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Vital Difference: The Role of Race in Building Community

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Vital Difference: The Role of Race in Building Community is the result of a multi-year collaboration between MITʼs Center for Reflective Community Practice (CRCP) and five community organizations engaged in building democratic participation aimed explicitly at addressing racial exclusion. This collaborative aimed to use the reflective learning process developed by CRCP to enable practitioners from these communities to access the tacit knowledge that is embedded in their practice. Vital Difference demonstrates the power of this reflective process by offering a glimpse into the extensive knowledge developed by the five community-based organizations regarding the role of race in community building. Vital Difference makes the case that (1) practitioner knowledge is critical for advancing the field of community building, (2) race is of fundamental importance in community-building work, and (3) engaging race drives the reinvention of the tools and processes best suited to building meaningful and lasting democratic participation.
A CRCP Practitioner Knowledge Report
Center for Re ective Community Practice Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The mission of the Center for Reective Community Practice (CRCP) is to work toward a
more just and equitable society by expanding access to and engagement with the knowledge
developed by people working on the ground in disenfranchised, low income communities.
CRCP aims to both empower and learn from those individuals who, in the face of injustice,
inequality and exclusion, have dedicated themselves to making their communities healthier
and more vibrant places to live. The knowledge that is formed in the face of struggles to create
lasting change, by those who are least served by society, is signicant, sophisticated, and
essential for framing and solving todayʼs most urgent social problems. CRCP believes that the
impact of work for social change will increase when the knowledge from community practice is
used widely in efforts to address injustice and inequity.
Center for Reective Community Practice
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room 7-307
Cambridge, MA 02139
Tel: (617) 253-3216
Fax: (617) 258-6515
Main website:
The Vital Difference website can be found at:
Vital Difference: The Role of Race in Building
A CRCP Practitioner Knowledge Report
Principal Authors:
Joy Amulya
Christie OʼCampbell
Ryan Allen
Ceasar McDowell, Director
CRCP Team:
Eric Adjorlolo
Betsy Campbell
Lee Farrow
Christian Franco
Holly Kosisky
Sarah Shin
Lucia Verdaguer
Elsa Zuniga
All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2004 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
pg 3 ..... Acknowledgments
pg 4 ..... Preface
pg 5 ..... Foreword
pg 7 ..... Executive Summary
pg 9 ..... Introduction
pg 11 ..... Generating Knowledge from Community Practice
pg 17 ..... Understanding the Role of Race in Building Community
pg 36 ..... Implications for Theory and Practice
pg 39 ..... Conclusion
pg 41 ..... Notes
pg 43 ..... Proles of Participating Community Organizations
The reective learning project upon which this report is based would not have been possible without
the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the leadership of Dayna Cunningham. Daynaʼs
remarkable vision set the direction for this work, kept it on track, and deepened it every step of the way
– even as she pursued new directions in her career. Our gratitude to Dayna goes well beyond her role
in this project. CRCPʼs work has been informed by her commitment to the importance of community-
based knowledge and the need for supporting practitioners to hold onto their knowledge in the process
of working toward social justice.
We are profoundly grateful to the participating communities for allowing us to support them in uncovering
the deep knowledge they have formulated about community building and democracy. Without their trust,
enthusiasm, and partnership, this project simply could not have happened. Indeed, our understanding of
how to support reective learning and connect it to the everyday work of building democracy has grown
immeasurably through our relationship with these practitioners (their names are listed in the last section
of this report). We also thank Dayna Cunningham, Ellen Furnari, Alethia Jones, Hubert Sapp and Gerald
Torres for taking the time to review and comment on the draft of this report. Their thoughtful insights and
input were essential, all the more so given that this report represents CRCPʼs rst major effort to meet the
challenge of lifting up practitioner knowledge.
Last, but not least, we wish to thank the CRCP staff for their tireless work, unshakable “can-do” attitude,
and heartfelt commitment to making the Vital Difference report and website a reality. Their teamwork,
resourcefulness, and creativity were crucial every step of the way.
Once when asked about the most important thing to emerge out of the civil rights struggles in Mississippi,
veteran civil rights leader Bob Moses said “the meeting.” What Bob recognized then is that the voices,
insight and knowledge of sharecroppers who lived through the consequences of oppression were
essential to understanding, overcoming and reshaping the conditions that created their oppression.
We are beginning to understand now that knowledge constructed by those who are engaged in “organizing
for survival”1 the struggle for systemic change amid poverty, racism and inadequate services is
unique. As such, this knowledge represents a way of understanding the world that is invaluable for re-
imagining the possibilities for creating a fair, just and equitable society. It is this knowledge that informed
the Civil Rights Movement and allowed the United States to attempt to meet the demands of its vision
of democracy. This knowledge provides a critical source of learning needed to build healthy and just
After three years of work on the essential question of how to support the development of practitioner
knowledge, The Center for Reective Community Practice at MIT has released
Vital Difference: The Role
of Race in Building Community
Vital Difference
is both a call to action and a resource for community
building. The call is for the recognition of the importance of practitioner knowledge and the resources
required to support the articulation, organization and dissemination of that knowledge. As a resource,
Vital Difference
provides insight into the powerful knowledge that practitioners offer for understanding
the role of race and racial identity in building community and sustaining democracy.
Vital Difference
rebukes the popular notion that the path to building democracy requires ignoring the reality of race. The
practitioners in
Vital Difference
provide guidelines and insights into the powerful role racial identity plays
in increasing participation and building inclusive democratic communities.
Vital Difference
is the product of a two-year collaboration with ve community organizations from across
the country. The work in this report and the corresponding website is the beginning of what I hope will
be a widespread recognition that the knowledge of people who work on the ground in disenfranchised
communities is vital for framing social problems in their true complexity, crafting effective solutions, and
evaluating the essential evidence of success.
Ceasar McDowell, Director and Founder
Center for Reective Community Practice
In pursuing a public policy agenda to create a more inclusive society, race matters. This year, as the
country reected on the ftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, among the acknowledgements
of progress, there was plenty of lamentation about the current circumstances of many low-income
people of color in America. Such circumstances are, to some people, bewildering. After all, the legal
barriers to unfairness were removed, so whatʼs the problem? There is widespread acceptance that
past legal discrimination put blacks and other people of color at a disadvantage in terms of educational
and employment advancement. What is less well understood or accepted is the way that the legacy of
discrimination continues to undergird inequality and inequity.
Today, where one lives has become a proxy for opportunity. Low-income people of color who live in inner
cities, older suburbs, and isolated rural communities are denied access to the essentials for progress.
Consistently, these communities lack good schools and jobs. They are not reaping the benets of
transportation investments, which favor roads and highways over public transit. Health suffers when
people live in communities that are overexposed to toxins, lack safe places for exercise and physical
activity, and have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables due to the virtual nonexistence of grocery
Living in these circumstances, which represent the residue of the historical racism that the country so
desperately wants to forget, makes it difcult to take advantage of legal gains or opportunities that in too
many cases are only theoretical. Moreover, sprawling development patterns have led to the abandonment
of inner city communities as businesses and higher-income residents ed, leaving behind concentrated
poverty. The building of high-rise public housing in communities already experiencing economic decline
and urban renewal programs only served to concentrate poverty while further weakening and dividing
many inner-city communities.
Sprawl was supported by huge nancial investments from the federal government through the Federal
Housing Administration. Established in 1934, FHA loans were, for many years, provided on a racially
restricted basis that prevented people of color from following opportunity into suburban communities. In
numerous rural areas, economic vitality and neighborhood fabric were destroyed. More recently, many
older inner-ring suburbs are being forsaken as new outer-ring communities become more attractive to
those who can afford them. Present-day neglected communities are the direct result of policies and
practices, many of which are race based.
The long legacy of race-based policy and practice contributes to the conditions that many advocates are
now trying to correct. Developing practices and policies that can productively bring the realities of race
into the work of creating a more inclusive democratic society has become an imperative. Advocates and
change agents working in these communities have been creative and innovative in developing ways to
address the racial dimensions of their work. But this is often done in isolation. Knowledge developed
from years of work on the ground by everyday folk rarely informs the policymaking process. In part this is
because practitioners often lack the opportunity and supportive environment to rigorously examine their
practice, to identify and test the knowledge gained and make it available to others.
Over the past three years, MITʼs Center for Reective Community Practice has been engaged in working
with practitioners to design processes and methods for identifying the knowledge in their work. CRCP
has understood that knowledge from community practice is an essential tool in the ght for social justice.
Vital Difference
is the rst in a series of products from CRCPʼs work with communities across the country
to closely examine what practitioners have learned from decades of work and experience in attending
to issues such as race and democratic community building. This report demonstrates both what can be
learned from attending to practitioner knowledge and what it takes to access it. For those working in
the community-building eld, it offers a welcome acknowledgement of the work and what can be built
from it. For those engaged in policy work, this report demonstrates the value of practitioner knowledge
in shaping public policy. Finally, for everyone working to build a just and equitable world,
Vital Difference
underscores the need for space and opportunity to learn from our ongoing work.
Angela Glover Blackwell
Vital Difference: The Role of Race in Building Community
is the result of a multi-year collaboration between
MITʼs Center for Reective Community Practice (CRCP) and ve community organizations engaged in
building democratic participation aimed explicitly at addressing racial exclusion. This collaborative aimed
to use the reective learning process developed by CRCP to enable practitioners from these communities
to access the tacit knowledge that is embedded in their practice.
Vital Difference
demonstrates the
power of this reective process by offering a glimpse into the extensive knowledge developed by the ve
community-based organizations regarding the role of race in community building.
Vital Difference
the case that (1) practitioner knowledge is critical for advancing the eld of community building, (2) race
is of fundamental importance in community-building work, and (3) engaging race drives the reinvention of
the tools and processes best suited to building meaningful and lasting democratic participation.
The Value of Practitioner Knowledge
Vital Difference
argues that the knowledge of individuals and organizations working to build healthy
communities is essential for framing problems in their true complexity. This knowledge is unique
because it integrates context, personality, history, politics, culture and action, while presenting a complex
understanding of how disenfranchised communities work. Despite the importance of this knowledge,
practitioners from these communities have endured a long history of seeing their words, knowledge and
insight extracted and reinterpreted to misrepresent them and the people they represent. Acknowledging
this history,
Vital Difference
offers a set of six guiding principles deemed crucial to developing practitioner
knowledge. These principles are based on the assumption that practitioners will fully engage in a
reective learning process driven by the practitionersʼ own questions and analysis of the stories from
their experience. An inherent component of the reective learning process lies in the fact that practitioners
control ownership, authority and power over how their knowledge is addressed and explored.
The Role of Race in Building Community
The practitioner knowledge proled in
Vital Difference
makes the case for viewing race as a key
component of democracy-building at the community level. Recognizing the widespread and damaging
use of race as a means of social exclusion, these practitioners understand that race and racial identity
are also organizing assets, a means of building a sense of power, and critical to multiracial work. Still,
multicultural work can be rife with tensions that include: determining priorities; dening inclusiveness;
establishing trust and open communication; and respecting the value of different organizing tactics.
Race can be used to derail multiracial efforts and racial difference can be oversimplied, however, racial
divisions can be transformed through a multiracial process. Practitioners from the eld demonstrate that
continuing to engage persistent tensions is precisely what enables multiracial coalitions to build the kind
of community that can bring about systemic change. Their stories make it clear that dealing with race in
all of its complexities and difculties can be transformative, not divisive. Further, not addressing race can
undermine progress toward social justice.
Race and Democracy
The analysis of practitioner knowledge presented in this report offers a number of important implications
for theory and practice. With their clear understanding of the volatility of race, community practitioners
collectively create a new body of knowledge regarding the practical problems of organizing around
race. Knowledge from community practice does not argue in favor of one theoretical viewpoint, but
rather creates valuable linkages across prevailing theories on the role of race in community organizing.
For practitioners,
Vital Difference
highlights the importance of valuing and strengthening racial identity
when working in cross-racial alliances and for shifting the practice of democracy in their community.
Nevertheless, once racial difference is acknowledged and accepted, members of multiracial coalitions
need to adapt and invent tools to engage racial difference, all the while maintaining a willingness to
experiment in this reinvention process. A key element of this process involves “excavating” the history and
experiences that have led members of multiracial coalitions to think differently from one another. This new
knowledge helps create a foundation that allows different groups to better understand one another and to
work together toward achieving common goals.
The report concludes by asking funders, policymakers, and practitioners working in the eld of social
justice to support and join the effort to build knowledge from community practice. Practitioner-generated
knowledge can powerfully enhance efforts to remedy injustice and inequity in struggling communities. We
need to bring practitioner knowledge to bear on policy, program design, and theory building. While
highlights many of the successes that have stemmed from reective learning, the report also
outlines a plan to broaden the scale and the scope of this ongoing work.
Over the past decade, people working to build healthy
and just communities have witnessed an increased
demand by funders and policymakers for results
driven by data as both evidence of the effectiveness
of their work, and as a means for understanding the
nature of the work. This demand for data is part of an
effort by funders and policymakers to become more
efcient in the allocation of limited resources, while
strategically advancing the work by disseminating
and sharing “best practices” or “lessons learned.”
Unfortunately the growing demand for data-driven
results misses much of what community practitioners2
know, sidelining the evidence of their success. The
problem is not the demand for data; the problem lies
in the over-reliance on quantitative measures as a
means of representing practitionersʼ knowledge.
In our attempts to capture practitioner knowledge,
we too often look for measurable events (number
of individuals voting) and then attempt to infer the
procedures (how to best mobilize and educate voters)
necessary for bringing about those events.
their true complexity, understanding how solutions
must be crafted, and evaluating the essential evidence
of success. Without this knowledge, we cannot
build healthy and vibrant communities grounded in
fairness, justice and equity. Yet, such knowledge
and the data to demonstrate that knowledge is
often missing from attempts to understand the work
of those engaged in community building.
Many diverse projects have captured the experience
of people engaged in community-building work. The
Civil Rights documentary
Eyes on the Prize
3; Richard
To Give Their Gifts: Health, Community and
4 which recounts the experiences of
community health workers; and Mindy Thompson
Root Shock: How Tearing Up City
Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do
About It
5 are a few notable examples of the effort to
tell the stories of those working for social justice and
equality. Along with others,6 including oral histories,7
these examples reveal the power of narrative and
storytelling in illuminating the lived experience of
people whose work in marginalized communities is
too often overlooked.
Yet knowledge derived from community practice is
much larger than merely giving voice to stories that
people tell about their experience in the struggle for
democracy or in trying to make their neighborhoods
a better place to live. Instead, practitioner knowledge
is the articulation of the tacit knowledge that is
embedded in what people do and how they think
about their work but which is often not accessible
to them as something they consciously know. It is
the discovery and analysis of their tacit knowledge
that enables individuals, groups, organizations and
communities to “know what they know.” Though
there have been a number of important efforts to
capture the knowledge of those who live and work in
struggling communities,8 the potential of community
knowledge remains largely untapped.
Yet the knowledge of practitioners is not merely
procedural it is also developmental, actively
constructed and continually evolving through the
experience of living and working in struggling
communities. This way of knowing integrates context
and personality, history and politics, culture and
action, and offers a signicant, sophisticated and
complex understanding of how communities work.
This knowledge is essential for framing problems in
The struggle to hold our knowledge is
important. How do we hold, make use of,
retain, expand what has happened? How
do we access our knowledge so we can
really claim it? Then we can move toward
having something we can reference and
use to inform our work.
—Nelson Johnson,
Beloved Community Center
In 2001, MITʼs Center for Reective Community
Practice developed a Practitioner Knowledge
Initiative to design methods for practitioners to
uncover their knowledge and use that knowledge to
improve practice, inform policy, and shape the public
understanding of the work of community building and
democracy. The initiative is built on the assumption
that practitioners working in struggling communities,
through their everyday experiences, are dynamically
constructing knowledge essential to strengthening
those communities. The Practitioner Knowledge
Initiative uses a reective learning process to assist
individual practitioners and groups of practitioners
to access the tacit knowledge that is embedded in
their practice. In this process, practitioners identify
questions that guide their work, describe critical
moments that have arisen in their work, and analyze
their actions and thoughts in those moments to
uncover the knowledge that informs their practice.
Vital Difference
is the rst report from the Practitioner
Knowledge Initiative. The report stresses the
importance of practitioner knowledge and the use
of reective learning to uncover that knowledge.
Vital Difference
states its case by offering a glimpse
into the extensive knowledge that ve community-
based organizations (Beloved Community Center,
Greensboro, NC; Texas LEADS Project, Austin, TX;
Southern Echo, Jackson, MS; Asian Pacic American
Legal Center, Los Angeles, CA; and Conservation
Law Foundation, Boston, MA) have developed
regarding race and community building. All ve
organizations are engaged in a similar endeavor
– building democratic participation aimed explicitly
at addressing racial exclusion yet they all work in
different racial and political contexts and use different
methods to tackle this common challenge.
Vital Difference
demonstrates the deep understanding
these community practitioners have developed
regarding race and community building. Although
they believe that it is important to articulate the
complex dimensions of organizing issues carefully,
they also believe it is critical to tackle race head-
on. The practitioners whose experiences are
represented in this report are building on the Civil
Rights Movementʼs efforts in framing race as a
central component of the struggle for democracy.
While many fear that addressing race can be divisive,
their stories make clear that dealing with race in all of
its complexities and difculties can be transformative
for democracy. Further, ignoring race can undermine
progress toward social justice. The learning from
these practitioners illustrates how they have found
ways to acknowledge race, and to use it as a unifying
rather than dividing theme.
In this report, we are not attempting to explore the
depths of the knowledge generated by the group
of community practitioners who participated in the
reective learning process, nor are we offering the
same analytical perspective as race scholars. Rather,
we aim to make the case for building systematic
bodies of practitioner knowledge, while highlighting
the value of that knowledge in efforts to build healthy
and just communities. Over the next year, the primary
data from the Practitioner Knowledge Initiative,
as well as practitionersʼ writing on their own work,
will become available to the public.9 For now, we
Vital Difference
with the intention of creating
a space for advancing and promoting the grounded
knowledge of those engaged in the difcult work of
building communities amid poverty, racism, failed
policies, and violence. Our analysis aims to show
that the stories from these practitioners offer new and
important data to the eld of community building.
Vital Difference
starts with an overview of the
reective learning methodology used to surface
and examine the knowledge generated through
the work of these practitioners. We begin with the
methodology so that the reader can understand the
depth and rigor of the process necessary to uncover
practitioner knowledge. In the second part of the
report, we present a set of four major learning points
about race and community building that emerged
from the reective learning sessions. Each learning
point is brought to life by practitionersʼ stories. The
third section situates the practitionersʼ knowledge in
relation to academic sources of knowledge about race
and community building and describes implications
for community practice. The report concludes by
recapping the importance of this knowledge to the
eld of community building and the policy world, and
proposing a number of concrete ways that the work
of building practitioner knowledge can be supported
and extended.
Vital Difference
is intended to open a dialogue on
practitioner knowledge. We encourage readers of
this report to visit the
Vital Difference
website (http:// where they can contribute
their thoughts to the Peer Forum and continue building
an analysis of stories from community practice.
Practitioner knowledge is vital for understanding
the complex work of community building. Yet simply
recognizing its signicance is insufcient to guiding
the work of uncovering practitioner knowledge. This
work begins with understanding that community
knowledge has been systematically marginalized
and that this has had an impact on the willingness of
practitioners to uncover and share their knowledge.
This is particularly true for practitioners from poor
communities and communities of color who have a
long history of having their words, knowledge and
insight extracted and reinterpreted to misrepresent
them and their communities.
Acknowledging this history, we developed a set of six
principles to guide the knowledge-building process
we engage in with communities and practitioners.
The principles are grounded in our experience
that practitioners will fully engage with a reective
learning process if the issues of ownership, authority
and power over their knowledge are addressed in
the design and execution of the process. For CRCP,
this means that a knowledge-building process has
to be driven by the practitionersʼ own questions and
analysis of the stories from their experience, and
the results of this work have to be owned by the
practitioners.10 These principles inform the design
and implementation of all of the activities within the
CRCP Practitioner Knowledge Initiative.
Principle 1: Participants have control in the
learning process. In order for participants to deeply
engage a reective learning process designed
to uncover the knowledge formed through their
everyday practice, it is critical that they have control
in all aspects of the learning process, as well as being
active partners in shaping that process.
Principle 2: Authentic learning starts with
collaborative design. Designing a reective learning
process must start with the recognition that both
reection and learning are universal experiences.
Moreover, the design of a reection learning process
must be responsive to the ways that people working
together are accustomed to reecting with and
learning from one another. The more the learning
process is connected and responsive to the learning
needs and culture of the people involved, the greater
the chance the process will yield authentic and
constructive learning.
Principle 3: Reective learning originates in the
questions of those doing the work. Community
practitioners are in part driven by implicit and explicit
questions such as: How can we best bring about
social change? How can we engage others in this
work? How can we integrate our own experiences
of oppression with those we serve? The reective
learning process begins with helping practitioners to
identify and sharpen their questions, while focusing
on struggles and breakthroughs in their work that can
create learning about those questions.
Principle 4: Learning is driven by analysis of
critical moments in the work. The foundation of the
reection process consists of practitionersʼ stories of
critical moments11 that they feel have the best potential
for addressing questions they hold about their work.
The learning comes from their own analysis of these
stories as they are guided to examine how their
The gathering of all ve participating organizations
thinking shifted after watershed events, and how that
changed their practice.12 The goal of the analysis is to
become aware of the reason that particular moments
were experienced as signicant, and to examine the
nature of their signicance. Through the identication
and analysis of critical moments, the process
generates an interlinked network of practitioner
stories that function as a unique form of data not
free-oating anecdotes but a purposefully selected
set of experiences subjected to careful analysis. The
discussion of those stories is aimed specically at
having practitioners themselves probe their stories
and build their own cohesive analysis of them.
Principle 5: A focus on learning supports effective
cross-group dialogue. Participants in a reective
PRINCIPLE IN ACTION: Formulating questions
and by having a supervisor [Leslie Friedlander] who serves as a buffer between the parent support specialist
[in this example, Lupe Montoya] and the school administration. Here, CRCP facilitates as they formulate a
question about this issue.
CRCP: Before we get started on looking at critical moments in your work, letʼs name the urgent questions and
issues you face currently. One way of thinking about your questions is that they might not occur as questions.
They might occur as feeling a little bit of anxiety, or as something you see coming up that feels challenging.
Out of that, you can usually nd a question is lurking.
LESLIE: One of the questions I have is – Iʼm not sure how to phrase it yet, but how to advance what weʼre
trying to do while also working on the inside [of the school], and also of more than one institution.
CRCP: So itʼs about working from the inside.
LESLIE: Right.
CRCP: And the fact that you are working inside more than one institution.
LESLIE: Right, but itʼs most inside versus outside – pushing on reform and pushing on advocacy, while trying
to be part of the system. To me, itʼs a theoretical issue, but itʼs also a really everyday issue. Do the parents
who participate in LEADS get stuffed into the everyday work at the school and used by the administration to
do whatever is needed, versus doing parent-led activities with other parents?
CRCP: Is there a concern that youʼll be pulled more if you –
LESLIE: We are pulled. And we let ourselves be, and we want to let ourselves be to some extent. But without
(continued on next page)
Texas LEADS is a parent and community school-involvement program in Austin. Their parent
involvement model relies on a parent support specialist from the community who works inside the
school while remaining enough of an “outsider” to keep the schools accountable to the parents and
community. LEADS does this by creating a distinct physical space for parents on school property
learning process can engage in more effective cross-
group dialogue if they rst share the learning that
emerges from their individual organization reection
sessions. In addition, groups learn about each
otherʼs work most effectively if they speak in terms
of struggles and learning, rather than successes and
xed ideas.
Principle 6: Participants control the recording
process and use of recorded materials. Authentic
reection and learning are more likely when
participants do not have to think about self-editing
during the process. Such self-editing occurs when
participants do not have control of the recording
process and the use of recorded materials. Though
many research efforts begin by having participants
the organizationsʼ own questioning of their work.13
The process focused on exploring the relationship
between race and democratic community process.
All ve organizations were engaged in a similar
endeavor building democratic participation aimed
explicitly at addressing racial exclusion – yet they
were working in diverse racial and political contexts
and using different methods to tackle this challenge.
Reective learning with individual organizations.
CRCP began by visiting each organization to
introduce its approach to generating knowledge
from practice and the principles that would guide the
project (as described above). No funding decisions
were implicitly or explicitly tied to participation,14 nor
would foundation staff attend the early stages of the
reective learning process. All ve organizations
chose to participate once they understood how the
project would be conducted.
Following the initial introductory visits to each
organization, CRCP returned a second time to
begin the collaborative process of designing the
focus, scope, and specic activities in the reection
process. The collaborative design process dealt
with which reection techniques would best suit
the organizationʼs learning culture while generating
desired learning outcomes. Related to this question
was the issue of what kind of facilitation was needed
and how the reection sessions should be scheduled.
Participants also determined the areas of their work
to focus on and named the current questions in their
work that would anchor the learning process. Finally,
each organization decided who needed to participate
losing our focus and, on a bigger scale, losing our public in terms of the engagement of parents and the
leadership of parents in the democracy part of our work.
CRCP: Is there also a question of the balance between working as insiders and outsiders?
LESLIE: How to maintain that balance. I don’t have any regret about the fact that we chose to work within the
system. It’s just how to get that –
LUPE: It’s hard. It’s hard when the school wants you to do something, and to tell them, “No, I can’t do it,” or
“No, I don’t want to do it, because that’s not part of my job.”
LESLIE: How to think about that balance.
LUPE: Right.
sign a blanket consent form (giving permission to
be recorded and allowing the researcher control
over the recordings), we believe this approach
counterproductive to the learning process. Additionally,
we believe that more material is approved for public
release at the end of a project when there is strong
participant control of the recordings throughout. This
control includes determining how recordings are
performed, choosing which parts of the transcripts are
brought into dialogue with other groups, considering
whether sensitive material should be removed from
transcripts, and deciding which segments should be
shared with the public.
Bob Glover, video producer, monitors lming during
the cross-organization reection gathering
The reective learning project leading to the
practitioner knowledge in this report was designed
based on these principles and manifests them in a
particular form. The project involved ve community-
based organizations from different parts of the country.
CRCP developed this project in response to a request
by a major foundation, which sought to document
the learning of its grantee organizations based on
in the reective learning process related to each of
the selected areas of work.
The reection process in each organization lasted
two to three days. This process followed a common
pattern of using “critical moments” reection to
recount and explore signicant events in particular
areas of work, then analyzing those events in terms
of the organizationʼs current questions. Nevertheless,
the process took a unique form in each location, both
in terms of the number of people involved and the
way the critical moments process was organized.
Cross-organization reection gatherings. Following
the reection sessions at each organization, all ve
organizations were invited to participate in a series
of cross-organization reection gatherings. The
organizations were asked to view the gatherings
as opportunities to extend their learning with
practitioners engaged in similar struggles in other
locations. To facilitate this process, CRCP worked
with each organization in advance to formulate one
or more “learning-edge questions.” Learning-edge
questions captured the needs for learning that each
organization felt most urgent for advancing their
work. Each organization was also asked to select
two stories from its reective learning session that
illustrated its learning-edge questions.
PRINCIPLE IN ACTION: Naming critical moments
The Asian Pacic American Legal Center [APALC] undertook a large effort in 2000 to work in a
multiracial coalition to redraw voting district lines so that community voting interests would be better
represented. In this excerpt, Aileen Almeria and Kathay Feng of APALC work with CRCP to identify a
critical moment in the work when the massive level of effort that would be involved to organize across
race rst became apparent.
AILEEN: And then I think the last [critical moment] that I would name is something that Kathay alluded to
before. I think that over the course of our planning, our visioning, of the 2000 [multiracial] redistricting effort, we
were making a lot of comparisons to what we had done in 1990 [during the census outreach work], which had
such a limited scope compared to 2000. We had no sense of what the workload was and what we were asking
staff to do. So, Iʼm not sure how to catch it as a moment, but over the course of time, it became very clear that
we had very ambitious goals without a really clear and denitive work plan, and we were very understaffed.
And I think that the program staff had to pay a heavy price in that situation. So for the management to watch
that process and then not know how to pull that back was very difcult.
CRCP: Is there a specic moment that you remember or a series of moments related to this?
KATHAY: When you came in at 8:00 AM and you heard that people hadnʼt gone home the night before, and
things like that.
CRCP: Or where it became a conscious discussion among the management team that this is a problem we
have and weʼve got to –
(continued on next page)
Joy Amulya, CRCP; Toni Hicks, CLF; Veronika
Geronimo, APALC
The rst cross-organization reection session took
place in Boston over the course of three days. The
rst component of the gathering focused on the
sharing of learning-edge questions and stories from
each organization. The story-sharing process set
the stage for cross-organization dialogue in small
groups on the second day. Each organization then
reconvened to compile the insights and dialogue
generated in the small groups, and to summarize the
learning and signicant issues that had emerged in
discussions with members of the other organizations.
The nal stage of the cross-organization gathering
addressed eld-level questions in a set of dialogues
about the relationship between race and democracy-
building work. Subsequent cross-orgaization
gatherings in New York and Cambridge were shorter
but followed a similar process of initial reection by
individual organizations, followed by dialogue across
all of the groups.
Recording the reection sessions. Each
organization controlled the decision of how the
recording of its individual reection session would be
handled. Due to the more sensitive nature of these
sessions, most chose to record only with audiotape.
Copies of the transcripts and tapes were provided
to each organization, which then decided what
AILEEN: I think it was when we were actually in the process of mapping [each district] and having ongoing
dialogue between the [cross-racial coalition] partners. Because what was happening was to the extent that we
were trying to accommodate different issues from the Latino community, what it would mean is not just our staff
tweaking the [district] lines, but then a whole conversation with the groups in that area to gure out how that
worked with them. So I think for myself what seemed like a very straightforward process was actually a much
more complicated thing for the staff to carry out. And it wasnʼt until fairly late in the game that we really realized
what was happening in terms of peopleʼs time.
CRCP: So in some sense this isnʼt really a moment, it was something that played out over time. But because
all the partners really werenʼt at the same place of being able to carry out the process, you ended up really
playing almost a stafng role to the coalition.
KATHAY: Yes. Yes.
CRCP: And that became not an overt decision, but a decision made along the way?
Aileen: Yes, and as management started to understand that you had gotten into something that was much
bigger than you envisioned, the moment of that awareness seemed like it was right when you were getting into
this process with the [cross-racial] groups.
KATHAY: We had much more control of the process when we were working with the various APA organizations
[in 1990]. And not to say that was an easy process or that it didnʼt take a lot of work, but my sense is it was
easier for us to facilitate that – we just had more control over that process.
CRCP: But you would locate this escalation of effort around this time of starting to work with the other [cross-
racial coalition] groups?
(continued )
material to share from its own reection process
with the other groups during the cross-organization
gatherings. A similar process took place in working
with the organizations to determine which areas of
the recorded material were important to share with
the public. CRCP worked with each organization to
select the stories and dialogue segments from its own
recorded material that would offer the most powerful
The organizations agreed that the cross-organization
gatherings should be videotaped, yet participants
would have control over the segments they wish to
exclude. CRCP worked with all ve organizations
collectively in the process of selecting stories and
dialogue from the cross-organization gatherings
to share publicly. CRCP also worked closely with
the organizations to develop legal releases that
addressed the intellectual property needs of the
project as well as the organizations.
ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN LEGAL CENTER: The Asian Pacic American Legal Center (APALC) works to balance
the goal of empowerment of the Asian Pacic American (APA) community with the goal of working across race to make
systemic policy change. They see these two goals as complementary and mutually reinforcing. Because of their work
with the enormous complexity of APA groups across California, APALCʼs learning-edge questions addressed building
coalitions across both ethnicity and race:
How can we build an inclusive statewide coalition of APAs that can speak with a unified voice, given the great diversity
within the APA community? How do you build cross-racial coalitions when different communities may be interested in
collaborating, but have different policy priorities, organizational capacity, methodologies, and political power?
BELOVED COMMUNITY CENTER: The Beloved Community Center (BCC), in Greensboro, NC is founded on Dr.
Martin Luther Kingʼs concept of the “beloved community,” the belief that true change can happen in a community by
building a critical mass of people who work together in nonviolence and inclusion. BCC is centrally concerned with
building community across many different social divides including, but not limited to, racial divides. Their learning-
edge question asked whether the approach of modeling beloved community in their organizing efforts was having the
desired effect:
If we understand our work to be making community in Greensboro—creating space and possibilities for people to come
together, bringing people in, getting people to relate to each other in new ways—to what extent is community being
made through our work?
CONSERVATION LAW FOUNDATION: CLFʼs Greater Boston Institute is committed to city-building from the grassroots
up. Its city-building mission is aimed at ensuring that planning decisions regarding development, transportation, and
open space are made by those who work and live in Boston. CLF works to empower those voices and ensure that they
are heard in the halls of power. Their learning-edge question reects the tension in their work between democracy as a
process in their work, or as an outcome in itself:
What would it mean for CLFʼs Greater Boston Institute to incorporate democracy work into its core mission? How
would we name that work and seek out opportunities to advance environmental democracy apart from substantive
environmental outcomes?
SOUTHERN ECHO: Southern Echo is a leadership development and training program working to build the accountable
organizations needed to hold the political, economic, education, and environmental systems accountable to the needs
of African-American communities in Mississippi. Echo assists local organizations to create a community organizing
process through which communities develop more effective and accountable leadership. Members of these community
organizations have become successful at winning local elections to school boards, boards of supervisors, etc.
Recognizing the tension between this success and the loss of these members by community organizations, Echo
identied their learning-edge question as:
How do we advance new community-based leaders in elected positions while preserving the ability of community
organizations to hold them accountable? How do people who move into leadership positions stay accountable to the
community and at the same time fulll their obligations to the elected seat?
TEXAS LEADS: Texas LEADS is a parent-involvement program in two racially and economically diverse middle
schools in Austin, and works to create parent alliances within and across the different racial groups at each school. The
aim of these school programs is to develop a model for middle-school parent and community engagement that can be
replicated within additional public schools. Their learning-edge question speaks to their struggle to reform schools by
working from the inside of the system:
As outsiders seeking to promote change while working inside the school system we are trying to alter, when are we
focused on the change we want (developing parent leadership and meaningful participation) and when are we just part
of the system (providing services for parents or the school)?
A premise running throughout the stories in this
report is that the topic of race is broad and deep.
Race is tied inextricably to history and economics.
Race manifests structurally, in the way institutions
normalize the exclusion and subjugation of people on
the basis of their race. Race manifests interpersonally
in the ways that people do and do not feel comfortable
with one another. It is also individual, in that every
person has a racial identity, whether or not that is
consciously acknowledged or explored.
Though there is no question that racial exclusion
is a persistent and powerful force that continually
shapes peopleʼs lives, there are debates about how
community-building practitioners should confront
race in their work. How and when should race be
engaged? Should race be named, and if so how? How
should race be dealt with when working across race
lines? The practitioners whose stories are presented
in the following sections have a rich understanding of
the relationship between race and democracy and
what it means to struggle with race - in all of these
ways. By seeking to confront how racism operates
within societal structures, these community-building
practitioners expose the aws in these structures that
lead to social exclusion. In this sense, race is a lens
through which the problems of democracy are more
clearly exposed.
Within the broader context of this work, this report
highlights and examines a particular issue: How
do practitioners balance the tension that emerges
when racial groups – with different experiences of
social exclusion – acknowledge (and strengthen)
their own groupʼs racial identity and interests while
simultaneously working to build multiracial coalitions?
We have chosen this focus because it is clearly an
issue that recurs throughout different contexts of
community building and because it directly addresses
a set of important questions in the eld.
dialogue that result from the reective learning
process, we gain new insights into this relationship
– often challenging conventional wisdom. We also
emerge with a heightened awareness of what it
means to be committed to working with race issues
on the ground.
This section presents four major learning points that
emerged from the analysis of practitioner stories on
race and community building:
• Racial identity is an important and effective tool
for building participation.
• Inventive multiracial work is challenging.
• Inventive coalitions bring new possibilities for
social change.
• Race can be used to distort as well as transform
multiracial community building work.
The analysis reveals how complex and subtle it is
to navigate the dynamic between racial identity and
cross-racial coalition building. There is no formula for
acting concretely in the face of this dynamic. Instead,
struggling with race plays a vital role in helping
organizers reinvent the tools of democracy building.
Practitioners engaged in the everyday struggle to
build more democratic communities in the context of
persistent racial exclusion develop knowledge critical
to understanding the complex relationship between
race and democracy. By analyzing the stories and
We’re hopeful that all of these things
that we’ve explored through the
reective process are going to help
us be able to talk about the state of
Mississippi in a different way, talk about
what we’re trying to do to make a
difference, and how we’re trying to build
—Leroy Johnson, Southern Echo
learning process, racial identity is an organizing
asset, a means of building a sense of power, highly
complex, and a critical part of multiracial work.
Race as an organizing asset. Texas LEADS, a
parent-involvement program in two racially and
economically diverse middle schools in Austin,
works to create parent alliances within and across
the different racial groups at each school. LEADS
views race as an asset that can help people better
understand and value themselves, and therefore, be
able to recognize the shared connections to other
people in their community. In their work, racial identity
is an important foundation for using schools as a focal
point for building alliances across race lines.
Texas LEADS is a parent and community school-involvement program in two racially and
economically diverse middle schools in Austin, Texas. Through their work in the two schools, they
have explored how to create a successful model that is exible enough to adapt to the distinct
communities surrounding each school.
GERALD: Thereʼs an important comparison between the two [middle] schools weʼre in. Fulmore [Middle
School] is a heterogeneous community – predominantly Chicano, Mexican-American, but not exclusively. The
school also contends with a lot of class differences, so the work in Fulmore has to cross race and class to
create the communities that support the school. The school needs to be a center of gravity around which those
communities can coalesce and form commonalties that would otherwise not exist.
Mendez [Middle School], on the other hand, is more predominantly Mexican-American and Mexican national
and predominantly working class and poor, with a very small business community. So organizing that
community is different. And the way race comes up in Mendez is different – because Austin is segregated. In
Fulmore, you have African-Americans, Mexican nationals, and Mexican-Americans, as well as some Asians
living in one community with more of an economic mix. At Mendez, you have a strong Chicano identity with a
distinctly smaller African-American community. So it lacks daily contact with other races and classes. And daily
contact makes a big difference, because it gives you a different way to organize.
I think thatʼs one thing thatʼs come out of our work: Youʼve got to have race as an organizing idea, but you canʼt
have it as a xed idea about how you engage it. How you engage it has got to come out of the community that
youʼre in, as opposed to saying that this is the model weʼre going to use to engage race… By an organizing
idea, youʼve got to valorize racial identity – that your racial identity is an important asset that you have, because
itʼs a way in which your fate is linked to others in the community. Not just because you live in this community,
but because you share these deeper things.
So at Mendez, where thereʼs a greater percentage of Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals, itʼs easier for
people to see that linked fate. Youʼve got to take that idea of linked fate, and build within each racial community
in Fulmore – not just the linked fate within those communities, but also the fate of the whole community linked
across race and class. So for Mendez, ultimately what we want to get are cross-racial alliances that are
community wide – Austin community-wide as opposed to school community-wide. But how weʼre going to get to
that place is going to be different, because they are not dealing with the same race and class dynamics in the
way they are at Fulmore. So ultimately you want to build the foundation for cross-racial alliances because thatʼs
where the politics for changing the whole community is going to come from.
A consistent theme throughout practitionersʼ stories
is that strengthening group racial identity is essential
for building and strengthening multiracial community
participation. Furthermore, valuing racial identity
builds a sense of power for constructing more
effective cross-racial alliances. Once people connect
with their own racial identity, they can better connect
across race lines. Despite the complexity of racial
identity within any community, practitioners see it
as critical in their work. Thus, in the experience of
the practitioners who participated in the reective
Race as an organizing asset: Gerald Torres, Texas LEADS
In arguing that racial identity must be “valorized,”
Gerald Torres of Texas LEADS suggests that valuing
and understanding oneʼs own cultural strengths can
be a point of departure for realizing that conditions
of societal disparity are shared with others. This is
fundamentally different than organizing around self-
interest. Rather, members of each group have to
become empowered in their own cultural and racial
identity in order to effectively build coalitions with
other groups. By incorporating support into organizing
work for people to acknowledge and value their own
racial identity, organizers lay the groundwork for
helping people understand what they share with
others – even when others seem very different.
Nevertheless, practitioners who navigate the
complexity of race in organizing work regularly
experience a recurring fact: There is no set formula
for engaging race when building community.
Working with racial identity and racial difference
has to be reinvented based on the composition of
the community, the focus of the work, and the local
history of racial politics and immigration.
Racial identity as a means of building a sense
of power. In Mississippi, the work of Southern
Echo illustrates how racial identity serves as a basis
for building power. Southern Echo is a leadership
development and training program that employs a
meticulous developmental empowerment process
designed to help members of African-American
communities realize their values and skills as sources
Racial identity as a means of building a sense of power: Leroy Johnson, Southern Echo
Southern Echo is a leadership development and training program which works to empower the
African-American community to rst recognize their own power and skills before productively
sharing power and working cross-racially. Here is an example of a successful cross-racial coalition
using their methodology.
LEROY: So thereʼs this question of how to deal with power dynamics as a part of racial diversity and
empowerment. We found that we had to be very clear about becoming a power on our own before there could
be power-sharing. Other folks talk about power-sharing all the time, but theyʼve got all the power. And they
have the power to give you just a little bit. A little bit here, a little bit there. And so we recognize that the only
way for us to really be inside of that game in a meaningful way is to organize our own power. Then we can
come to the table and not feel that we are begging. Iʼm tired of begging. Iʼm tired of asking you to rst let me
sit at the table. Tired, Iʼm just tired. And weʼre not going to play that game anymore. Youʼre going to have to
come to us. But to get you to come to us, we have to have our own power rst.
Coming from Mississippi things are black and white. Race is your sense of being and power is the most
treacherous thing about race. Who has the power to determine what is normal? Who has the power to
determine what is good? Who therefore also has power to determine what is bad? And so we keep trying to
gure out in our racial identities, how to get the power to do that. Our work is to deal with values, skills, and an
understanding inside of the community about what your power is and why you are important as a race, why
what you do matters.
(continued on next page)
of power. Their work illustrates a challenge facing
cross-racial coalitions in Mississippi and elsewhere:
How can a coalition move beyond the entrenched
power dynamics that it is ghting, if the people in
the coalition end up embodying those dynamics
In telling the story of a cross-racial coalition aimed
at forcing the state to improve services for children
in special education, Leroy Johnson outlines the
role that strong racial identity played in the success
Gerald Torres, Texas LEADS, and Melvin Young,
Southern Echo, develop dialogue questions
of their coalition. Before bringing members of the
African-American community into a cross-racial
coalition, Southern Echo conducted trainings that
strengthened peopleʼs recognition of the power
that comes from a strong sense of racial identity.
Then, when African-American community members
entered into the coalition, they did so as equals, not
as subordinate partners. The coalition was able to
transcend entrenched racial power dynamics and to
work as a strong united force – but one that retained
the racial identities of its members. This example from
Southern Echo demonstrates that emphasizing racial
identity does not prevent cross-racial alliances from
being effective. Rather, because race matters when
Iʼve been working on trying to get the State of Mississippi to deal with children with special needs, to nally to
give them the type of services that they deserve by law. Thereʼs this long-term organization in Jackson. They
[in a coalition with other organizations] led a lawsuit 35 years ago. The State of Mississippi wasnʼt doing what
theyʼre supposed to do, and 35 years later they still havenʼt done one thing about it. And so [the organization]
came to us and said, “We should work together as a coalition.” And my answer was, “Yeah, we should work
together, but we shouldnʼt be a coalition under your banner.” Their answer was, “Well we canʼt be a coalition
under your banner either.” We said, “OK, well, maybe what we can do is build an organization together,
create a separate organization away from your banner and away from our banner and be the Mississippi
Education Working Group, and weʼll create an organization that shares power.”
We have two co-chairs, one black, one white. But we told them that we are not going to be a part of a coalition
where youʼre in charge of saying what the answers are going to be. And so [working together] we went into
negotiations with the state. Now, bottom line was, we got the state board of education to vote through the
consent decree with changes, which made the law stronger than the consent decree of the judge.
Now weʼve got a monitoring committee thatʼs made up of community folk who came out of the process. Not
teachers and curriculum coordinators, but community folk who are going through a curriculum now to teach
them how to evaluate whether or not the services are being rendered in the way theyʼre supposed to be
rendered. But it could never happen. It could never happen if we hadnʼt built the power to be at the table, and
so race matters and race matters more when races come together.
different racial groups come together, using racial
identity to build a sense of power is what allows a
cross-racial coalition to transcend entrenched power
dynamics, making new kinds of solutions possible.
The complexity of racial identity. In California,
the diverse Asian ethnic landscape illustrates the
challenge of using racial identity to organize different
immigrant communities within that heavily multiracial
and multiethnic context. While race is an unfamiliar
construct for many Asian immigrants (who tend to
categorize themselves along ethnic lines), the Asian
organizers who took part in this reective learning
project emphasized the critical importance of race
in advancing the broader political empowerment
of Asians, while trying to minimize the baggage of
stereotyping, prejudice and opposition.
The Asian Pacic American Legal Center (APALC)
works to balance the goal of empowerment of the
Asian Pacic American (APA) community with the
goal of working across race to effect systemic policy
change. They see these two goals as complementary
and mutually reinforcing. Yet the task of teaching
the APA community why race is politically important
can be challenging. Asian organizers grapple with
a wide array of languages and ethnic histories.
(from left) Lupe Montoya, Texas LEADS; Hollis
Watkins, Southern Echo; Dennis Kao, APALC
(These groups include Chinese, Japanese, Koreans,
Filipinos, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese,
Hmong, Indians, Pakistanis, and Pacic Islanders.)
Further complicating APALCʼs work is the fact
that in Asian communities, ethnic identity interacts
signicantly with other social realities such as
economic class, immigrant vs. refugee status, and
political afliation. Despite this enormous complexity,
APALC understands that without rst establishing a
broad level of political power as Asians, the needs of
individual communities may not be served.
APALCʼs work in the face of this complexity makes
two important contributions to understanding the
relationship between race and community building.
One is recognizing the difference between race and
racial identity. APALC, in their role to bring together
groups across the Asian spectrum, employs the social
and political construct of race as it exists in the U.S.
Nevertheless, as Asian communities tend to think in
terms of ethnicity rather than race, APALCʼs efforts
are not readily supported by racial identity. Racial
identity is a concrete psychological phenomenon of
understanding oneself as a person with a specic
racial afliation and history. APALC must help
their community build an Asian racial identity that
encompasses ethnic identity, despite the fact that
ethnic divisions can run counter to this goal.
Second, the APALC example illustrates how
organizing within a racial community can be as
complex as organizing across racial communities.
While this challenge may be most pronounced in
the Asian community, a different version of this
inner-group complexity likely exists for every racial
community due to an array of cultural, ethnic, political,
and economic factors.
Racial identity as critical to multiracial work.
Stories of community practice show that attending
to racial identity when organizing around important
issues does not prevent cross-racial alliances from
being effective, nor do community practitioners
experience a conict between focusing on multiracial
work and serving the needs of a particular group.
Community practitioners skillfully move between
focusing on multiracial work while also serving the
needs of a particular racial group. For example,
APALCʼs work is grounded in the belief that Asian
political empowerment and building multiracial
coalitions are both needed in order for either activity
to be successful.
Racial identity as critical to multiracial work: Stewart Kwoh, Aileen Almeria, Asian Pacific American
Legal Center
During their reection session, APALC is discussing the interdependency between Asian political
empowerment and building multiracial coalitions, and the role this view had in the genesis of their
community leadership development program.
STEWART: We have a deep commitment to Asian-Americans and their interests, but at the same time, we do
see the linkage between our interests and others, and we seek to join them. There are some organizations
that see this as a stage process. “Once we get powerful enough, then we can nally hitch up with other
people.” We prefer to do it at the same time, whenever possible. Sometimes itʼs not possible, and we
acknowledge that, but, on the other hand, weʼre not just a multiracial group. We need to serve the unique
needs of Asian-Americans, not only because they are underserved, but because we want to do multiracial
work. If we donʼt have a strong grounding in our own community, we cannot bring people along. We try to
do both well. Itʼs really a value. For example, when we did the [state redistricting process], it was inevitable
that we would ask ourselves, ʻWell, what did the Latinos think?ʼ or ʻWhat did the African-Americans think?ʼ
Because this value is ingrained, it would always come up somehow, rather than us saying, ʻOk, this is what
we need to do for ourselves, letʼs do it.ʼ
AILEEN: Itʼs interesting because it is one of the very premises that LDIR [APALCʼs leadership program,
Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations] organizes its training on. Before you get to the point of
working together, you start out from some introspection about each person: What is my own culture? What
values do I have? Where do I come from? Then people plot that out. It doesnʼt matter whether youʼre a
(continued on next page)
APALCʼs leadership development program was based
on their theory that Asian-Americans need a strong
grounding in their own community to be effective
leaders in multiracial efforts, as well as APALCʼs belief
that multiracial coalitions are key to the success of
broad Asian political empowerment. In designing their
leadership development program, APALC recognized
the importance of providing a developmental process
involved in “working through” oneʼs own racial and
cultural identity and then learning to acknowledge
it sufciently. In addition, APALC saw the need for
providing training in interpersonal and group process
skills needed for working cross-racially.
Yet while they make a practice of considering the
perspectives of other groups, APALC came to
realize that their leadership training model was not
applicable solely to Asian-Americans. In fact, few
people in American society have had the chance to
acquire skills for working cross-racially. Community
leaders from every racial background could benet
from the support of a program that provides a process
for strengthening racial identity as a basis for working
more effectively across racial divides.
Through their stories, practitioners gave voice to
the challenges that can arise in multiracial coalition
work, often because coalition members have different
interests as a result of different experiences of social
exclusion. Deciding what issues to work on can be
coalitions that continue to grapple with such challenges
ultimately stand the best chance of bringing about
meaningful change. It is the act of staying engaged
with the tensions that arise that gives coalitions the
potential to build the kind of community that can bring
about systemic change. Practitionersʼ stories reveal
problematic; so is deciding upon a fair process for
decision-making. Questions are raised about the
deeper meaning of central democratic principles
such as whether there are limits to inclusiveness.
Establishing trust and open communication is an
ongoing challenge in diverse coalitions. Additionally,
coalitions often have to navigate different approaches
to community activism.
Ever present is the concern that racial identity might
block effective cross-group collaboration, and that
narrow group self-interest might characterize the
dynamics of even the best-intentioned multiracial
coalitions. While responding to these concerns can be
frustrating – and sometimes downright discouraging
practitioners stand rm in believing that multiracial
Kathay Feng, APALC (right), listens to Alma Purvis, BCC
minority or if youʼre of European descent. Youʼve got a culture, and youʼve got some kind of grounding,
whatever that is, and you have to acknowledge that and work through that before you can get to the point
where youʼre working with other people. So, I think itʼs an interesting combination because itʼs very true that
in a lot of multiracial bridge-building contexts, there are people who donʼt have a grounding in any particular
community, so itʼs actually harder for them to push the work forward.
STEWART: Actually, the way the LDIR program started was in recognizing that Asian-Americans are
disadvantaged by not having the tools and language skills to work with other groups. Then, as we started
the program, it became clear that other people were disadvantaged, too. Because itʼs clear that people didnʼt
grow up knowing how to work with other groups. They may have different styles, but their ignorance was
shared in terms of other communities lacking the skills to bridge that gap. So, thatʼs how it became truly inter-
ethnic, but the original thinking was to help Asians in terms of their empowerment in the inter-group relations
skill area.
The challenge of determining priorities when working in collaborations: Veronika Geronimo, Aileen
Almeria, Asian Pacic American Legal Center
It can become a challenge for APALC to keep Asian Pacic American [APA] interests on the table
when they are a minority within a cross-racial collaborative. This example comes from their work
in the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative [CIWC].
VERONIKA: I think that trying to balance these two principles [of Asian American empowerment and
multiracial bridge-building] is a yearly struggle for CIWC. The way the Collaborative comes up with their policy
priorities every year is each group goes to their own constituencies and comes back to the larger group to
share what our priorities are. Then, where thereʼs consensus, thatʼs the issue the Collaborative takes on for
the year. But theyʼre not always that clear cut. And so, issues from the Asian Pacic American community
– like language access – have fallen to the second tier of the Collaborativeʼs work.
AILEEN: There was one meeting I so strongly remember, because it was spent putting out all the issues that
could possibly be on CIWCʼs agenda on the table, and then we broke out into groups, and we were asked to
vote for our priority. Now, there are four organizations in CIWC – we are the only one that focuses on the APA
community. Everybody in my group wanted to talk about higher education and driversʼ licenses, and I was the
only one that said, “Oh no, language access – this is our issue.” When we brought it all back, and they tallied
the votes, all the APA issues were at the bottom, which was very disheartening to us, but this was one of the
ongoing struggles of working in a collaborative.
VERONIKA: The other one I wanted to bring up was the California Food Assistance Program [CFAP] and the
Cash-Assistance Program for Immigrants [CAPI]. These are two state programs that provide food stamps
and SSI benets for immigrants who were cut off from federally-funded programs. This was a priority for the
Legal Center. The majority of the CAPI recipients are APA, and so we heard from a lot of APA groups that this
was a priority. Again, it wasnʼt as high of a priority for the Latino groups. But it ended up being a top priority for
CIWC last year, although it didnʼt necessarily mean that all of the groups worked on it equally. And so, there
is a tension. Just because the collaborative takes on an issue, doesnʼt necessarily mean that each of the
partnering organizations takes on equal amounts of work on those issues.
a number of these tensions including: determining
priorities; dening inclusiveness; establishing trust
and open communication; and respecting the value
of different organizing tactics.
The challenge of determining priorities when
working in collaborations. The goal of linking
strong racial identity with effective multiracial work
is challenging. One example of this challenge is
evident in APALCʼs work in the California Immigrant
Welfare Collaborative (CIWC). This coalition used a
voting system to determine the policy priorities for
each year. Although each group was invited to put all
of their critical issues on the table, the Asian Pacic
American (APA) issues received fewer votes due to
the smaller number of APA members in the coalition.
Just deciding what issues to work on can be
problematic, not to mention deciding how they should
ultimately be handled. Is it good enough to vote on
priorities? If so, how can smaller or less powerful
minorities get enough attention and support for
their particular high-priority issues? How would a
consensus process work? Despite their frustration
when APA issues do not converge with the interests
of other groups – and therefore are not selected
as coalition priorities APALC does not see it as a
waste of time to participate in the coalition. In their
analysis of experiences from multiracial coalition
work, APALC stressed that framing and addressing
questions about how such coalitions should function
is an important part of the process of innovating new
models for collaboration.
APALCʼs reection on multiracial coalitions also
acknowledged that fears can arise over the possibility
that racial identity will impede effective cross-group
collaboration. Does a strong sense of racial identity
automatically mean that the dynamics of even
the best-intentioned multiracial coalition will be
characterized by group self-interest? Will different
racial groups put less time and energy into a coalition
effort when there is less attention on that issue in their
community? In discussing these questions, members
of APALC constructed a thoughtful view of these
realities, not grounded in the reexive fear of equating
racial identity with group self-interest. It is not that
the self-interest of racial groups does not factor in
a multiracial coalition – it does. Yet, the existence
of the coalition holds the tension that is needed for
seeking a balance in setting priorities across different
sets of interests. Moreover, APALC returned to the
theme of the interplay between its interethnic work
within the Asian community, and their interracial work
within their cross-racial coalition; balancing priorities
is not solely a function of cross-racial work, but of any
collaborative enterprise.
The challenge of dening inclusiveness in
community coalitions. The Beloved Community
Center (BCC), in Greensboro, NC, was founded
on Dr. Martin Luther Kingʼs concept of the “beloved
community,” the belief that true change can happen
in a community by bringing together a critical mass
The Beloved Community Center [BCC], in Greensboro, NC is founded on Dr. Martin Luther Kingʼs
concept of the “beloved community,” the premise that true change can happen in a community by
bringing together a critical mass of people trained to work together in nonviolence and inclusion. In
their efforts to build a broadly inclusive peace coalition, the BCC struggled with how to dene the
limits of inclusiveness for any issue.
ED: We were handing out the peace pledge along the way, marching under our banner, “Not In Our Name,”
and people would actually say “I couldnʼt possibly have that, I canʼt be for peace because Iʼm in the Reserves,
or my son is in the Marines.” To us these were not reasons. And I found the question, “What does it mean
if youʼre for peace?” quite interesting. I guess one of the things I was curious about was what are we asking
people to do in saying that theyʼre for peace? Does it really mean that they canʼt be against war because
theyʼre in the Reserves?
JOYCE: Part of this work of building inclusive community around the conversation of peace is that some
people are going to exclude themselves because they think being involved in a conversation about peace
means taking a position against a given conict.
ED: We were not out there holding signs that said the president is an idiot, we shouldnʼt support what heʼs
doing. We were just saying letʼs think about what weʼre doing and take this approach. That was the position.
And that has been a central question: How broad do we make the Greensboro Peace Coalition? In those
initial stages, there were some discussions about how we may need to have an ex-Marine represented to get
that viewpoint. But we also had some political groups that wanted to be involved with directing our activities
from the early stages, and we had to say that we wanted this to be so inclusive that a broad number of people
– especially the faith communities – felt involved. And we made decisions through consensus rather than
voting, which was important to making everybody under that broad umbrella feel included and that their voices
were represented. So of course, some people came with a very clear answer to what was going on. And
other people were struggling with what was going on and we didnʼt want to exclude any of them. Eventually
[a particular socialist organization] pretty much excluded itself from us because we were too broad-based and
we werenʼt going to let them control the Greensboro Peace Coalition.
LEWIS: There have been other situations where a litmus-test question comes up that we had to get past, like
someone wanting to take a vote to make sure that everybody else had a sufciently correct position on Israel
for them to be able to stay. And this got to be a ght, but it again looks at the question of inclusiveness. How
do you take a stand? How do you build a community around something without trying to divide? On the one
hand people will say good fences make good neighbors, but picking apples together would probably make
even better neighbors.
The challenge of dening inclusiveness in community coalitions: Joyce Johnson, Lewis Brandon, Ed
Whiteld, Beloved Community Center [BCC]
of people trained to work together in nonviolence and
inclusion. A principle of their work in building diverse
coalitions is maximum inclusiveness. Yet during their
reective learning sessions, they spoke repeatedly of
the difcult balance between including a broad base
of people in their work and the pressure to take a
position on an issue which might narrow the range
of inclusion.
One example of this challenge occurred in 2002,
when the U.S. was considering going to war in the
Middle East. BCC had introduced a community
dialogue on the issue of peace, hoping to convene
a broadly inclusive coalition. One of their struggles
involved getting past “litmus-test questions” that
would require a bottom-line agreement from all
members of the group related to the issue. Another
challenge stemmed from groups or individuals who
wanted to set the coalitionʼs agenda in this case,
a socialist organization eventually left the coalition
because the coalition would not take a clear position.
Does being in a coalition require taking a particular
position on the issue at hand? Although this is not a
question about cross-racial work, BCC described how
the same question recurs regardless of the source of
differences in perspectives – whether stemming from
race, religion, or politics. In fact, they have found that
differences are often more charged among different
faith communities than across racial boundaries.
BCCʼs analysis of their efforts to build a broad-based
coalition to discuss peace raises serious questions
concerning the deeper meaning of democratic
principles such as inclusiveness. On one hand, they
This example from the Beloved Community Center highlights the way that the concrete practice
of hearing different perspectives is foundational to working collectively across deep social divides
such as race.
ALMA: Sometimes people donʼt have any idea that somebody elseʼs perception of reality is totally
different. So Iʼm just amazed when I sit in a group and listen to peopleʼs different perspectives on the
same issue and itʼs all because of where you come from. It is because of your culture. It is because of
your race. It is because of your experiences. So all of this misunderstanding is real because we all come
from different places.
We started the Community Dialogue on Education group… We had one particular issue around a black high
school. The superintendent, the school board wanted to tear down the last high school that was all black.
Probably, there were only three schools left in North Carolina that were traditionally black high schools. And
so this particular high school has a history that is so rich and powerful and still impacts the community today.
So the people in the dialogue group could not understand why anybody would not want a brand new state-of-
the-art high school. So it took three months of trying to help people like the CEOs understand what it means
to a black person to have something thatʼs been a historical site for all of their lives. Something that they
identify with. Something that has pride and connection to their whole history.
And then nally one day, Lewis, one of the guys on the staff said, “I know you donʼt understand this, but this
is not just a building. Buildings carry identication.” And he just went on to explain to these people why this
school meant so much to this community. This school is located in a community where the grandmothers sit
on the porches. And when the kids walk home from school in the afternoon, the grandmothers talk to them,
give them cookies, and watch them safely go along their way. And the grandmothers went to that school, and
so when the games are happening, the grandmothers get off the porch and they go and sit in the stands, and
they cheer for the kids. So weʼre talking about generations here. And so as we began to talk on that level, the
peopleʼs understanding began to open up. And so then we got the support of all of those top-level business
people who then went back to the school board and the superintendent and said, “We support renovating
Dudley as opposed to tearing it down.” And so thatʼs the plan now.
Establishing trust and open communication in diverse coalitions: Alma Purvis, Beloved Community
saw that the stated goal of a particular coalition can
exclude those who make assumptions about who can
and cannot be included in that group (such as people
who assume that they should not be part of a peace
of marginalized groups is often misunderstood
or wholly unknown. Building inclusive community
requires the concrete practice of drawing out the
contrasts of lived experience that have given rise to
entrenched social divisions.
In their reective learning session, BCC described
their efforts to nd tools for building trust across
social divides. Differences in perspective are real
and often strongly held, but these differences are
constructed through specic experiences. One
story that illustrates the difculty of overcoming
perspective involved a traditionally black high school
in Greensboro, NC. The school was slated to be torn
down because it was old and in need of upgrades.
Whites in the community could not understand why
blacks were so strongly opposed to tearing down the
school in the face of getting a new, modern school.
In discussing the issue of the black high school,
it took stories about how generations of blacks in
the community identied their history and sense
of community in relation to that high school. After
hearing these personal stories, the white members
of the coalition could begin to understand why the
school was so important to blacks because it was
more than a school. The racial divide was not simply
due to a different set of experiences, but to the fact
that the experience of blacks in the community was
simply not known to others.
This example illustrates the challenge of nding
practices that work within cross-racial coalitions. In
the multiracial coalition that BCC had convened to
deal with issues related to education, the group had
set ground rules requiring people to listen respectfully
to one another. By recounting the ties that blacks in
Greensboro had with the historically black high school
– which led to a difference in perspective across race
lines on whether to tear it down – the group was able
to reach consensus on keeping the school.
With respect to racial divides – where the experience
of marginalized groups is often unknown or
misunderstood – building an inclusive community
requires painstakingly drawing out contrasts in lived
experience that have given rise to social divisions.
When different groups develop an understanding of
what divides them, it then becomes possible for them
to understand how to connect.
coalition simply because they have relatives active in
the military). On the other hand, seeking maximum
breadth in a coalition can exclude those whose
interest in joining the coalition was to advocate a
particular principle (such as the socialist organization
that excluded itself from the peace coalition).
By examining how these principles play out in their
concrete work of building community according
to Martin Luther King, Jr.ʼs notion of “beloved
community,” BCC began to nd answers similar to
the APALCʼs struggle with being a minority member
of cross-racial coalitions. It is staying engaged with
these tensions whether decisions should be made
by consensus or voting; whether there are limits to
inclusiveness that gives coalitions facing differences
the potential to build the kind of community that can
bring about systemic change.
Establishing trust and open communication in
diverse coalitions. As BCC is centrally concerned
with building community across different social divides
including, but not limited to, racial divides – their
experiences offer rich insights into the challenge of
acknowledging these divides while also transcending
them. Just as there is no recipe for organizing using
racial identity, there is no formula for working in
a coalition that crosses signicant social divides.
Instead, practitionersʼ stories describe successes
achieved through principles such as tolerance,
respectful listening, and displaying an authentic
desire to transcend differences and work toward
change. When bridging racial divides, the experience
Randy Johnston, BCC, during a journaling break at the
cross-organization gathering
Respecting differences in organizing tactics.
In addition to challenges related to how decisions
are made, how inclusiveness is dened, and how
differences in perspective can be understood, there
are differences within cross-racial coalitions that
come from diverse – even contrasting – strategies for
community activism. These differences sometimes
run along race lines, however, there is no single
organizing strategy for any racial group. The decision
to listen to and prioritize divergent organizing tactics
clearly presents a challenge to a coalition that is bent
on success. Nevertheless, by being willing to consider
the strength of each groupʼs method, difference can
be acknowledged and perhaps even seen as vital to
An example of this challenge comes from the story
told by Southern Echo of an organizing effort against
in which blacks and whites in Mississippi came
together in a coalition to ght a waste facility. Each
group happened to favor a different approach to taking
action blacks favored mobilizing large numbers of
people to protest while whites were biased toward
trying to persuade their elected ofcials to oppose
the facility. Since white members of the coalition
were sure that their way would work (and because
they were uncomfortable with mobilizing large groups
of people, particularly blacks), the coalition initially
decided to adopt this approach. When it did not work,
the other approach was used, and was ultimately
Facing the challenge of contrasting approaches
used by different groups in a coalition can require
the coalitionʼs members to acknowledge as well as
examine the strengths of other groupsʼ methods.
Respecting differences in organizing tactics: Randy Johnston, Beloved Community Center; Hollis Watkins,
Southern Echo
When working in cross-racial coalitions, differences must be acknowledged; when they are
respected they often create the broader base needed to achieve a larger goal.
HOLLIS: We had a situation in Mississippi which showed the importance of a broad base and the relevance of
culture. We were trying to stop a waste facility that was going to be accommodating seven different counties
up in the Golden Triangle area and was affecting both the poor white and the black community. And these
communities came together and they were all excited, but there was a tremendous difference in the way they
thought that things needed to be done. But as they were all focused on stopping the thing from coming in,
they were willing to trust the methods that each of the different communities had been accustomed to using.
You know the white community was accustomed to, well, you know this elected ofcial, you go whisper into
their ear and you talk to them and get them to see what is really going on and then theyʼll back out of this. So
thatʼs what they did. Black folk was used to, hey, we get a bunch of them and scare the hell out of them and
theyʼll back off of this, you know. And the white folks were scared to death of that. So when one of the [white]
ladies says, well, Iʼve known the head man for years. As a matter of fact, I babysat him. I know I can talk to
him and show him to get it to move.
But when [the white communityʼs] approach did not work, they stayed in the process and supported the
method coming from the black culture. And getting large numbers of people involved in that process, including
attorneys and large numbers of folks rallying to the judges in their various means ultimately enabled them to
prevent [the waste facility] from coming in. So culture is extremely important, you know, as we move through
the work and the inclusiveness of everybody in that process. So you had two different cultures in leadership
but they had the single focus, the single vision, which was to stop that facility from coming in and it was
ultimately successful.
RANDY: I think thatʼs been the same experience in Greensboro where the separate cultures, black and
white, do come together around specic school issues where they each have an interest and a stake in the
community and worked together. And they did. They used the strengths of each culture. But as soon as the
issue was resolved, they kind of went back to their own places. And I think one of the questions is how can
you sustain that?
Furthermore, by agreeing to act on the black
communityʼs approach of mobilizing large numbers of
people, their white counterparts faced the challenge
of overcoming their fears and prejudices regarding
black political empowerment.
productive inclusiveness be sustained over time?
What tools and practices allow multiracial coalitions
to transform the success over an issue into a
broader community-building agenda? What further
challenges arise for multiracial coalitions in the long
term? Community practice stories demonstrate how
new successes necessitate and drive the reinvention
of old tools to accommodate new creative tensions in
multiracial work.
While new challenges constantly present themselves
throughout cross-racial coalition work, coalitions
that take on these challenges nd themselves in an
exciting and unknown place, navigating how to best
work together in an inventive and meaningful way.
Coalition partners who work together creatively can
help each other build new capacities and skills in each
otherʼs organizations. Multiracial coalitions discover
Despite the success of cross-racial coalitions in
meeting such challenges, many coalitions do not
continue to work together once the issue drawing
them together has been resolved. This fact illustrates
the reality that when challenges in coalitions are
overcome, new questions are raised. How can this
Building new capacities through inventive collaboration: Kathay Feng, Dan Ichinose, Asian Pacic
American Legal Center
The Asian Pacic American Legal Center [APALC] undertook a large effort to work in a multiracial
coalition to re-draw voting district lines to better represent the voting interests of each district. This
example illustrates how they responded to the Supreme Courtʼs decision that race could no longer
be a primary factor in redistricting by organizing around communities of interest.
KATHAY: One of the rst critical moments was identifying our key partners and persuading them that it was
not too early to think about redistricting. This was around April 2000, and one of the most common responses
from folks was, “God, thatʼs at least a year off, why are we creating coalitions right now? We wonʼt be able
to sustain interest.” For coalition building, I think one of the critical things was to begin developing personal
relations with MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund] and the LDF [NAACP Legal
Defense Fund] folks. With MALDEF, that meant meeting with their key attorney who had been around since
the ʻ80s and ʻ90s doing redistricting. I met with her and we discussed the structure of a redistricting unit [for
MALDEF] that would be able to complement our unit. And so we were there when they hired the person who
was going to anchor it. We didnʼt choose the person, but we helped gure out who they wanted to hire. Then,
once that person was hired, we all sat down and said, “OK hereʼs how weʼre going to do it.”
So we helped them decide upon a structure, and then also what their outreach plan was going to be. This
outreach model or the community data collection model, was really developed in coalition. We can talk about
a lot of frustrating parts of the process, but this was denitely positive. We did a lot of talking about legally
what the changed landscape was. And it was very clear that the Supreme Court was saying to us that race
can no longer be a primary factor. In the 1990s, MALDEF had gone to the [community-based] groups and
supercially asked them, “OK, what do you want.” But then in the end, they had experts in a room looking at
maps of the different pockets of racial groups, building 51 percent [majority minority] districts. We now had to
(continued on next page)
Leslie Friedlander, Texas LEADS; Dennis Kao, APALC
rethink that because everything that we were doing now would have to be an effort to gather information from
the communities that would reect more than just race.
One point of progress was how MALDEF and the [Asian Pacic American] Legal Center developed this
methodology together over time. We improved on each otherʼs outreach efforts, and eventually our outreach
efforts looked very similar. That was useful because it allowed us to talk with the same vocabulary. I think
our staff did a very good job of talking about communities of interest, stressing that communities of interest
include race but are not based on race. There are other communities of interest, like low-income people, or
immigrant people. You want to have them together, because they actually do share common interests, and
they have common institutions, and common policies that they want their elected leaders to promote. And so
I think we were pretty consistent on that, and I think the different racial groups and the politicians could see
that, too.
DAN: I also think of the way that we structured the rst mapping sessions. We brought in three sets of maps
and allowed people to think about it from a political lens, a racial lens, and then a community-neighborhood
lens – really forced people to think outside of just the racial lens, which is how most people approach
redistricting. We knew that we couldnʼt district on race even if we wanted to. So going into it, we knew that we
had to explore these communities of interest variables. So we had to amass all sorts of data on income, on
indication, on business interests. A wide variety of different communities of interest played into how the maps
were drawn.
We actually got people to sit down and start talking about developing common communities of interest
documents. So this is both “coalition building,” but also from the research perspective, we had to develop
these communities of interest arguments to justify where the lines would be drawn. That demanded that we
work with our [cross-racial] partners in developing ʻcommon communities of interestʼ arguments.
that learning skills and group process techniques not
only make their work more possible, but often lead
to more innovative solutions. The practitioner stories
from the reective learning process yield examples
of new possibilities that arise when persisting with
work across differences, including building new
organizational capacities as well as bringing a
learning process into community work.
Building new capacities through inventive
collaboration. Working through the challenges of
multiracial collaboration can be mutually strengthening
to individual groups and organizations. The Asian
Pacic American Legal Center [APALC] undertook a
large effort to work in a multiracial coalition to re-draw
voting district lines to better represent community
voting interests following the 2000 census. During
redistricting, racial groups traditionally attempt to
form as many districts as possible representing
their own community. However, the Supreme Court
decided that race could no longer serve as a primary
factor in redistricting. This forced APALC and its
partners to build a non-race based argument for
the districts they proposed, forcing them to invent
a new community engagement process. No longer
would it be enough to gather a minimum amount of
input from community-based groups on their needs
and desires. They needed a more elaborate strategy
one in which rigorous data collection could take
place to defend the non-racial basis for new districts,
while also remaining clear enough for people to
engage one another. Moreover, it made sense
to work in deeper partnership with other coalition
members. APALC was able to do this as a result of
the multiracial relationships it had formed during the
census outreach process.
While challenges exist throughout cross-racial
coalition work, coalitions that accept these challenges
nd themselves in an unknown place, trying to balance
making time for collaboration while guring out how to
best work together in an inventive and signicant way.
In the early stages of their collaboration, APALC and
MALDEF (the Mexican-American Legal Defense and
Educational Fund) created a deeper, more inventive
process by designing and aligning their community
outreach approaches, rather than simply agreeing
to coordinate their efforts on a supercial level. In
turn, aligning at this deeper level helped them each
improve their community outreach methods as well
as supporting a cohesive, interlinked process in
the community. This partnering advanced the goals
of each group while setting the stage for future
collaborative efforts.
The innovation APALC and its partners designed
for balancing the empowerment of individual racial
groups with larger, cross-racial issues was to engage
community members in a process of determining
“lines of community interest” that cut across racial
lines. For example, in some communities, recently
arrived Latino and Asian immigrant groups might
share more in common with one another than
with more established members of their own race.
Therefore, a candidate from a different racial group
who nonetheless champions issues important to
recent immigrants would provide better representation
than a candidate with the same racial afliation who
is more responsive to the community establishment.
At the level of the multiracial coalition, the redistricting
process brought partnership and innovation in
strategies for working with communities to dene their
interests, both in terms of racial identity and lines of
interest cutting across race. In this way, the work of
meeting the challenge of multiracial collaboration was
mutually strengthening to both organizations.
Bringing a learning process into community
work. People do not automatically know how to
interact productively in the face of differences.
Dynamics of opposition and competition are more
familiar and more strongly reinforced by social norms.
These dynamics not only risk impeding a multiracial
coalitionʼs work, they can also reinforce divisions
among groups. Practitioners emphasize the need
for constant reinvention of ways to encourage and
enhance democratic dialogue, allowing differences to
drive the ongoing advancement of social justice and
broader community-building goals.
Bringing a learning process into community work: Alma Purvis, Beloved Community Center; Stephanie
Pollack, Conservation Law Foundation
In a small group discussion, Alma Purvis of Beloved Community Center [BCC] and Stephanie
Pollack of Conservation Law Foundation [CLF] discuss strategies that they have used to teach
people the necessary skills to engage in listening to different voices.
ALMA: The vision of the beloved community [is] helping people to believe that itʼs possible that we can have
a community, a city, where everybody is valued, where everybody is respected, where everybody is given
the opportunity to have a voice. Every program that we do, everything that we try to initiate lies at the heart
of that. The homeless ministry is going to function because the people who are working in that ministry are
modeling community themselves. If the education mission is going to be powerful, then we have to model
community among those people who are working within that group.
We need to be able to help people say “We canʼt be against the business community, weʼre not ghting
them, itʼs going to take all of us to make this thing work.” The rivalry canʼt be part of the plan to have a better
community. The message is that weʼre trying to bring all people together so that weʼre working in unity and not
competing against one another. And in doing that, we nd it difcult to enable people because that model of
“Iʼm right and youʼre wrong” is so powerful, and weʼre having trouble breaking out of that.
STEPHANIE: That totally resonates. We tried to do a coalition on transit issues, and the neighborhood people
wouldnʼt sit in the room with the big employers. And we kept saying, “People who have a lot of employees
need the transit system to work because people have to get to work, and a lot of their employees canʼt afford
a car or canʼt afford to drive and park it everyday. And you want the transit system to work because your
neighborhood isnʼt getting the transit service.” And still they said, “But theyʼre businesses.”
So we practiced something called “group learning.” What we try to do in these conversations, especially
the ones that involve very disparate stakeholders is to spend time at the beginning creating ground rules,
including things like “I am open to changing my mind,” sometimes making people sign a piece of paper at the
(continued on next page)
How do multiracial and other kinds of diverse
coalitions invent ways of working together that help
them overcome the tensions inherent in dealing with
signicant differences? Groups working inventively in
these situations have discovered that it is important
to make group learning an explicit goal. By framing
the challenge of working across difference in terms
of what kind of development or learning is needed
by the group, there are suddenly new possibilities for
concretely addressing this challenge.
If new dynamics are needed in groups in which
signicant social divides exist, how can those
dynamics be introduced and developed? In carrying
out a group learning process, practitioners have
are developmental and require group members to
adopt new behaviors that uphold the principles of
democratic community.
Experiences from community practice show clearly
bringing together a multiracial group is not enough.
Groups must learn to behave in ways that will lead
to new possibilities for social change – instead of
reinforcing entrenched dynamics of opposition and
competition. This retraining can be a challenge
when urgent issues are at stake and differences
seem insurmountable. Still, in addition to gaining
new possibilities for effecting social change, people
also acquire new skills for democratic community
Practitioners working for social justice in their
communities regularly confront an opposition that
uses race to distort or derail their work. Multiracial
community-building efforts can be put down as being
“driven by race,” or simply dismissed as unimportant.
Additionally, multiracial efforts are often minimized as
working toward the self-interest of a particular racial
group, thereby distracting from larger issues and
further perpetuating existing problems. Nevertheless,
practitioners believe race has to be directly engaged
in a meaningful way in order to mitigate and transform
the negative effects of race-based distortions in
community building and social justice work. Stories
from community practice reveal that while race can
found it helpful to set ground rules for interaction,
where members of the group have to agree to be
open to changing their minds. In addition, role-
playing stating the perspective of another person
or group as though it were oneʼs own – can help
interrupt oppositional divides. Both techniques
From left to right: Stephanie Pollack, CLF; Leroy
Johnson, Southern Echo; Alma Purvis, BCC
beginning of the process that says this. And weʼve had people walk out of processes. But at some point, if
theyʼre not willing to sit at that table and say, “Iʼve considered the possibility that Iʼll have a different opinion at
the end,” theyʼre going to be thorns in your side.
Another thing that Iʼve heard other people do – and I nd itʼs very powerful – is to make people state the other
sideʼs position. We would ask the grassroots person to talk from the CEOʼs position, telling them, “OK, youʼre
the CEO of Kmart. For the next ve minutes – youʼve been sitting here in this room for three weeks and weʼve
been talking about this – I want you to get up and make the best case for the Kmart position.” And if people
take it seriously, itʼs a very powerful experience. Then we would do the same thing to the Kmart executive,
asking him to say, “Iʼm the worker, this is my wage, my back got hurt because I had to schlep around this big
heavy refrigerator.” Itʼs sort of a literal walking in each othersʼ shoes, but in a structured way.
So a lot of it has to do with whoʼs at the table, but also with how you train them to be at the table. What sort of
expectations do you create for them about changing their minds? Itʼs a very fundamental thing.
be used to derail multiracial efforts (sometimes by
oversimplifying racial difference), racial divisions can
be transformed through a multiracial process.
Race is used to derail multiracial efforts. As part
of the reective learning process, members of the
Beloved Community Center (BCC) told the story about
the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation
Project, a multiracial coalition of community leaders
brought together to cultivate reconciliation and
understanding of the events of November 3, 1979,
when Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party members opened
re on a Greensboro civil rights demonstration. This
story illustrates a primary goal of BCC, which is to
surface the persistently negative assumptions and
values that accompany race in our culture so that
they cannot be hidden or used to devalue an effort.
After considerable work had been done by the
organizers to bring together a multiracial coalition
of community leaders to oversee the Truth and
Reconciliation Project, a newspaper editorial stated
that the only person of standing involved in the process
was the white mayor. By ignoring the presence of
numerous prominent black leaders involved in the
effort, the editorial effectively discounted their role.
Thus, the entrenched assumption that blacks are less
important than whites was used to distort the efforts
of the multiracial coalition.
In this case, the work of the multiracial coalition is
aimed at raising questions about how racism was a
primary factor in legitimating the violence that took
place against a labor-related demonstration. The
organizers of the coalition believe that race has to be
engaged in order to transform how racial dynamics
operate in a community. In other words, to change
how people relate across racial lines, it is critical
to explore how race is used to distort and derail
community building and social justice work.
There is more than one way that race has the
power to distort. One way is to belittle community
building efforts (such as the Greensboro Truth and
Reconciliation Project) as “driven by race.” Another
way is to deny that race has played a role in the
distortion of reality, such as denying that race was
a factor in the outcome of a trial that concluded that
the acts of the Ku Klux Klan in the attack were not
motivated by race. Community practitioners, such
as those leading the effort in Greensboro, believe
that the extent to which race is used to distort reality
must be brought to the surface in order to change
deep-rooted racial dynamics. In engaging with and
examining these distortions, communities can begin
to transform and mitigate the negative effects of
entrenched racism.
Racial difference can be oversimplied. Talking
about race can distort and over-simplify reality.
Community-building practitioners in the reective
learning process spoke of their struggle over how to
best address race in their work. They talked about
how people of color in the U.S. often experience race
distinctions fundamentally in terms of black vs. white,
such as Asian-Americans who feel pressured to
“act white” to avoid being perceived as aligning with
blacks. Race categories, such as Asian, White, Latino
and Black can be meaningless all of these groups
are inherently multiethnic. However, even over-
simplied categories (such as Asian and Hispanic)
are needed to keep everything from being mapped
onto the black/white dichotomy. In other words, racial
categories are articial and overly simple, but without
them, community practitioners argue that race
would be even more oversimplied or more often
Stories from community practice describe how race
is experienced as both articial and real. At one
level, race distinctions are not about reality, but about
classifying people for a political purpose. At another
level, people do suffer real economic, social, health,
and other consequences because of their race.
During a particularly lively reection process dialogue
session, participants stressed that despite the
The participants reect on each otherʼs presentations
of critical moments in their journals
Racial difference can be oversimplied: Dayna Cunningham, Rockefeller Program Ofcer; Karin Wang, Asian
Pacic American Legal Center; Gerald Torres, Texas LEADS; Nelson Johnson, Beloved Community Center
When a conversation about race between Race and Democracy Project participants becomes
dominated by the black/white construct, the organizers step back to look at reasons that race is
often represented as a predominantly black/white issue as well as how race and economics are
DAYNA: I noticed in this conversation that we started out talking about race in a lot of different ways, and
then the weight of the conversation just tipped very heavily over to black people. And other people here, all of
whom are “of color” in one way or another – everybody has a color, everyone has a race – got silenced. And
I think we [blacks] tend to own this issue. We tend to take it. Thereʼs a history and there are reasons, but Iʼm
just wondering what impact that has on our ability to unearth the working parts of racism, as well as on our
ability to build cross-racial coalitions.
KARIN: I donʼt think there is an answer right now, but you were getting at the southern vision of race and
you summarized, in a lot of ways, what I want to say. I grew up in the Midwest, and people didnʼt know what
to call me, and so I actually got asked if I was Mexican. I think people knew I wasnʼt black because my skin
wasnʼt dark enough, but I clearly wasnʼt white. Iʼve always been boxed into that kind of paradigm, and so I
struggle with trying to acknowledge what I think it must mean to be black, and I cannot say that I understand
what it means to come from a history of slavery, to come from that kind of perspective as a community. But
being on the West Coast now, in many ways itʼs about trying to nd common issues, communities of interest
to work around, whether itʼs language or immigration policy. But weʼre always being boxed back into the race
thing when itʼs not necessarily the right box to be in. One of the frustrations I have with how Asians fall into
this paradigm is that we often get painted as being white, because the choice is to be white or black. And I
think thatʼs how Asians get played out in the media because we are “the good people of color,” therefore weʼre
actually really white.
GERALD: What occurred to me as weʼre all talking is that one of the things that weʼve witnessed in our
lifetime is the triumph of the southern vision of race as the dominant vision of race in America. I mean by that
two things. One is that itʼs a way to discipline nonblack racialized groups by saying, “Look, the measure of
your social progress is your distance from blackness.” So that pan-Asian ethnicity is becoming a faux racial
category just like Hispanic is a faux racial category. But the idea is, unless we have these broad categories,
we canʼt think, “Thereʼs black, thereʼs white.” Whiteʼs a multiethnic category, right? But itʼs not a multiethnic
category because itʼs dened against blackness. Yellowness is a multiethnic category except when itʼs dened
against whiteness and blackness. The same thing with brown. Weʼve got to talk about race because weʼve got
to take race back from the people who want to bury race. Because everybody says that race isnʼt real, race
isnʼt real. And if you just stop dealing with it, it will go away. Itʼs real when it has economic consequences, and
to cut it free from the economic foundation is to act as though itʼs something only in some peopleʼs hearts.
And then itʼs no longer about the way you organize society. Thatʼs whatʼs really critical.
NELSON: Thereʼs an almost inextricable connection between race and economics – people would prefer
to talk about race if you could separate those two. It would make people more psychologically comfortable
with each other without engaging the use of race in this country beginning with slavery, with how people use
history to build up economic benets and so forth. When you unhook it from that, it becomes a kind of Rodney
King, “letʼs all just get along,” thing without dealing with all of these other complex matters.
Transforming racial divisions through a multiracial process: Karin Wang, Kathay Feng, Asian Pacic
American Legal Center
The following is from a discussion of a legal case that APALC took on regarding workersʼ rights in
the garment industry. It illustrates the importance of a multiracial response to systemic injustice,
as well as how the media often distorts multiracial efforts—in this case, by reducing this story as
an Asian incident.
KARIN: Multiracial work tends to get simplified by the outside as being only about a particular groupʼs self-
interest. Nevertheless, I think youʼve heard from a lot of my colleagues that one of our visions, one of our
driving principles, is coalition building. We canʼt get stuff done, especially in multiracial, multiethnic California
– especially L.A. [Los Angeles] County – unless we build coalitions.
KATHAY: We have to build a society where social justice brings everybody up together. If thereʼs a single
group thatʼs left behind, or, if weʼre only championing one group at the expense of another, we will not achieve
true social justice because somebody will always replace that bottom rung with a new group and that group
will always become the new downtrodden, which will impact all of us.
KARIN: And so we have explicitly tried to organize on multiracial and multiethnic levels, and thereʼs so many
examples. As many of you know, our agency got on the map in many ways because we represented Thai
garment workers who were imprisoned in a garment factory east of Los Angeles. The attorney, Julie Su, made
a very explicit decision along with the workers that this was going to be a Thai and Latino workersʼ case.
Because of their immigration status, the Thai workers were actually held and enslaved behind barbed wire.
The Latino workers – they were women, primarily – worked in a front shop that was a little bit different. They
werenʼt enslaved, but they were denied proper wages and they had horrible working conditions.
KATHAY: There was also a lot of distrust from Latino workers because sometimes the factory owner would be
Asian and so they would associate Julie with their oppressors. She felt that coalition building was important
because ultimately the reason why the garment industry is so exploitative is because it will always nd an
immigrant group or some other group that can be exploited. So if it isnʼt the Thai garment workers, itʼs going to
be the Latinos. If it isnʼt the Latinos, then itʼs going to be somebody else who comes along and so if you donʼt
reform industry-wide and change their practices, then youʼre always going to have it fall on somebodyʼs head.
KARIN: A lot of people have totally focused on the fact that this was a Thai garment workersʼ case. Julie
[also] speaks Spanish and she works with both communities. She has tried really hard to make it a multiracial
organizing campaign, and I think she was very frustrated during that case that the focus rested so heavily on
the Thai workers. It was always about exploiting Thai workers—even the Latino press in our own city did an
article where they completely ignored the Latino workers. And so itʼs interesting that even though we tried to
organize across racial lines, we were often painted as only speaking up for Asians.
pitfalls associated with talking about race, keeping
race on the table in community work was critical to
addressing the real injustices that occur because
of it. Race is socially constructed, but because the
economic foundation of society is historically tied to
race, social change work has to deal with race as a
reality. Practitioners point out that the reality of race
will not be changed just by teaching people to treat
one another better.
Transforming racial divisions through a
multiracial process. Successfully engaging racial
difference and assumptions is intrinsic to the practice
of community building. Multiracial community-
building efforts provide the opportunity for people of
different backgrounds to redene what is meant by
civic engagement. These efforts are a critical part of
combating the real, underlying problems plaguing
any community and society as a whole.
The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) recognized
that Boston neighborhoods generally represent
distinct racial groups. During the early stages
of a major development planned for the Boston
waterfront, race – couched in terms of neighborhoods
– was implicitly used to try to prevent people of color
from having a voice. Public meetings were planned
in a white neighborhood in South Boston, where
blacks and other people of color from the adjacent
neighborhood were traditionally unwelcome. This lack
of openness in the public feedback process reinforced
the entrenched perception in Bostonʼs neighborhoods
that what happens in another neighborhood – even if
it is next door – is no one elseʼs business. This cycle
of exclusion and separation has long perpetuated
racial divisions across the city and tended to derail
attempts to build community across those divisions.
CLF found a legal hook in the Public Waterfront Act,
which they used as a tool to bring neighborhoods
together across racial lines. Since the act stated that
the waterfront belonged to the public, decisions about
how to develop the waterfront should involve all of the
public – not just certain neighborhoods. By organizing
across the racially segregated neighborhoods of
Boston, CLF created an opportunity to transcend
Bostonʼs entrenched race and class divisions. This
story shows that although race can be used to
accentuate separation and difference, it can also
play a vital role in building an empowered community.
CLFʼs work illustrates how attention to race can create
a more transformative model of civic engagement.
A different example from APALC also illustrates the
potential for multiracial coalition building to initiate
systemic change. In California, APALC took on a
legal case involving the violation of workers rightsʼ in
the garment industry. A group of Thai workers were
imprisoned in a garment factory east of Los Angeles.
APALC made the explicit choice to construct its case
as multiracial because they viewed the real problem
as the exploitative practices in the garment industry.
Therefore, they included the Latino workers who
worked under less extreme – but still exploitative
– conditions in the same factory.
This choice made APALCʼs job much harder in
several ways. Plaintiffs spoke different languages
and the Latinos had to overcome their suspicions
about Asians that stemmed from their oppression by
Nevertheless, APALC believed that this case
represented an example of the kind of multiracial
work that is fundamental to systemic change of
many real, underlying problems in community and in
society. Their perspective from efforts to implement
the principle of coalition building was that race is
often used to distract people from the larger issues,
and therefore perpetuates them. In the garment
workers case, there were a number of race-based
distortions of APALCʼs multiracial work. The press
even the Latino newspapers portrayed the case
as a story of Asians working in their own self-interest
when it was explicitly a multiracial effort. On a larger
scale, the case was portrayed as a localized problem
– enslavement of Thai workers in one factory – when
the systematic exploitation of immigrants from all
countries contributes to the garment industryʼs
practice of maximizing prots.
Asian factory owners. APALCʼs choice to construct
a multiracial case also made it more difcult to win
because the rights of the Latino workers were not as
clearly violated as those of the Thai workers.
Participants listen to Scott Darling, Stephanie Pollack,
and Toni Hicks of CLF presenting their work
The knowledge represented in this report does not
argue in favor of one theoretical viewpoint, but rather
creates valuable linkages across prevailing theories
on the role of race in community organizing. In
addition, the lens of community practice helps us see
the specic form that ideas discussed in the literature
take on the ground, as well as providing a vivid
depiction of the challenges of productively engaging
race in complex, high-stakes situations.
For example, stories from community practice support
the argument that Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres
make in their book,
The Minerʼs Canary
,17 namely that
race must be dened as inherently political. Using a
political denition of race allows for an evolutionary
process where individuals “see and address injustices
to people of color and, beyond them, injustices to
other oppressed groups such as poor whites.”2 In this
process, individuals gain consciousness of their own
race, understand that their disadvantaged position
is not unique vis-à-vis the positions of other racial
groups, and eventually transcend race by calling
that racial awareness and solidarity is a necessary
starting point for this process. The data and analysis
from community building work presented in this report
illustrates that practitioners address racial identity as
both an organizing tool and a point of departure for
multiracial collaboration.
In acknowledging the political reality of race,
practitioners in the reective learning process made
clear that a white-black view of the world is inadequate
for working in the complex multiracial world of
community building. Their stories converge with the
thinking of Angela Blackwell, Stewart Kwoh, and
Manuel Pastor, who, in their book,
Searching for the
Uncommon Common Ground: New Dimensions on
Race in America
,18 argue that the conventional white-
black racial divide is an anachronistic lens through
which to view todayʼs organizing climate. These
authors suggest that unlike during the 1960s and
1970s – many of todayʼs community organizers work
in “the absence of a clear, focused vision for racial
justice.”19 While conceding that “an understanding
of the persistent disadvantage due to race that
permeates the black-white context is necessary but
not sufcient for exploring the full dimensions of
racial justice,”20 Blackwell, Kwoh and Pastor argue
that community and labor organizing initiatives must
focus on asset and wealth accumulation across races
to improve circumstances for any one race. Through
policies described as “targeted universalism,” the
authors suggest that the ght for social justice is best
pursued through ghting for policies that benet the
majority of Americans, while giving a particular lift
to disadvantaged minorities. The analysis of stories
from community practice reveals the thinking and
challenges that groups face as they work in multiracial
coalitions toward such policies.
With their clear understanding of the volatility of race,
community practitioners collectively create a new
for political and social measures that comprise a
broader social justice agenda. Despite their belief
that racial awareness is an evolutionary process that
eventually leads to a reformulation of how people
think about race today, Guinier and Torres argue
(from left) Veronika Geronimo, Kathay Feng, Dennis
acknowledge and confront race, and to use it as a
unifying rather than dividing theme.
For practitioners who work in community building
and face similar challenges in dealing with racial
difference and cross-racial collaboration, the stories
in this report offer the following recommendations:
1. Value and strengthen racial identity in
constructing more effective cross-racial
alliances. When people connect with who they
are, they can better connect with and understand
what they share with others. Sometimes this is
important to do before starting multiracial work,
if strengthening racial identity will help overcome
problematic power dynamics. This can also be a
valuable ongoing process alongside participation
in coalitions.
2. Use a developmental process to strengthen
and value racial identity. Disenfranchised groups
often benet from support and encouragement in
building condence and self-esteem connected
to their racial identity. A process of growth and
development works to break down the sense of
invisibility that can impede effective participation
in a multiracial coalition.
3. Recognize the unique ways in which
partners in multiracial work bring value to
collaborations. Often each partner brings a
different set of experiences, and therefore different
strengths, to the coalition work. Identifying the
value of each partnerʼs contribution is critical to
maintaining a dynamic of mutual learning and
advancing the work.
4. Learn to interact productively in the face of
difference. Opposition and competition are more
familiar strategies when a group is confronted
by difference. It is helpful to remember that
differences in perspective arise from differences
in experience of social exclusion. Ground rules
that promote honoring differences as valid (such
as not disagreeing with them) and learning about
the source of differences in perspective (such
as asking questions about the origin of those
differences) can teach people new forms of
interaction in the face of difference.
body of knowledge regarding the practical problems
of organizing around race. Despite their recognition of
the challenges of addressing the persistent problem
of racial exclusion, the stories from these practitioners
contrast markedly with William Julius Wilsonʼs21 and
Paul Ostermanʼs22 argument that effective community
organizing is necessarily race-neutral. Speaking
about the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) model in
his book
The Bridge Over the Racial Divide
, Wilson
argues against framing organizing strategies around
race because “it is possible that dening an issue as
a Latino issue or as a black issue runs the risk of
provoking marginalization: if this is a black (Latino)
problem, let African-American (Mexican-American)
citizens solve it.”23 Instead, Wilson maintains that
organizing efforts should take advantage of the
fact that gains in the U.S. economy have occurred
disproportionately to the upper ranges of the
population, resulting in the poor and working classes
from all races continuing to have a hard time making
ends meet. Similarly, Osterman suggests that to
organize successfully, organizing issues need to be
inclusive and therefore, non-race based.
Although the practitioners whose experiences are
represented in this report believe that it is critical
to carefully articulate the complexity of organizing
issues, they also believe that it is important to tackle
race head-on. Their stories make it clear that dealing
with race in all of its complexities and difculties can
be transformative, not divisive. Further, not addressing
race can undermine progress toward social justice.
Race is too signicant as both a divisive social force
and a generative soure of creative resistance to be
put in the background of organizing strategy. The
learning from practitioners described in this report
illustrates how they have found effective ways to
APALC shares photos with the group
5. Become aware of the connection between
acknowledging difference and nding
common ground. Particularly in the case of
racial divisions, the experience of some groups
is often unknown or misunderstood by others. In
a multiracial coalition, it can be transformative
to “excavate” the source of experience that has
led to a particular viewpoint. When members of
a multiracial group learn what has led them to
think differently from one another and how racial
exclusion has affected them in different ways,
they can better understand how to connect.
6. Reinvent the strategies for engaging racial
difference. Every coalition brings a different set
of challenges related to racial difference. What
has worked in the past often needs to be adjusted
based on an issue, a shift in power relations, or
when entering a new stage of collaboration.
It helps to think in terms of creativity and
experimentation mistakes and struggles
regularly inform the reinvention process.
This report began with the assertion that knowledge
of people who work on the ground in disenfranchised
communities is vital for framing social problems in
their true complexity, crafting effective solutions, and
evaluating the essential evidence of success. We
argued that the knowledge constructed through the
struggle for systemic change amid poverty, racism
and inadequate services lls a gap in the data that
currently exists in the social justice eld. Without
developmental knowledge – formulated by those who
do community work over time and integrating context,
history, politics, culture, and place – we lack a critical
source of learning needed to build healthy and just
This report illustrates that practitioners possess a
wealth of knowledge and that through reective
learning this body of knowledge can be excavated,
analyzed and captured. Furthermore, this can be
done in a manner that supports and enhances
the work of practitioners while also expanding the
knowledge base used to drive policymaking and
inform funding programs.
knowledge in the eld of community building with
respect to the role of race. In particular, the analysis
of community-building experience illustrates the
importance of engaging racial difference and racial
identity on the ground. Looking across diverse
geographic and racial contexts, we learn that
strengthening racial identity and grappling with
differences within multiracial coalitions can be
transformative to the work of building democracy
at the community level. Moreover, practitioners
know engaging race is required to build healthy
and just communities in the face of persistent racial
The key lesson from this analysis is that
race helps drive the ongoing reinvention of
democracy-building tools and process
. Thus, race
plays a signicant role in redening and often
transforming the broader struggle for social justice.
This does not mean that engaging race is easy it
is hard but unavoidable work. Without the knowledge
constructed through an analysis of practitionersʼ
stories, this important lesson regarding the role of
race in building community would not be as clear
or as palpable to those either inside or outside of
community practice. The stories depict the specic
forms that racially inclusive democracy can take, the
practices that are used to invent and foster grassroots
democracy, and the theorizing that practitioners carry
out in taking on the challenges of race in community
building. Only by engaging practitioners in excavating
and exploring what they have learned from doing the
work can we access this valuable data. This data
not only reveals what community practitioners do, it
illuminates how they think about their actions.
We conclude by calling for funders, policymakers,
and practitioners working in the eld of social justice
to support and join the effort to build knowledge from
community practice in the following ways:
Additionally, the work in this report demonstrates that
the knowledge derived from community practice is vital
to extending and in some cases revising existing
The more I got into the work and into
watching what you all were doing, I
could see that … it’s not just about
identity and social difculty in trying
to communicate about what race is,
but it is also about the work that race
does in the various struggles you all
are engaged in.
—Dayna Cunningham,
Rockefeller Program Ofcer
1. We urge funders to distinguish between
evaluation and knowledge building, and
to make provisions in grantmaking for
building knowledge regarding the nature
of community practice. Documenting what
has been effective in community building work
is different than building knowledge about the
issues and challenges that shape the work, the
thinking that goes into the work, and the broader
learning that emerges from day-to-day practice.
Knowledge building is supported by a different
set of processes than evaluation, and both are
important. In fact, evaluation relies on being able
to clearly dene key parameters of effectiveness.
Knowledge building through reective learning
supports practitioners in rening and
sometimes redening what it means for them
to be effective in their work. Practitioners need
support from funders to be able to create spaces
for re-strategizing and retooling their work.
2. We call on funders and policymakers alike
to commission practitioner knowledge in
addition to academic knowledge to inform the
design of new programs. As demonstrated in
this report, the knowledge derived from on-the-
ground community practice provides an important
analysis of issues facing the eld. Practitioner
knowledge is too critical as a knowledge resource
to be left out of the formative stages of policy and
program development.
3. We urge the academy to acknowledge the
importance and validity of practitioner
knowledge by creating opportunities for
reective learning with local practitioners.
Most academic institutions do not have strong
intellectual alliances with local practitioners.
Moreover, the academy does not make use of its
primary mission (the advancement of knowledge)
to support communities in uncovering the
knowledge from their practice. Without this
assistance, practitioners are left to articulate the
learning that they have managed to excavate from
their experience without adequate time or space
for a more systematic effort. Furthermore, the
academy could support and encouraged faculty
and students to work with practitioners to capture
and organize the learning from a collaborative
community project to make it accessible to others
beyond the project.
4. We appeal to practitioners to view reective
learning as a critical form of action. We
hope that they will demand of themselves,
their colleagues and others the space and time
required to properly excavate and analyze the
learning from their community practice. The
practitioners who participated in the reective
learning process that gave rise to this report felt
that it had a clear benet in their work. Not only
did it give them better visibility and the space to
think more deeply about their successes and
struggles, it resulted in a tangible body of stories
and learning to be an ongoing resource for their
This has been a fantastic learning
experience. We have expanded
our ways of thinking.
—Kathay Feng, Asian Pacic
American Legal Center
Practitioner-generated knowledge can powerfully
enhance efforts to remedy injustice and inequity in
struggling communities. The demonstration of the
richness of this intellectual resource in this report
was designed to stimulate greater awareness of
the need for bringing practitioner knowledge to bear
on policy, program design, and theory-building.
Priority must be given to understanding how funders,
policy advocates, academics, and practitioners can
work together to tap the wealth of knowledge from
community practice.
1 Lee Farrow, personal communication.
2 CRCP denes a community practitioner as anyone who works with, or on behalf of, under-served communities
to improve conditions for people who live there – not just paid staff members in a community-based organization,
but residents and volunteers as well.
3 Hampton, H.
Eyes on the Prize: Americaʼs Civil Rights Years
. Washington, DC: PBS Video, 1986.
4 Couto, Richard A.
To Give Their Gifts: Health, Community and Democracy.
Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt Press,
5 Fullilove, Mindy Thompson.
Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We
Can Do About It
. New York: Ballentine Books, 2004.
6 Further work of this kind includes:
Hair, P.
Louder Than Words: Lawyers, Communities, and the Struggle for Justice.
New York: Rockefeller
Foundation (
), 2001.
Walsh, J.
Stories of Renewal: Community Building and the Future of Urban America.
New York: Rockefeller
Foundation, 1997. (Copy cited available on the internet.
Tulloss, J.
Transforming Urban Regimes, A Grassroots Approach to Comprehensive Community
Development: The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Working Papers of Comm-Org: The On-line
Conference on Community Organizing and Development.
), 1996.
Medoff, P. & Sklar, H.
Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood.
Boston: South End
Press, 1994.
Roger, M.B.
Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics
, Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press,
Payne, C.M.
Iʼve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.
Von Hoffman, A.
House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of Americaʼs Urban Neighborhoods
. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
7 See for example the Civil Rights Documentation Project,;
the Community
Development Corporation Oral History Project,
; the Civil Rights
Mediation Oral History Project,ict/civil_rights/the_project.htm
8 Two excellent examples can be found in the work of the Veterans of Hope Project, which has created an
extensive video library of interviews with “veterans” from a variety of ethnic, cultural and religious communities
who have worked to bring about compassionate social change (
) and in the work
of the International Movement ATD Fourth World, dedicated to eradicating extreme poverty. For a collection of
stories from people who have mobilized communities and institutions to act against poverty and social exclusion
of the extreme poor, see Rosenfeld, J. & Tardieu, B. A
rtisans of Democracy: How Ordinary People, Families in
Extreme Poverty, and Social Institutions Become Allies to Overcome Social Exclusion
, New York: University Press
of America, 2000.
9 CRCP will be releasing a searchable online database of practitioner-generated stories and dialogue in 2005.
10 Although early in the process there was some consideration given to having an outside researcher
or journalist document the “objective” story of the work in each community, this was soon abandoned as
inappropriate to the goals of the project. In fact, an independent expert would lack the capacity to assess what the
practitioners in these ve sites were trying to assess in their own work.
11 CRCP denes a critical moment as experiences that stand out for the individuals doing the work. These
experiences can be signicant events, difcult struggles, important breakthroughs, or even periods of inactivity.
The reective learning process begins with the members of a group each naming those moments that they
experienced as signicant in a particular area of their work. The next step is for the group to narrow down to
a subset of critical moments to examine in depth. This decision is based on which moments will produce the
learning that is most related to the urgent questions in their work. For the selected critical moments, the story of
each moment is told collectively by those involved, followed by a collective analysis of the moment – what shifted,
why, what led to the moment, what happened as a result. Through analysis, the meaning of the moment to those
who experienced it is identied and explored.
12 This contrasts sharply with evaluation and other documentation efforts that ask practitioners to respond to a
set of pre-existing questions, or that bring in an outside researcher or journalist to document the “objective” story
of the work in a community. In fact, outsiders lack the capacity to assess what practitioners nd most relevant to
assess in their own work.
13 The project was initiated by Dayna Cunningham, Program Ofcer for the Rockefeller Foundationʼs Working
Communities program.
14 Program funding for the next year of work was guaranteed for each site regardless of its decision to
participate in the reection project. We learned that some of the sites chose to participate because the project was
initiated by the foundation; however, all of the sites later said that their continued participation was based on the
benets they experienced from the learning process.
15 In order to be able to create reports and support the dissemination of the knowledge generated during the
reective learning process, CRCP had to retain the legal rights to the recordings. Nevertheless, the releases
developed in partnership with the organizations gave full control to the organizations in determining how the
recorded material would be edited, which segments could be shared publicly, and ways in which the material
could be used. Although this was an extensive process, both the organizations and CRCP felt it was crucial to the
Practitioner Knowledge Initiative for practitioners working in disenfranchised communities to have control over
organizing and sharing their own knowledge.
16 Guinier, L. & Torres, G.
The Minerʼs Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
17 Guinier & Torres, 2002, pgs. 94-95
18 Blackwell, A., Kwoh, S. & Pastor, M.
Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground: New Dimensions on
Race in America
, New York: Norton, 2002.
19 Blackwell et al., 2002, pg. 198
20 Blackwell et al., 2002, pg. 49
21 Wilson, William Julius.
The Bridge Over the Racial Divide
. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1999.
22 Osterman, Paul.
Gathering Power
. Beacon Press: Boston, 2002.
23 Wilson, 1999, pg. 91
24 Hair, 2001.
The practitioner knowledge presented in this report came from a reective learning project that engaged ve
organizations from different regions across the U.S. to document the learning and critical questions arising from
signicant events and shifts in their work. All ve organizations were engaged in a similar endeavor building
democracy through participation aimed explicitly at addressing racial exclusion however, they were working in
different racial and political contexts and using different methods to tackle this challenge.
Asian Pacic American Legal Center*
Los Angeles, CA (
The Asian Pacic American Legal Center (APALC) works to
balance the goal of empowerment of the Asian and Pacic
Islander (API) community with the goal of working across
race to make systemic policy change. They see these two
goals as complementary and mutually reinforcing. APALC
was established in 1983 and has become the largest
organization in Southern California providing API and other
communities with multilingual, culturally sensitive services and legal education. Their mission is to advocate for civil
rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively inuence and impact Asian Pacic
Americans and to create a more equitable and harmonious society. APALCʼs staff has expertise in a variety of areas,
such as immigration and naturalization, family law and domestic violence, immigrant welfare, anti-discrimination,
and building inter-group relations. APALCʼs language capacity includes Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Hindi,
Ilocano, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
APALC works with a diverse coalition as advocates for
fair voting rights and redistricting plans to ensure that key
communities are not divided and that their respective political
needs are addressed. APALCʼs Voting Rights Unit plays a
critical role in strengthening API communitiesʼ participation
in democracy by advocating for full access to the ballot,
and advocating around key election policies. Through their
Demographic Research Unit, APALC informs community
programs and advocacy through data collection, analysis,
and mapping. Projects have included ongoing analyses of
census data and exit polling to better understand the growing API electorate. APALCʼs Workersʼ Rights Unit strives
to end sweatshop conditions and establish corporate accountability in the garment industry. They use strategies of
impact litigation combined with policy advocacy, public education, coalition building, cross-racial organizing, and
local outreach efforts with and for garment workers, thus creating a new model of litigation for social change. The
Immigrant Welfare Unit works on welfare and health issues affecting low income immigrants at the local, state, and
federal levels. Through policy advocacy, analysis, training community-based organizations, educating immigrant
communities, and developing multi-lingual education materials, the Immigrant Welfare Unit continues to secure the
welfare and rights of low-income immigrants.
Reective Learning
Aileen Almeria Dennis Kao
Kathay Feng Stewart Kwoh
Veronika Geronimo Karin Wang
Dan Ichinose
Beloved Community Center*
Greensboro, NC (
The mission of the Beloved Community Center is to foster
and model a spirit of community based on Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr.ʼs vision of a “beloved community,” the belief that
true change can happen by bringing together a critical
mass of people trained to work together in nonviolence
and inclusion. In this spirit, BCC envisions and works
toward social and economic relations that afrm and realize
the quality, dignity, worth and potential of every person
nonviolently, creatively, and with full respect for the humanity of those who must be resisted for the good of all.
The BCC Board of approximately 25 active members was transformed into a Village Council of about 50 active
members, which meets once a month. Furthermore, the Jubilee Institute was organized by the BCC to broaden the
movement for social change. Its focus is capacity and institution building. The Jubilee Institute has also served as
management and scal agent for six community-based organizations.
Among their diverse areas of work, BCC engages in the
struggle for quality education. Several BCC members
provided leadership in the Greensboro/Guilford County
educational reform movement, especially in the struggle
for parental and community involvement in decisions
concerning public education. Community Coalition for
Educational Excellence members visited and volunteered in
schools throughout the county, organized community parent
associations in several neighborhoods, and participated in
numerous public education covenants.
The BCC participated in many other coalitions and partnerships, including those committed to prison reform, citizen
review of police conduct, housing reform, and living wage standards. The BCC participates in numerous dialogues,
vigils, and other activities committed to greater understanding and community-building in the global village. The
BCC also helped to organize the Greensboro Peace Coalition in response to the war, as well as the Greensboro
Truth and Reconciliation Project to foster genuine reconciliation and understanding throughout the community.
Reective Learning
Lewis Brandon Randy Johnston
Kay Doost Alma Purvis
Z. Holler Rosemarie Vardell
Joyce Johnson Ed Whiteld
Nelson Johnson John Young
Conservation Law Foundationʼs Greater Boston Institute*
Boston, MA (
The Greater Boston Institute (GBI) is a part of the Conservation
Law Foundationʼs (CLF) Communities Project. Founded in
1966, CLF works to solve the environmental problems that
threaten the people, natural resources, and communities of
New England. CLFʼs advocates use law, economics, and
science to design and implement strategies that conserve
natural resources, protect public health, and promote
vital communities. CLF is a nonprot, member-supported
organization that operates advocacy centers in Boston, MA;
Montpelier, VT; Concord, NH; Rockland, ME; and Providence, RI. In coordination with this geographic structure,
CLFʼs work is organized into ve major project areas: the Communities Project; the Marine Resources Project; the
Energy Project; the Agriculture Project; and the Natural Resources Project.
Reective Learning
Scott Darling
Doug Foy
Bennett Heart
Toni Hicks
Seth Kaplan
Stephanie Pollack
GBI is committed to city-building from the grassroots up.
GBI works to capture Bostonʼs opportunities in partnership
with a diverse, talented and effective collection of community
partners (both individuals and organizations). GBI unites all
of the expertise and passion of CLF in the service of its city-
building mission: to ensure that planning decisions regarding
development, transportation, and open space are made by
and for those who work, live, and play in Boston. Through
GBI, CLF listens to those voices and works to empower them
and ensure that they are heard in the halls of power.
Southern Echo*
Jackson, MS (
Southern Echo is a leadership development, education
and training organization working toward developing new,
grassroots leadership in the African-American communities
in Mississippi and the surrounding region. Echoʼs core
work involves delivering comprehensive training, as well as
technical and legal assistance to community leadership and
relevant organizations. This effective community organizing
work has carried Echo staff into 65 of Mississippiʼs 82
counties and into southern local communities in 11 other
states. Echo assists local leadership and organizations
to create an organizing process through which community people can develop more effective and accountable
leadership. Additionally, Echo helps build the accountable, broad-based organizations needed to hold the political,
economic, education, and environmental systems accountable to the needs and interests of the African-American
Southern Echo emphasizes the active inclusion of young
people, in an inter-generational model of community
organizing. Echo believes that young people are less
dependent upon the past, have the least fear of change,
and have the best potential for creating a broad vision of a
fair and just society. By bringing younger and older together
in the same training and work, Echo hopes to galvanize
younger participation as part of the evolving leadership
process. When older leadership cannot carry on anymore,
younger people will already be in place with the knowledge,
tools, skills, experience and commitment to sustain the
Echo believes that its goals cannot be achieved unless a new generation of empowered, accountable community
organizers is created to work at the grassroots level to develop, educate, and train additional new leaders and
organizations across the state and region. Their new leaders and organizations are armed with a clear vision of
empowerment and accountability, as well as effective strategies and programs of work to implement that vision
through broad-based, grassroots participation in the struggle.
Reective Learning
Action for Community Education Reform
Citizens for Equality Education
Concerned Citizens for a Better Greenville
Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County
Drew Community Voters League
Indianola Parent-Student Group
Southern Echo, Inc.
Tallahatchie Housing
Mildred Conley
Richard Gardner
Brenda Hyde
Johnnie Johnson
Leroy Johnson
Jerome Little
Lonell May
Nora McClinton
Meredith Medine
Roderick Moore
Betty Petty
Janus Saulsberry
Mike Sayer
Mattie Stoddard
Carolyn Talley
Hollis Watkins
Al White
Melvin Young
Texas LEADS Project*
Austin, TX (
The Texas LEADS Project was formed to address
access and equity issues that resurfaced in 1996 when
the Texas legal system prohibited the use of afrmative
action to promote diversity in admissions at the stateʼs
largest universities. Texas LEADS (Local Empowerment
for Accessible and Diverse Schools) aims to affect the
educational pipeline by improving public education in
order to make higher education more accessible to all. It
does so by using processes of public engagement and
In 1998 and 1999, Texas LEADS hosted community meetings across the state to discuss the access and quality
of public education. Participants also discussed race as well as parent and community involvement in education.
While each community discussion was different, Texans in these meetings clearly agreed that parent and community
involvement at the school level are essential for student success. They also emphasized that middle school is a
critical point for students and parents a point at which decisions are made that affect a childʼs decision about
completing high school and pursuing college.
As a result of these meetings, Texas LEADS decided to
focus on parent and community involvement at the middle
school level in two Austin-area middle schools. The aim of
these school programs is to develop a model for middle-
school parent and community engagement that can be
replicated within additional public schools.
Key elements of the LEADS parent and community
involvement model include an emphasis on parent
leadership and decision making; assessment of community
perceptions and needs; a parent-driven program in which parents determine the agenda for activities and
programming; stafng by a parent coordinator who is a member of the school community; and providing physical
space for parents at the school.
*Note: Further description of the organizations marked by an asterisk can be found in the Rockefeller Foundation
report Louder Than Words: Lawyers, Communities, and the Struggle for Justice24
Reective Learning
Leslie Friedlander
Ray Lopez
Lupe Montoya
Gerald Torres
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
This momentous work offers a groundbreaking history of the early civil rights movement in the South with new material that situates the book in the context of subsequent movement literature.
Community building is an approach to urban poverty that rejects a programmatic approach in favor of efforts that catalyze personal relationships and social networks to improve community life. Community building analyzes urban poverty as a web of interwoven problems that can lock families out of opportunity permanently. Community building initiatives try to address the economic, social, and political marginalization of urban communities. The best community initiatives make progress on most fronts, but none has had equal success on all fronts. In examining initiatives with something to share, this report focuses on initiatives that have the most to teach in specific areas. Engaging government systems is illustrated by a case study of the Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority (Georgia). The Comprehensive Community Revitalization Project in the South Bronx (New York) illustrates the importance of building local institutions that can provide needed services. Investing in outreach and organizing is illustrated by Community Building in Partnership, Baltimore (Maryland). Involving the corporate sector in social, political, and economic agenda is illustrated by the Atlanta Project (Georgia). Oakland's Urban Strategies Council (California) shows the importance of developing new structures to facilitate activities on many fronts. Part One closes with four personal accounts that show community-building strategies in use. Part Two examines issues from the field in the five areas explored through case studies, and the conclusion discusses the unfinished business of community building. (SLD)
Eyes on the Prize: Americaʼs Civil Rights Years
  • H Hampton
Hampton, H. Eyes on the Prize: Americaʼs Civil Rights Years. Washington, DC: PBS Video, 1986.
Louder Than Words: Lawyers, Communities, and the Struggle for Justice
  • P Hair
Hair, P. Louder Than Words: Lawyers, Communities, and the Struggle for Justice. New York: Rockefeller Foundation (, 2001.
Transforming Urban Regimes, A Grassroots Approach to Comprehensive Community Development: The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Working Papers of Comm-Org
  • J Tulloss
Tulloss, J. Transforming Urban Regimes, A Grassroots Approach to Comprehensive Community Development: The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Working Papers of Comm-Org: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. ( tulloss.htm), 1996.
House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of Americaʼs Urban Neighborhoods
  • Von Hoffman
Von Hoffman, A. House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of Americaʼs Urban Neighborhoods. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.