December 18 2014

After decades in local government, and three years as the City of Salinas City Manager, I have learned that it is essential that City Government find a means for connecting with its Citizen’s meeting them where they are, rather than where we would like them to be. I have seen many efforts to accomplish this, often with mixed results. However, one of the most successful I have ever experienced was on November 21st, the culminating day of the City of Salinas’ week long Governing for Racial Equity Training & Launch.

Despite all of its assets, Salinas has many challenges, including racial issues that have deep roots in our City and span many generations.  Similar to other cities Salinas has experienced police involved shootings that have disrupted the fabric of our community. What is different in Salinas is that we are willing to recognize that the issues of race are much more complex than the recent police officer shootings and more challenging as well.  We have understood that to address the root causes of inequity it is essential for our organization to acknowledge racism as an issue and to respond with specific steps for change.

Unlike the community responses we are seeing in Ferguson and Staten Island and largely due to the leadership of skilled and wise community leader from all sectors, the anger and outrage of police shootings was met with opportunities to build upon existing work to develop culturally rooted healing, so that community members could approach the city from a place of strength and leadership rather than hurt and fear.  But without City action to address some of the underlying causes contributing to the inequities facing communities like East Salinas, we would not have succeeded in meeting our citizens in productive and useful ways.

So in July, when The California Endowment offered, we took the opportunity to attend training on tools to address systemic racism, led by Race Forward. Attending were myself, the Public Works Director, and the Police Chief.  At this training we explored the multiple levels of systemic racism and began to understand how racial bias is pervasive in many of our systems, regardless of individual intentions. Following the training we were ready to engage our community at a deeper level and met with a small group of Salinas’s residents where we shared what we had learned at the training and what we planned to do with our knowledge.

Through a series of conversations among partners including The California Endowment and Building Healthy Communities, the idea for a week of healing and governing for racial equity training was born.  The week was led by national leaders in racial justice (RACE Forward) and healing (National Compadres Network) who integrated both perspectives into healing-informed racial equity training.  Just before Thanksgiving, a very appropriate time for this work, 49 Salinas community members and non-City institutional leaders spent two days going through workshops on racial equity and tools to promote racial equity, as well as healing from the trauma that the racist structures impose on all of us, white and people of color.  Then 51 City staff – including all division heads– went through the same two-day training.  On the fifth day, the community and city groups joined to begin charting a course towards integration of a racial equity approach across the entire City.  Out of this week concrete next steps were agreed upon including the formation of a 10-member City of Salinas-BHC Governing for Racial Equity workgroup.

It is hard to describe how powerful and moving this experience was for me.  Over the course of my career, there are very few times when we’ve been able to move from an “us vs. them” mentality, both on the city and community sides.  On the fifth day of learning, healing, and planning together, I saw the walls start to come down.  Community members holding on to so much pain because of the loss and neglect they’ve endured expressed hope for true partnership moving forward.  City staff, often defensive of their hard work, understood the critiques at the systemic level, and yet also took responsibility for changing the system.  I heard City staff apologize for the harm they’ve done, however unintentional, as they’ve carried out their tasks without attention to the disparate racial impacts – the impacts on real community members who they now call allies – and the overall commitment from everyone present to finding ways to promote health and safety without harming those most vulnerable.

The transformation occurring in Salinas would not be possible without a deep attention to healing.  The healing work provides a space to see and hear each other’s struggle and triumph, allowing each person the opportunity to begin to move forward, and allowing the group to build the trust necessary for tackling issues of racism, together.  And without the tools to put our understanding into practice – tools like Racial Equity Impact Assessments – there is nothing to help us move from healing into action.  We are just beginning our Governing for Racial Equity work.  But as nascent as our work is, it is clear that the Governing for Racial Equity approach is not only powerful, but timely as we all struggle to figure out how to prevent the next unnecessary death, whether it be from a police shooting or chronic stress or diabetes or any one of the epidemics ravaging our most vulnerable communities.  We are proud to take this important step forward together as a united community to realize equity in the Salinas Valley and Monterey County for generations to come.


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