Diversity & Speech Part 16: Creating an Anti-Racism Vision Statement – by Carlos E. Cortés

The May, 2020, Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd launched thousands of anti-racism proclamations.  Millions took part in that performative aftermath.  Include me among those millions.

Like many people, I wear multiple hats.  One is chairing the Mayor’s Multicultural Forum in Riverside, California.  My half-century hometown is a sizable (330,000-person) city, whose steady but not explosive growth has enabled it to maintain a community feeling.  My wife and I continually encounter people we know when we go to a restaurant or take our daily two-mile walks around a nearby lake loaded with noisy ducks, geese, and egrets.

In 1999, when Mayor Ronald Loveridge established his Mayor’s Multicultural Forum, he named me its inaugural chair.  When Ron retired, his successor, Rusty Bailey, asked me to stay on.  I agreed.

The Forum is not an official city organization.  Rather it’s a voluntary, non-membership gathering of local residents who meet with the Mayor four times a year in ninety-minute sessions to share ideas about making the city a more equitable and inclusive place.  Everybody is welcome.  Usually two, three, or four dozen people show up — mainly leaders of local organizations, churches, and educational institutions.  The Mayor listens, interacts, and often implements our ideas.  With a time commitment of only six hours a year, the Forum is the most time-effective entity with which I have ever been involved.

In the George Floyd immediate aftermath, the Forum met via Zoom with the Mayor and Chief of Police.  From that meeting emerged the idea of developing an anti-racist vision for the city.  Our next Forum consisted of ninety minutes of soul-searching discussion about what should be included in that statement.   This was followed by a deluge of emails expanding upon our discussion.  Sometimes these ideas provided mutual reinforcement; other times they clashed.   As Forum chair, my role was to organize, synthesize, and integrate these sometimes-competing ideas, while also keeping the document succinct (it ended up two pages).

Another challenge.  We held our ideas Forum on August 13.   Mayor Bailey asked us to complete the vision statement by our next meeting on September 24, so he could take it to the City Council for approval before he left office in December.  This meant a demanding weekly schedule.  I would send out a draft to the mailing list of some 100 people, participants would respond within five days with recommendations for improvement, and my revised draft would go out again two days later.  With each draft, I also provided a cover letter highlighting my new revisions and explaining the rationale behind each decision.  This process was repeated four times.

Fortunately the proffered ideas, even when conflicting, sorted themselves into themes.  Actually answers to questions that had not been explicitly asked.  So I created five sections, each addressing one of the following questions.

  ***What is anti-racism?

***Where does anti-racism begin?

***What actions does anti-racism encompass?

***What should the city government do?

***How will we know if anti-racism is being effective?

In writing the document, I eschewed dense paragraphs.  Instead I employed section headings, followed by bullet points.  This made the document more readable.

What is anti-racism?  While there was some sentiment to provide a traditional definition, instead we opted to “define” it through bullet points.  This “living definition” consisted of listing different dimensions of anti-racism: challenging policies; reforming systems; mobilizing the community; and encouraging individual reflection.

Where does anti-racism begin?  Forum participants split: the hearts-and-minders vs. the structuralists.  We bridged that difference by labeling the section: “Anti-racism begins everywhere,” followed by a list of simultaneous starting points, including with both individuals and systems.

What actions does anti-racism encompass?  For this we created four short sections: courageous conversations; evidence-based analysis; anti-racist action; and continuous self-reflection.  That section became the crossroads of our myriad recommendations, a place where the document could honor the varying ideas of Forum participants.

The fourth section focused directly on what the City of Riverside could do.  Fortuitously, the creation of our document coincided with the City’s consideration of a five-year action plan, so our ideas can become part of those deliberations.  The final section called upon the City to conduct an annual assessment of progress in implementing these ideas, including but not limited to “measurable accountability.”

By the time of the Forum’s September 24 Zoom meeting, we had come together around content, structure, and tone.  At the meeting, participants added a few small but important additions.  Then came the Mayor’s turn.  Delighted with the result, he indicated that he was ready to take it to the City Council.

He did so on October 20.  By a 6-1 vote, the Council adopted our Riverside Anti-Racist Vision.  That action received wide newspaper coverage, including by the Los Angeles Times, sixty miles away.  The Times featured our achievement with a three-column photo of Mayor Bailey and a five-column headline, “Riverside seeks a racial reckoning,” followed by a sub-head, “City Council passes ‘Declaration of Independence’ from racism on a 6-1 vote.”   The Mayor and the Forum had pulled it off.  Now to turn vision into reality.

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

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