As a member of Funders Together to End Homelessness, my colleague Angela D’Orazio and I took the opportunity to participate in a new community of practice, Funders for Racial Equity (FRE). Over the next two years, this peer learning experience will help deepen our understanding of racial equity and homelessness and learn about tools philanthropy can employ to help to reduce racial inequity. To advance our goal to end homelessness and our broader mission to break the cycle of poverty, our clear path forward is to approach our work using an equity lens, prioritizing just and fair inclusion in a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential.
In March, I attended the first in-person convening in Portland, Oregon, to begin connecting with other funders and partners, learn together about systemic racism and how it is perpetuated today, and build action steps together to advance racial equity in homelessness.
Lesson 1: Building trusting relationships requires vulnerability.
The first day of the convening, I entered the room with excitement mixed with trepidation. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow in my personal and professional racial equity journey, but I was also uncertain if I could show up as my whole self among a room full of about 30 strangers. Though I had connected with most of the participants over the phone, we were about to spend two full days together getting into some really hard conversations.
My trepidation vanished pretty early, however, through the excellent facilitation by The Giving Practice team. During one of our first activities, we were instructed to engage with as many participants around the room by grasping hands, looking at each other and telling our partner “I am so glad you are here.” As one of the few (perhaps only) participants who didn’t know anyone else in the room, those simple words gave me almost immediate comfort as I heard them repeatedly. This initial activity created a space for vulnerability and trust, and we then were better able to open up for other thoughtful activities, including using visual explorer cards to engage in dialogue, reflecting through poetry, and working through the five love languages in the workplace. It was in this space where I felt comfortable to show up as my whole self, and to share insights from my personal racial equity journey.
Lesson 2: Shared learning is iterative.
On our second day (after an amazing group dinner at Jackrabbit whose staff graciously accommodated my vegan requests), we had an opportunity to hear from our peers about dilemmas that surfaced through their racial equity work. Eight of us listened to a peer describe her dilemma and then we asked her to turn her back to us and listen to us silently while we discussed her issue. Our discussion lifted up our interpretations and reflections of the dilemma, though we were asked not to problem solve. After a period of 15 minutes, she turned back to face us and we all engaged in conversation to offer suggestions and solutions to what she may do to address her situation. This was a long, repetitive process of evaluating and re-evaluating the dilemma at hand. Despite its difficulty, this process helped each of us better understand our perspectives and thought processes, further building trust among the group. That time we spent understanding and analyzing the issue—rather than jumping to find a solution—was critical to get to an action step that made sense for our peer.
Lesson 3: Action may begin small, but is absolutely necessary.
Prior to the convening, the community of practice had a webinar with authors of this report by SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities) who found clear racial inequities in homelessness. Across the communities that were part of the study, 78.3% of people experiencing homelessness were people of color. The report pointed to multiple systemic reasons for this disproportionality: lack of economic investment in communities of color; poor access to safe, decent and affordable housing; a broken criminal justice system; racial disparities in behavioral health; and a lack of trauma-informed care. Addressing racial disparities across systems is necessary as we consider strategies to end homelessness.
One of the guiding principles of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland is to promote equity, and we regularly evaluate our work through an equity lens. Just as Catholic sisters have championed social justice over the centuries, we advocate for an equitable community where opportunities for growth and quality of life are shared by all. Here are a few examples of this work in action:
I left the Portland convening with new connections and relationships with peers from across the county all dedicated to promoting racial equity in their work. I also left Portland with many new thoughts and ideas, as well as an arsenal of resources. Most importantly, I left with hope and ideas about how to put that hope in action in our community.