We, at our core, are talking about what it means to eliminate systemic racism. What that looks like for us on the regular is lots of conversations about what it means to measure that. Our broader theory of change is really about focusing on three core systemic interventions: changing policy, shifting narrative and culture, and transforming institutions and sectors. In each of those areas we are in the process of trying to name what we are measuring. There’s the “widget count” – how many people does this impact, the actual numbers – and broader questions about the non-quantitative measures related to quality of life. We are looking for not just quantitative, but also qualitative measures about people’s perceptions of the quality of their life, the health of family and community, among others. I think those are things that not just for Race Forward, but as a movement committed to social justice, are difficult to measure.  (Glenn Harris pictured at right.)

Are we succeeding at that? Yes and no. We are succeeding on the quantitative, and in some places, by advancing changes in policies and practices.  For example, institutions are making a deeper commitment to being explicit about racial equity and communities are developing the power to own, claim and invent their own policy, institutions, and their own narrative. It’s a fundamental power question. 

This is also occurring outside of the role that Race Forward plays, and we could be doing a better job of measuring those impacts. As we think about quantitative measures, one of the areas of work that is hard to measure are the preventive initiatives we undertake. We are not just trying to come up with new possibilities, we are also doing harm reduction. Harm reduction is really tricky to measure. Here’s an example: a policy change that occurred in the city involved folks without a driver’s license from being prosecuted due to racial disparity.  There is less time expended, so we know it’s a positive outcome but what does that actually add up to? So much of policy changes are about not doing harm, but those things are often not counted in a meaningful way. We don’t want to continue with x habit and folks don’t count it. On the quantitative side, there’s a lot more measurement that we can be and need to be doing.

On the qualitative side, how do we do a better job of capturing folks’ sense of quality of life and their perceptions about it? There’s so much more work to do which sometimes makes our gains feel small. It has been challenging naming those successes, yet measuring those successes and wins build momentum and put wind at our back for greater success. 

To say we are living in challenging times is an understatement. How is Race Forward meeting the urgency of this moment? What has changed, if anything, about the organization post-election?

We have really been leaning into this question posed by Dr. Vincent Harding, civil rights leader: Is America possible? The question poses whether or not it’s possible to have a functional, multiracial, and inclusive democracy. It is the question of the moment and if we are being honest, that has always been the question. The truth is that there has never existed a multiracial and inclusive democracy in human history, and so we continue to be this grand experiment as a nation and also in a global context. 

The election has called into question and brought urgency to us answering that question. Are we committed to that as an ideal? Our work in this moment recognizes that achieving racial justice is not within a vacuum, but in the context of the governance we choose and the economic systems that we choose.  In naming a multiracial and inclusive democracy we are not just talking about governance with a big G, but governance with a small g.  Are we committed to democratic practice in nonprofits, businesses, etc.? I see our role as supporting the field in defining that. Where is it that we are trying to get to not just what are we in resistance to. I would say that as pressing and urgent as this moment is, it happens for us as a country every 60-70 years.  Think about the Civil Rights Movement.  Think of the wake of the Civil War. This repeated question keeps coming back. At its core, it’s the central question at the founding of this country. We are not getting to democracy without racial justice and we are not getting to racial justice without a functioning democracy – they are intertwined. Trying to center race, equity and democracy has been the core of how we are responding. We are responding to the resistance happening across the country and making sure that we bring together folks who are committed to change. We have re-emphasized – since we never lost it – how important this work is locally. Change happens locally; it always has and it bubbles up. Change does not happen from the national level and get handed down. One piece we are deeply committed to is supporting the work happening locally. 

Prior to your work in the social sector, you spent a number of years in government. How do those experiences inform your current efforts to advance racial equity?

I had been doing more community-based organizing work and I learned a lot, like for instance, the importance of democratic institutions and the fact that most are failing. The most important institutions we have to promote democracy actually don’t promote democracy. The really crazy part is that local government doesn’t engage in the process of education and the full participation of communities. For local government there’s very little intent behind it. It’s literally not on people’s radar. One of the most critical things I learned was that it is deeply important for local government to promote democratic practice and community ownership of government.  The government is the primary employer for many communities of color.  There’s a distinction between elected leadership and government employees. If you want to find organizations that are most reflective of the communities they are in, it’s in government. You would be hard pressed to talk to anyone who is a person of color and not have them be able to talk about a parent or grandparent who didn’t enter into the middle wage class through government.  There’s a broad range of folks invested in issues of racial equity that we haven’t been engaging.

My biggest takeaway was the need for transforming institutions. What it takes to change an organization of 10,000 people is not the same as what it takes to change an organization of 20 people. I came to understand the needs and challenges of large institutions. The importance of doing racial equity work at a larger scale is what I learned and what I took away is that change in institutions does not occur from leadership, it occurs from staff.  

Change requires thoughtful time management. What I’m really naming is to change an organization, culture, or practice is a multi-year process and we are not always honest about that. For example, changing the billing system in local government would be a two-year process.  We need to be honest about the nature of change and the length of time required to create the type of change we want to see.  I recognize that flies in the face of the urgency of the moment.

Back in June 2018, Race Forward helped launched Racial Equity Here, a collaboration led jointly by Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative focused on racial and economic justice, and Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE). The goal of the collaboration is to dismantle structural racism in America, and to date, over 480 groups have committed to create more equitable communities and workplaces by learning about structural racism, using racial equity tools to guide action that closes gaps and improves outcomes for all, and partnering across sectors to align efforts and accelerate results. What was the impetus for this collaboration?

Racial Equity Here grew out of many of the things we were just talking about. We run a program called GARE which is a national network of 100 jurisdictions that have an explicit commitment to racial equity.  The membership of that group has doubled every year and is currently in its fourth year. The network did a pilot project with Living Cities and had five cities across the country align with the goal of promoting local, multi-sector engagement outside of the localities. Albuquerque, for example, wanted to support local government in doing that work and realized the need to engage multiple sectors. There was a desire to create a platform for multiple sectors to engage in place around racial equity. As we were putting that racial equity pilot together with those five initial cities, we realized it could be valuable tool nationally.

Race Forward and Center for Social Inclusion merged in 2017. When you reflect on before merger and after merger, were there any unintended consequences of the union? Perhaps another way to ask this: what happened that you didn’t expect as an outcome of merger?

I didn’t expect that it meant fundamentally starting a new organization with existing staff. I have had the privilege of starting organizations. In order to merge, there is not any element of what it takes to run an organization that doesn’t have to be visited and decided upon. From the big programmatic elements (the what are we doing to culturally build who are we – which I think folks think about in a merger – to the operational elements – what bank do we use, what email system do we use, who do we order our paper clips from) every single decision had to be revisited through and through. I can’t think of anything on a daily basis the year before the merger that I took for granted that we haven’t had to talk about in the last year. 

The biggest takeaway gets back to time – I would have thought more about the time required. The operational aspects of the merger require a huge amount of time. That has been the biggest challenge in culture and programmatic vision – the pressure of answering daily operations questions literally gets in way of creating space for culture and identity questions. That’s my pre- and post-big takeaway that I wasn’t expecting.

In After the Merger: Getting to “Yes” is Only the Beginning, David La Piana writes that cultural integration is as important to success as creating new organizational structures and policies. During merger negotiations, one issue that emerged related to the distinct cultures between Race Forward and CSI.  What was your approach towards cultural integration? Any lessons learned to share with the field? 

We tried to be as intentional as possible about naming those cultural dynamics – around creating teams and addressing culture and identity. Intention is absolutely critical. I think making sure that there is broad participation in that process – again some of these seem obvious – but creating space for everyone in the organization to participate and engage. 

Again, time. It doesn’t matter how intentional, thoughtful, and engaged you are in that process; it takes time for people to come to a shared cultural identity and being honest about that is really important. My estimation is that it’s impossible in under six months and realistic within in a year plus. People have to get to know each other, have to build trust, have space for lots of conversations, to develop implementation plans – all of that takes time.

Over the last two years, I’ve increasingly noticed that the word equity is tossed around by people who claim it is important, yet their actions are incongruous to actually achieving outcomes that are anchored in equity.  When you work with individuals to move them closer to using an equity-centered approach, where do you begin? How do you make the concept tangible? 

Ah, yes. Fequity (fake equity) exists.

One thing I learned from government is the importance of understanding your role and the values that guide you. We’ve had lots of conversations about the difference between being an advocate and being a teacher. To be an advocate for something, I don’t have to be committed to the idea of you understanding. A community activist shows up at a hearing and says I demand x. I’m using my power to assert a different outcome. A teacher’s outcome is that you understand it and that you could become an advocate for that very thing yourself. Any teacher will tell you that you can’t assert your power to make someone learn. You have to actually encourage people to own that power themselves, to come to deeper understanding themselves, and to trigger interest. As a teacher the last thing you want to do is make someone feel bad or defensive about what it is they’re learning.  Advocates and teachers are both necessary and our organization does a lot centered in advocacy and teaching. How you approach that is connected to your values and role. Dealing with people not really connected to equity begs the question whether the challenge is a matter of advocacy or education. 

The biggest gap we encounter in moving people towards equity isn’t a values gap. It’s that people don’t have the skills to figure out what to do. I use this often as a comparison and it has its limitations, but if you go in a room and ask whether those present care about their personal health, they all will say yes. But if you ask how good they are at taking care of their personal health, you’ll get different answers. I could question their sincerity or question whether they have the skills to succeed. Usually it’s a little bit of both. When dealing with people’s resistance to moving with deeper practice and commitment to equity, we are constantly trying to assess what their commitment to that idea is and their ability to be effective at making equity a practice. 

Join Race Forward in Detroit next month!

Facing Race, a collaborative conference for racial justice movement making, is the largest multiracial, inter-generational gathering for organizers, educators, creatives and other leaders. This conference will take place in Detroit on November 8-10, 2018.

Tags: diversity, government, management, mergers, organizational culture, organizational structure, politics, social justice

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