Strong City Baltimore is engaged in a long-term process toward becoming an organization that is not only non-discriminatory but is actively anti-racist. The Strong City Anti-Racist Collective (ARC) was formed in 2015 with the following Mission Statement: “Strong City Baltimore aspires to operate as an explicit anti-racist organization in Baltimore City. This means we are committed to the work of dismantling systemic racism and supporting community-led efforts to build healthy, restorative, and sustainable communities in Baltimore.”
At Strong City, we recognize that the work of becoming an anti-racist organization can never be considered “complete,” because there will always be things to learn and ways to improve.
The Rev. Eric P. Lee, Senior Portfolio Manager and Director of Neighborhood Programs, has a long history working for civil rights and social justice and is one of the leaders of ARC. With the recent observation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday still fresh, and just a few days into Black History Month, we sat down with Reverend Lee to get his perspective on Strong City’s engagement with issues of racism, equity, and justice.
Q: How and why did the ARC process get started?
A: After the Freddie Gray Uprising, staff at Strong City recognized the lack of engagement, internally, about the underlying causes for the unrest. The concern was, for an organization that characterizes its work, its identity, as community-based and sensitive to the institutional barriers that prevented entire communities from achieving a certain quality of life – it was probably a warning bell that we needed to do something different. And so a committee formed to identify opportunities for Strong City to address the issues of racial inequity and social injustice from within a white-privileged organization.
Q: What were seen as the biggest concerns from an internal, institutional point of view?
A: When you looked at the profile of Strong City at that time, the Board was probably 90 percent white, the executive management was probably 85-95 percent white, the staffing was probably close to 75 percent white. So it’s understandable why the underlying issues that led to the Uprising were not at the core of people’s thoughts or discussions or work, as they should be.
Q: What priorities did ARC identify?
A: The committee developed six primary goals for Strong City (see list below). We started doing an internal assessment of who we are: looking at hiring, personnel practices, the Board composition and how it did not represent the people we were serving, and also the work that we were doing – whether it was done through a racial equity lens, which includes our messaging, policies and procedures.
Q: What special challenges have you encountered or discovered in this work?
A: There’s a challenge with our partnerships. As a nonprofit, we depend upon funding opportunities from various philanthropic organizations that may not, quite possibly did not, operate with a racial equity lens. Even worse, they may have operated through a very privileged lens in how they disbursed funds. We can change how we operate as an organization and how we look to better reflect the communities we serve, but then the real challenge becomes: How do we impact our partners externally without compromising the funds that are needed to continue our work?
Q: It sounds like you’re talking about something that goes beyond Strong City – a deep problem with the larger philanthropic/charitable sector.
A: Yes. The philanthropic industry is not sensitive to racial equity. How do you set the policies to deal with issues of structural racism when your board is not impacted by it and may be silent about it? That silence can be more dangerous and harmful to our work than anything.
Q: Are we making progress?
A: To some extent. ARC has been meeting for years as committees, to refine our anti-racist work when it comes to the five goals. My challenge is, for five years we’ve been talking about it, but we haven’t put much teeth into it. The great thing is, at least we’ve been having these conversations, and we’re making some progress. For example, if you look at who’s joining the Board now, we have six members coming on and five are black. So we’ve moved the needle considerably – but we cannot rest on that.
Q: You’re a seasoned veteran of the fight for civil rights, including having served as past President/CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Los Angeles Chapter. How has the struggle against racism changed over the years, in your view?
A: One of the challenges here is age demographics. You have people, like me, who were actively participating in civil rights and remember the protests, Dr. King’s assassination, Malcolm X, the passage of Civil Rights legislation. For those of us who grew up in that, the perspective is different. A lot of the staff here really don’t have type of understanding because they didn’t go through the overt racism and discrimination the country operated in. But in a way, it’s even more dangerous now because a lot of what we’re fighting is more covert. The challenge going forward is being able to put some measure of accountability to address the microaggressions, the institutional/structural racism that’s not overt but subliminal.
Goal: Provide educational opportunities and experiences to staff and board to ensure a) an office culture that values and celebrates diversity and b) an authentic understanding of anti-racism and its impact on organizational mission of strengthening neighborhoods and people.
Results: Brought in expert speakers at staff meetings such as Elizabeth Nix, Katrina Bell-McDonald, and Keith Merkey; held quarterly “Diversi-Teas” to expose Strong City staff to colleagues who are different; sponsored staff to attend relevant events such screenings of “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Charm City”; circulate monthly announcement of holidays and celebrations relevant to different identity groups; schedule ARC Brown Bag lunches.
Goal: Implement hiring strategies that results in a workforce reflective of the communities Strong City serves.
Results: Close to half of Operations staff and Program staff now are people of color.
Goal: A Strong City Board of Directors that reflects and understands the community we serve through race, age, gender, religion, ethnicity, status, sexual orientation, and cultural diversity of its membership.
Results: When the newest group of board members are in place, close to half the board will be African-American – a significant change from a year or two ago. Efforts to diversify the board in other ways are continuing.
Goal: Implement culturally responsive talent management practices to provide career development opportunities for all staff members.
Results: Expanded our job postings to include HBCU’s and other venues that serve a predominantly African-America clientele. Include language that clearly communicates a desire for people of color to apply.
Goal: Develop Strong City internal policy with a racial equity lens.
Results: Updated Strong City mission statement to include language promote racial equity and anti-racism.
Goal: Publicly support external partner organizations policies which explicitly work towards eliminating systemic racism and the negative impacts it has on communities served by Strong City.
Results: Working closely with Baltimore City Youth Fund in promoting socially and racially equitable grantmaking in Baltimore.