On Thursday, May 9, HomeAid Northern Virginia hosted one of the most powerful Housing Forums since we first started delivering this networking and educational program to housing and homeless service providers nine years ago. Developed with the idea of bringing nationally recognized experts to our housing partners at zero cost to them, this year’s program centered on “Leading with Racial Equity: Data and Beyond” and featured keynote speakers Regina Cannon and Jeff Olivet from The Center for Social Innovation.
“We know that everyone is working on tight budgets and time is at a premium,” said HomeAid Northern Virginia Executive Director and CEO Kristyn Burr as she welcomed the more than 130 service providers from 49 non-profit and governmental organizations in attendance. “Going to national conferences, which usually also require travel, isn’t possible for most of us … so we are pleased to bring the conversation to you, so that we can all benefit from high-level thought leaders who are all too often beyond our reach.”
Held at the Reston Community Center, the program got off to a fast start thanks to incredibly dynamic speakers who challenged the audience to take a hard look at racial inequity, face how it affects homelessness services, and talk about strategies for change.
“Racial inequity persists in every system and occurs across every dimension of our identifies,” Cannon said. “Reaching equity – where one’s identity no longer predicts, in a statistical sense, how one fares – is our Northern Star. To reach it, we need committed leaders who are bold enough to recognize blind spots, who can build organizational capacity for change by providing safe space for uncomfortable and challenging conversations, and who know how to balance change with action. Using data to illuminate the problem, this kind of leader opens colleagues’ eyes to inequities and reiterates that race shouldn’t determine one’s socioeconomic outcome.”
“We have a long history of marginalizing people,” added Olivet, who laid out a historical perspective on homelessness that dates back to the 1640s. Frontier wars between Native Americans and Colonials, slavery, the Indian Removal Act, Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment camps have all contributed to segregated communities and complacency with discriminatory federal and state policies. “Homeownership itself is one of the biggest drivers of multi-generational wealth accumulation that only adds to the problem. White families have historically had an easier time of getting into the housing market, leading to their ability to pass on their wealth and provide a safety net and financial buffer to future generations. And so the gap widens.”
The speakers also shared a series of eye-opening statistics that illustrate inequity throughout the child welfare, health, juvenile justice, education, and economic development systems, further challenging workers in the field. Black Americans, for example, make up 13 percent of the general population but represent 43 percent of the homeless population, and this type of dramatic overrepresentation for people of color show up in virtually every area of the country. Meanwhile, management teams are predominantly white and, even amongst organizations that serve people of color, the leadership very rarely reflects the population they serve. “We cannot expect leaders of color to be the only ones noticing,” Olivet pointed out.
Following a networking lunch, the focus turned to a highly engaging and interactive session on breaking the cycle of inequity, with Cannon and Olivet suggesting that the key to following “courageous conversation protocol” is to start with data. “Data takes the emotion out of it,” Cannon reminded the audience, “and makes it easier to work through an analysis that leads to possible solutions. Be racially explicit and specific. Say the words ‘black’ and ‘white’. We need a shared vocabulary to get to better solutions, so don’t be shy. Talk about it by starting with the data, which will lead to discussions for solutions. Then, work on training.”
Both speakers also reminded attendees that diversity without inclusiveness is tokenism. That equality and equity are not the same: Equity recognizes that some people are starting from a different place. And that without personal experience with homelessness, an organization can only go so far.
“All organizations who struggle with racial inequity – which is pretty much all of us – would do well to hire people who have been homeless,” Olivet said. “Peer specialists in mental health do it … HIV support clinics do it. There are people in the homeless workforce who would really benefit from having that kind of perspective, and with training, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be embracing it.”
To find out more about The Center for Social Innovation’s “SPARC: Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities,” a collaboration with partners and communities to understand and respond to racial inequities and to jump start implementation of racial equity strategies in homeless services, programs, policies, and systems, visit: www.Center4si.com/sparc/.