Nicole Hudson, Deputy Mayor for Racial Equity and Priority Initiatives for the City of St. Louis, addressed the June 13, 2018 RECON event with her thoughts on Visioning Equity: Writing the Story of an Equitable St. Louis. Her remarks began with a brief history of her parents’ careers, including their trailblazing academic achievements. “They did not think that 50 years later people would still be blazing the same trails,” she said. “But today, the path that they traveled is traveled just about as rarely by people who look like me.”
“My vision of an equitable St. Louis is one where my story is shared by as many people who look like me as do not, where the path blazed by my parents stayed open to many, instead of being systematically shut behind them. Where we are focused on more opportunity for everyone, not still trying to close the wide and predictable gaps that exist at every turn.”
As she began her remarks, Nicole noted: “What I have been trying to do lately is shift my, ‘Why?’ from reactionary to generative…. I’m trying to give more power to what can and should be than to what is not… To share what I think/hope gives us the best shot at visioning and getting to a more equitable St. Louis.”
To start the conversation, Nicole clarified two terms: race and racial equity.
Race, she stated, “is a construct which has no biological concept. It’s a socio-economic tool that began years ago to be used to help divide the haves from the have-nots…. Something that’s come up a lot lately is that as we’ve talked about race so much here in St. Louis the last few years post-Ferguson, that folks are feeling erased. For some, they don’t see themselves as part of a race. They know that they’re an ethnicity. Not a race. But we conflate those things as a culture, and so when I talk about race, I’m talking about marginalized groups of color. Inclusive of everyone, whether they identify as a race or an ethnicity.”
Racial equity, as identified by the Ferguson Commission, is “a future state in which outcomes are no longer determined by race. The idea that we’ve done what we need to do for whoever needs it done, in whatever way that works to get to equitable outcomes.” She continued: “There are a lot of words—diversity, inclusion—that kind of conflated equality with equity. And we [the Ferguson Commission] wanted to lay out how all those things are necessary, but they’re each individual strategies.” These strategies include:
- Awareness: “Recognizing and agreeing that there is a problem—that it is there and that we should deal with it. A lot of diversity work starts here. A lifting of the veil, growing to understand how we interact with each other as marginalized groups.”
- Understanding: “Here, you might get into the systemic structures that over time, through policies, big and small P, have codified this idea of race—how our identities are developed based on this construct.”
- Transforming: “Here, you’re setting goals for outcomes, and then looking at changing policies and behaviors to help get to those outcomes. These things work on multiple levels. You’ve got your individual journey as a person, we have institutions who approach this work—all those different levels.”
Nicole provided a brief overview of the Ferguson Commission. The commission was appointed by the governor after the unrest that followed the killing of Mike Brown, in November of 2014. There were 16 volunteer commissioners. It was called to look at the issues and to create a new report recommending policy.
“The commission looked at citizen-law enforcement engagement, economic opportunity, education, and municipal courts and governance. And those topics came up from the community in the first couple meetings, saying, ‘This is what matters to us.’ Racial tension came up too, but ultimately it was decided that that needed to be part of all four groups,” Nicole explained. “When we published the report, there was a conversation about where race fits. Again, this keeps us looking in ‘the work’ – whether race is undergirding everything or whether you put it in its own, so it can be focused on. We ultimately put in the subtitle of the report, ‘A Path Towards Racial Equity.’”
The commission’s work and report led to Forward through Ferguson, a non-profit organization. “The fact that race is the lens [through which we made our recommendations] is a really big deal,” Nicole stated. Here, she quoted Lindsey Lupo, author of Flak-Catchers: One Hundred Years of Riot Commission Politics in America:
The Ferguson Commission’s focus on racial equity turns the modus operandi of other riot commissions on their head—where others, such as the commissions that followed the 1992 Los Angeles riot, tried to remove race from their study, the Ferguson Commission has boldly pushed for sweeping reforms that would promote racial equity in the St. Louis region.
“The commission said,” continued Nicole, “‘We’re going to look at [race]. We’re going to examine it and we’re going to talk about it. We’re no longer going to let it be the unspoken factor that influences life in this region. Maybe we won’t change the reality of its impacts with a report, but we will not let it go unspoken.’”
Three years out, Nicole asks: “How do the other institutions, civic leaders, every day citizens build on what we learned, and broaden the work that’s in front of us? The report was a moment in time. How do we always honor the pain that catapulted us forward and continue to evolve the work?” Here, she presented some principles that emerged in Forward through Ferguson’s consultations with over 100 different organizations in the St. Louis area:
- Applying or modeling a racial equity lens: Whatever the problem, start with, “How does this disproportionally impact communities of color and to represent marginalized communities? Who’s left out? And what about whatever investment, or initiative or policy we’re about to make, could we add or tweak in order to help us close our equities?”
- A commitment to radical listening: “Listening to those whom you are seeking to help. To listen to marginalized folks who do not have a regular seat at the table. It also translates into being ready to hear that the thing that we thought was the solution is not actually the solution. That you might need to do something different.”
- Radical collaboration: “The idea that on behalf of what it is that you’re seeking to do, that you’re willing to sit down and collaborate with whomever is necessary.”
- A focus on policies and systems: “Programs are great and necessary, and how are they added up to change policies and systems so that the programs are no longer necessary? How do we look to put ourselves out of business by being so efficient at solving the systemic problems that create the inequities that we program around?”
Nicole nicknamed these ideas to move forward in the work her “Principle Mixtape…not necessarily a list of what to do, but how you approach the work” which she shared for the first time, publicly, in her talk:
- Understand the history: What has happened in the past that is causing tension today? What is the history that might exist that has people feeling this way?
- Power analysis: Understanding who holds power. Who stand to lose power? Who might be acting because they’re defending what little power they have?
- Be clear about past and present policy: Not having a sense of what the policy history is can make for tough conversations.
- Purifying vision: “Really looking at what you want about the end state that isn’t perceived in what you have now. As we started talking to people about this idea, people who for a living, worked to change systemic outcomes had trouble articulating what that would be. They would say, ‘Well, this isn’t here anymore. These things don’t happen anymore. And that thing doesn’t happen anymore.’ We didn’t get a lot of … ‘People feel welcome when they walk down any street in St. Louis.’ We were very, sort of, stuck in only the things that we know that are wrong.”
Nicole continued to offer principles to help move the work forward:
So, it’s through those problem-analysis principles that St. Louis’s unique opportunity is so very clear to me. If you apply those principles, you learn that St. Louis has not recently become … that it has always been an innovation hub…. Our geography is unique and our topography is unique. Our government structure is unique. the racial trauma here is unique. The sharpness of the black-white bias here is unique. We are uniquely St. Louis.
“From some I hear, ‘Are we still talking about this?’ From others, ‘Are we still fighting for this?’ And if you acknowledge that lived reality of a growing number of people, you will hear, ‘Are we still living like this?’ We have the opportunity to innovate like no other. And to provide a path for many, because we are uniquely St. Louis. This idea of thinking in a future state—and it’s hard to articulate—I’ve started to think about some principles to apply to that:
- Be generative: “What does it look like when every time we’re called to criticize, we’re curious instead?”
- Cultivate a shared vision: “It matters getting to something that you share. And also, that you can talk about, that you can see, and you can share with each other…. As soon as you agree where you’re going, a bunch of weight comes off your shoulders.”
- Allow ambiguity: “The idea that you’re not always going to have all the answers, but you can apply some of those principles about collaborating—being open is really critical to getting some of the work done.”
- Sourcing debates: “Social media is where I see this the most, but shaming and blaming, and straight up name-calling, done in the name of debate. That’s not debate. Also, people who are actually talking about two different things. But they’re using words as a battering ram style of debate. But because they are two completely different worlds, no actual debate content exists. As we choose how to move through the different experiences and world views that we have, it’s a huge time saver. To make sure that the bones of our debates are legit. That we’re both using the same language and we’re both on the same page. Not same views, but at least you’re in the same universe.”
- Standing up for clarity: “Often, it patterns around the word ‘community’. For example, if we’re talking about community, and somebody else asks, politely, ‘I just want to get a clarification which community you’re talking about. Because we’re talking about this community that calls upon these resources and these strategies. But if we’re talking about that community, it calls on different ones. So, can we be clear about which community we’re talking about?’ This has been something that I’ve seen shift entire conversations.”
- Be mindful of predictable behavior: “I’m not saying excuse [unacceptable] behavior, but energy is precious. Getting worked up or repeatedly not working with someone or stopping the conversation because they’re doing exactly what they always do, isn’t a good use of energy. So, how do you come up with the right questions or approach them in a different way?”
- Accept your place in the work: “Everybody doesn’t do the work in the same way. We’re better to figure out how we network that work together than we are to put down each other’s work.”
“Things are urgent, in this country, in our backyard,” Nicole concluded. “Being able to find our collective vision and where we want to see ourselves is not easy. But it’s critical. We have a unique opportunity here in St. Louis to model what it looks like in year 2052, this American experiment, to realize for real the concepts of freedom set for all.”