Guest Post: “Staying Proximate” to Advance Racial Equity

This guest post was written by Matt Leighninger, Vice President of Public Engagement at Nellie Mae grantee Public Agenda.

While incidents of bias and discrimination can occur anywhere, it’s especially troubling when they happen in our schools. To help educators, students, and other community members address these issues, Public Agenda has created “Addressing Incidents of Bias in Schools: A Guide for Preventing and Reacting to Discrimination Affecting Students.” This resource, which was developed with the support of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, provides a framework for discussion and action, along with advice on how to use the guide in classrooms, staff meetings, after-school programs, and school-wide events.

The type of dialogue that this Guide helps facilitate involves bringing together a large, diverse group of people, and having smaller discussion sessions within the group, as we saw happen in a high school in Portland, Maine. There, students and faculty used the Guide to organize a community dialogue event following a racially-motivated incident outside of the school.

How does this type of event and conversation help us make progress toward racial equity? Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative calls this “getting proximate and staying proximate.” By this he means that people of different backgrounds need to talk with each other, work together, and get an up-close look at the everyday challenges each of them face, in order to minimize the misunderstandings and maximize the many benefits that cultural diversity can bring.

Getting proximate

“Getting proximate and staying proximate” may be helpful for understanding the recent history of public engagement on issues of race and difference. During the 1990s, we “got proximate.” Following trials involving Rodney King and then O.J. Simpson, in an effort to help overcome community divisions and prevent public debates from being dominated by extreme voices, a wave of local public engagement efforts swept the nation, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of diverse citizens in forums, trainings, workshops and small-group dialogues.

These conversations, which included teachers, police officers, social workers, city planners, and more, led to changes large and small, from adjustments in police hiring policies to new economic development plans, from new extracurricular activities to the construction of public schools, and from police-sponsored basketball leagues to new police substations. But we didn’t build in ways for large, diverse numbers of people to “stay proximate,” and this limited the long-term impact of the work, as demonstrated by the re-emergence of highly visible forms of racism in the last five years.

How to stay proximate

While getting proximate on issues of race had many positive outcomes, it had only limited impacts on systems, or more accurately on the ways in which people interact with public institutions. The tactics of small-group dialogue, comparing lived experience, proactive network-based recruitment, and collaborative action were not incorporated into the way that official public meetings are structured, or even the way that crime watch groups and neighborhood associations operate. In most places, they are not part of the standard operating procedures for police departments or school systems.

In the absence of these more systemic changes, the benefits of public engagement on race may have been meaningful but temporary. Certainly the fraying of police-community relations, evidence of racial profiling by officers, and the persistence of race-based achievement gaps in student test scores do not demonstrate great progress in our efforts to build more cohesive and equitable communities.

We are are entering the next stage in our long-running attempt to realize the full potential of the most diverse nation on earth. Building on our prior work to get proximate, there are several ways we might try to stay proximate:

  • Identify, create, or support regular opportunities for people to come together to make decisions, solve problems, and build community. There are inspiring examples large and small, like On the Table in Chicago, Meet and Eat in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and the dialogues held by the Portsmouth (NH) City Council.
  • Embrace and adapt new practices that reinvigorate existing engagement opportunities, like the student-led parent-teacher conference, high-impact volunteering, and participatory budgeting.
  • Take a serious, systemic view of local engagement: map the current systems for engagement in a place, figure out what is working and what isn’t, and come up with cross-sector plans. We should use a racial equity lens in these analyses, to understand whether and how the participation is inclusive and the outcomes are just and equitable.
  • Offer programming content — meeting agendas, short videos, discussion questions, readings — for people meeting in all these settings to help them raise and address issues of cultural difference.

These are all strategies for helping people stay proximate, but some of them do not explicitly address racial equity, at least at first. That’s all right: by creating safe spaces for people to talk about their experiences and who they are, various kinds of cultural differences will emerge. In these settings, when people are comfortable being open about the differences between them — gender or class, for example — they are better able to surface and address all kinds of differences. So for example, people in small towns where there is very little racial diversity can productively address racial equity, especially if they start out with the differences that are more central in their daily lives.

People are showing their willingness to get proximate and make progress. We should capitalize on that goodwill by establishing sustained opportunities for them to stay proximate.