The Long and Winding Road: EcoDistricts’ Puts Racial Equity at the  Core of its Work

Our cities are at a crossroads. Across the world, cities are undergoing massive transformations fueled in part by an unprecedented amount of capital that is fundamentally changing the fabric of our society. In short, as geographer David Harvey says, we are building cities for people to invest in, not to live in. Our  increasingly sophisticated and muscular real estate industry is simultaneously facilitating new communities and reimagining long disinvested and abandoned lands in the center of cities. This investor-led, brick and mortar centric approach to city building is having profound impacts on the physical, social and environmental dimensions of urban life. It is resulting in our most vulnerable communities falling behind. 

 To tackle this profound challenge, EcoDistricts was founded in 2013 to design a new path forward with those most responsible for building and managing our communities – the architects, urban designers, planners, developers, institutions and public agencies.  We continue to be guided by an unwavering belief that innovative and intentional urban regeneration projects and neighborhood revitalization can play a powerful role in solving the mounting climate crisis and reducing the social inequities that threaten our social, cultural and political fabric. We are committed through our programs and convenings to support the next phase of urban regeneration, one that takes on economic displacement, marginalization, health disparities, social segregation and environmental degradation. Over the years, we have advised and trained thousands of urban and community development industry leaders to help focus their plans to simultaneously improve the lives of the communities they serve while tackling the broader environmental threats that we face.

INTEGRATING DEI INTO OUR WORK

In 2014, we launched a staff and Board diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) taskforce to help shape and guide our work, culminating in the adoption of our DEI Blueprint a year later. With the support of one of the leading DEI consultants, Angela Park, the DEI Blueprint was informed by EcoDistricts’ founder Rob Bennett’s participation in the Center for Diversity & the Environment’s Environment 2042 Leadership Program prior to launching EcoDistricts. The impact of the 2042 program, which was generously underwritten by the Bullitt Foundation, was instrumental in shaping EcoDistricts’ strategic plan and service model to focus on blighted and underserved urban communities. 

In 2019, EcoDistricts was provided with an important opportunity to review our DEI efforts to date, with a specific focus on how the organization was addressing racial equity. With the support of the Kresge Foundation, we were invited to participate in Race Forward’s Racial Equity Realized (RER) program, along with a number of other NGOs from around the country. Over the course of a year, a small group of staff and board members participated in a series of impactful in-person capacity building and peer learning workshops and coaching sessions to explore how racial equity is promoted in our organization. Using the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) Racial Equity Toolkit, we engaged a Tufts University urban planning student to thoroughly examine our EcoDistricts AP program to look for areas where it could be improved. While EcoDistricts has prioritized DEI since its founding in 2013, the RER program provided the organization with an important opportunity to reflect on our work to date and to deepen and sharpen our commitment to racial equity through a rigorous organizational and programmatic assessment. 

Our work to address DEI has been constant since the founding of the organization. It has been led by the CEO and DEI Taskforce, with participation by all members of the staff and Board. The work has been difficult at times, uncovering knowledge gaps, implicit bias, and a recognition that our work is underpinned by a white supremacy culture found in the urban planning, design, and redevelopment industries. We also grapple with the increasingly charged political climate in which the issues of race, gender, sexual identity, and structural racism and white nationalism are converging. Our approach throughout the organization’s history is to take a measured and steady approach to the work – looking for opportunities to clarify and strengthen our mission, to diversify our staff and board, to examine our program design, and to be more full-throated in our need to be an ally and advocate for examining and addressing racial equity in all that we do. 

It is with this recognition that we offer these reflections from the EcoDistricts DEI Taskforce on our DEI work to date and where we need to go in the future. 

JULIAN AGYEMAN I PROFESSOR OF URBAN + ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY + PLANNING, TUFTS UNIVERSITY I MEDFORD MA

How do we improve people’s quality of life and well-being? How do we do this in a just and equitable manner? How do we do this while living within the limits of supporting ecosystems? These three questions go to the heart of EcoDistricts’ mission and are the core of what I call “just sustainabilities”, or socially just sustainability. Many organizations are making progress on questions one and three, but at EcoDistricts we’re working hard to ensure that question two doesn’t get left out, and that it is inextricably linked to progress on both well-being and environmental sustainability. How are we doing this? First, we believe that as a Board, we need to ‘look like the USA’, representing diversity and as many differences as possible. We’re not ’there’ yet but we are on our way. Second, we have a Board-level commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) driven by a Task Force that has recently undergone Kresge Foundation-funded race equity training. Several years ago, the Task Force developed a values-driven Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Blueprint detailing our priorities, goals, actions, and metrics. This is not a static, but rather a living document that guides our work. Third, we have employed a Tufts University urban planning student to answer the question: How do the current iterations of EcoDistricts Protocol and Certification Handbook guide the integration of racial equity into neighborhood- and district-scale development? To do this, the student is using the Government Alliance on Race and Equity’s (GARE) Racial Equity Toolkit, with modifications from the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Equity Tool. The analysis will reveal both ways in which our professional training may hold implicit biases, and ways to rectify this.

MOLLY URBINA I URBINA CONSULTING AND FORMER RESILIENCY DIRECTOR, STATE OF COLORADO I DENVER CO

As a member of the EcoDistricts Board of Directors and co-chair of our DEI Task Force I was honored and humbled to participate in the Race Forward Racial Equity Realized Cohort; a 10 month program which included three in-person convenings in Detroit, Denver and Chicago.  It was important to EcoDistricts that staff and Board participate and actively engage in a training, and this program created the opportunity to do that.

Not only did I personally learn a lot from the program and the cohort, we advanced our knowledge and implementation of racial equity as an organization and now have better tools to apply to our work.  Being part of a cohort from around the country provided the structure and motivated us for shared experiences and discussion that built lasting relationships as we learned and supported each other through the process.  Being part of a learning program focused on implementation helped us gain confidence to be more intentional in applying a racial equity lens. We learned about tools that empowered our organization with possibilities and choices to guide our work. 

We are grateful for organizations like Kresge and Race Forward for their foresight in providing programs and resources that not only bring a training platform but provide a real-people learning experience that can be translated into direct and meaningful action.  Programs like Racial Equity Realized are invaluable to bringing effective tools forward and creating an environment that works through a reality-based pilot project. EcoDistricts now has knowledge, skills and tools to lead for racial equity and a strong commitment to do so.

ROB BENNETT I CEO AND FOUNDER, ECODISTRICTS I PORTLAND OR

The DEI work has been both extremely personal and organizationally important. While DEI is fast becoming amajor topic across all levels of government, NGOs and corporations, it is clear that there is a significant gap between intention, knowledge and action. In the mainstream environmental and urban development sectors where EcoDistricts works, we are seeing issues of equity being raised in regard to displacement, gentrification and housing affordability in fast-growing cities and among environmental, health justice and community-based organizations looking to tackle a range of issues from chronic health disparities to pollution remediation. Our community is simultaneously leading and looking for guidance on how to better lead on these issues.

Our most significant contribution to DEI and equity has been through the development and promotion of the EcoDistricts Protocol as a framework to influence the urban and community development industry. Through the use of the Protocol, developers, cities, and community based groups are called on to simultaneously address the issues of equity, resilience and climate protection. This is purposeful, as we do not see these as isolated, but as interconnected fundamental ingredients for 21st century city building. 

Through the EcoDistricts Certified program, we require every project seeking certification to develop a rigorous and transparent equity strategy. In our EcoDistricts AP training program, we introduce practitioners to the basics of equity and equitable development processes. In 2019, through the support of Race Forward, Tufts University and U-Hope consulting, we have assessed the AP and Certified programs through the lens of racial equity impact. We are in the middle of this assessment work but have already identified a number of improvements that are needed in order to increase the impacts that these programs can have. 

Organizationally, we have struggled at times to integrate DEI effectively into the organization. Building a diverse and connected work culture has been a challenge as a small and virtual organization. I have struggled at times with blind spots and being a first time executive in a multi-faceted and complex professional environment. It is through this lens, that we are examining our strategic and business plan in 2020, with the intention of improving our DEI impacts through changes to our programs and key partnerships. We are looking at developing a more in depth consultant and training program that deepens project engagement and governance to addresses power dynamics and what having a meaningful seat at the table means in the context of community and urban redevelopment. We are looking to develop an equity training module as part of the AP program. We are looking to build more enduring and robust partnerships with organizations with the kind of racial equity and DEI chops that the EcoDistricts community will benefit from. 

THE RESULTS TO DATE

  • 2013: Rob developed a DEI Strategic Plan ahead of launching EcoDistricts as part of the 2042 Leadership Program, supported in part by the Bullitt Foundation.
  • 2014: Board and CEO launched the DEI Taskforce as a permanent staff and Board committee to oversee our DEI work.
  • 2015: Board and staff participated in a DEI training led by Angela Park.
  • 2015: Board adopted a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Blueprint, which guides program design and delivery, procurement, professional development, and staff and board recruitment. 
  • 2016: Staff participated in a DEI training led by the Center for Diversity in the Environment.
  • 2017: The EcoDistricts Executive Team participated in a DEI cohort program led by the Coalition for Communities of Color.
  • 2017: The organization adopted a “2% for DEI” line item in the annual budget, setting aside 2% of the total budget for DEI related activities, including staff and Board activities and training.
  • 2017: Staff co-developed a detailed DEI workplan.
  • 2019: All staff and Board participated in an in-depth organizational Equity Assessment.
  • 2019: DEI Taskforce participated in a year-long Racial Equity Realized (RER) training program led by Race Forward and funded by the Kresge Foundation.
  • 2019: In depth assessment of EcoDistricts AP and Certified program initiated, with support from Race Forward, Tufts University and U-Hope Consulting.
  • 2020: The DEI Taskforce is updating the DEI Blueprint to reflect the organizational Equity Assessment and outcomes from the RER program. 

 EcoDistricts sets and monitors DEI goals for all our convenings, including the Incubator and Summit, with a focus on attendee, speaker, and procurement diversity and provides scholarships to approximately 25% of convening participants.

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