- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
Margaret Kaplan, Operations Director, Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing,
The Corridors of Opportunity initiative is an effort to promote sustainable, vibrant, and healthy communities, using the Twin Cities’ emerging transitway system as a development focus. The project places a strong emphasis on connecting investments in these transitway corridors with access to jobs, affordable housing and other essential services and opportunities for residents of all incomes and backgrounds. In a region with vast disparities for communities of color in employment, education, and health, access to opportunity presents a tremendous challenge, but also a challenge that people from across sectors have been willing to embrace. The initiative involves a large number of partner organizations from various units of local and state government, nonprofits, foundations, and the private sector.
The Metropolitan Council, our regional planning organization and the lead applicant on the HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, approached Nexus Community Partners, The Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, and the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing to develop a process for engaging and involving underrepresented constituencies in regional transit way planning. While the organizations had not worked together in the past, we shared common values about the importance of community voice and power in determining the future of neighborhoods and regions. As the Community Engagement Team (CET), we have grounded our work in the language of the HUD NOFA. The work of the CET is focused on involving people from low income communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, and new arrival communities in all aspects of planning and implementation along regional corridors.
The work that has developed over the course of this first year of Corridors of Opportunity involves seven different areas of work including advising the Policy Board on issues of equity and community engagement; developing a community based working group to advise and support the work; designing and implementing a process to channel $750,000 in funding to community based organizations; capacity building with community organizations; supporting equity in engagement and leadership; capacity building with government agencies; and on-going and iterative evaluation.
We have been careful to ensure that the work of the CET is grounded in good principles of engagement. Every step of the process from the work plan to the grant guidelines to the equitable development definition has included extensive engagement of people and organizations along corridors. Additionally, we have created systems and structures of decision making that are community driven, including a community- based review committee for re-granting, and a community- based steering committee for creating regional standards of community engagement.
We were intentional from the very outset of this process about bringing equity to the forefront in discussion about the future of regional development. This included using the HUD NOFA language as a starting point, but also creating opportunities for a broader discussion about regional equity including hosting a symposium called Anchoring Equity to deepen and expand the conversation about common equity language. We also worked with local foundations to bring a delegation from the region to the Policy Link Equity Summit. The delegation included community leaders, people from the nonprofit sector, policy makers, and people from the philanthropic sector. The group is now working on creating strategies for future collaboration and collective action.
We have honored and supported the knowledge and expertise of local communities, both in developing strategies for engagement and for determining plans for future development along transportation corridors. For example, we were deliberate in creating a re-granting process that did not predetermine the issues or strategies that local communities used for engagement, but instead valued relationships and community power in decision making in order to determine community goals. The supported projects display a wide array of engagement strategies around a wide array of issues, and yet are all connected to corridor development.
The importance of creative tension cannot be overstated. Yes, it is possible to have consensus about a decision, but if there are not diverging viewpoints participating in a discussion, chances are that there are also constituents who are not yet engaged who also have vested interests in the outcome of a discussion. It is easier to have a group discuss an issue when everyone agrees, but that process is not likely to reveal the nuances of the issue nor is it inclined to provide the richest discussion of potential challenges and opportunities. This level of creative tension can emerge both within individual communities as well as in regional discussions. Acknowledging that tensions will exist at the outset and creating a strategy to work within conflicts creates a richer and more inclusive process.
In thinking about authentic community engagement, it is important to think about it not just as a problem of communities and institutions as separate entities, but as a problem about the connections between the two. In other words, if communities become engaged in the abstract, but there is no parallel structure for institutions to become more adept at engagement, it may result in short term successes but not long term systems change. Likewise, engagement for the sake of engagement without any hope of influencing outcomes is likely to be both fruitless and discouraging, which leads to community burnout. In order to build capacity of both community- based organizations and institutions, it is critical to create bridges between community- based organizations and policymaking institutions. Creating opportunities for community members and community- based organizations to meet directly with planners is the starting point of developing longer term relationships. Additionally, both community members and institutions need to learn how to interact with each other. Part of that is working toward creating shared meaning: communities need to learn about intuitional process, while institutional players need to learn community engagement best practices. Forums that create a larger conversation about regional equity – what it is, what it means, and why it is important – provide the opportunity for people from both community and government to develop a common understanding of what we mean when we say equity.
The expectation is that by building the capacity of both community- based organizations and government institutions, the work of the CET in the short term will translate to stronger connections between communities and government institutions in the longer term. One of the ways that this connection is beginning to manifest itself is in thinking about the process for creating the next regional development framework. The work of Corridors of Opportunity has created an atmosphere where there is a willingness to begin to engage the community before the decisions are made, not only because it will lead to a stronger sense of investment and ownership in the regional plan, but also because it will lead to stronger and more equitable outcomes.
The work of the CET has led to new systems and structures for decision making, new relationships between community- based organizations and decision makers; an increased focus of equity and engagement in discussion about regional planning; a regional adopted equitable development definition; and increased capacity within community- based organizations along transit corridors. This work, in connection to strong and willing partners within local government who see the need for strategic systems change, has created an environment where community engagement is valued and regional equity is a common goal.