Transformation possible: Anti-Racism seminar sparks community conversations

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Veteran community leader Larry Hiscock delivered his Individualized Degree Program presentation, Anti-Racism and Neighborhood Organizing, at MSU student center on March 15. Hiscock, a fifteen-year member of Minneapolis’ Harrison Neighborhood Association, relayed his organization’s response to inequitable outcomes of their policies. His opinion: Community organizations who wish to build diverse, equitable neighborhoods will benefit from anti-racism training, which can result in beneficial structural changes.

Of the many principles outlined in his two-hour presentation to Metro State University students and faculty – as well as interested Dayton’s Bluff neighbors — Hiscock emphasized the importance of community organizations’ understanding of the history of the oppressed and marginalized in their locale.

He began his presentation outlining the history of the Harrison neighborhood, which has some parallels with Dayton’s Bluff. Now a diverse, working class neighborhood, Harrison is marked by a history of segregationist city planning. It experienced a succession of demographic changes in which low-income populations would move in, prosper, and disperse as the next low-income population moved in.

In the 1940s, “urban renewal” policies shifted white populations to the suburbs through institutionally racist policies, exemplified by the Federal Home Association’s loan approval process which denied dark-skinned applicants. This left increasingly low-income populations and empty homes behind in what is now termed “white flight.” Another result of urban renewal was the rise of neighborhood associations. Made up of mostly homeowners, their intention became to raise standards of living by increasing homeownership. But according to Hiscock, the outcome of pro-ownership policies—still embraced by neighborhood associations and district councils today—resulted in excluding renters from participating equally in the local political process.

The conflict between intentions and outcomes became obvious when, Hiscock says, Harrison Neighborhood Association began asking themselves three questions: “Who benefits from our work? Who isn’t here (at these meetings, on this board)? What about affordable housing?”

What they discovered? Homeowners, largely white and middle-income, received the lion’s share of any federal, state, city, or nonprofit monies. Their sparsely-attended association meetings misrepresented the community’s racial make-up, with few people of color attending them in a minority-white neighborhood. As they dug deeper and sought anti-racism training, they found that most of their outreach to renters came from a sense of internalized racial superiority, resulting in renter bias: The mistaken belief that ownership, over rentership, is the primary way to encourage pride in one’s community.

Hiscock credits Harrison’s sweeping structural changes and accompanying successes to huge investments in anti-racism training through the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. First sending three board members, then small groups, then large groups—including key partners—they discovered a common language to identify and root out institutional racism wherever it developed.

Within a year of sending those first three members to anti-racism training, the association instituted major structural changes in response to what they’d learned. They began holding regular anti-racism workshops and listening sessions around the community. Their telecommunications-based community engagement style transformed into door-knocking and relationship-building. “We no longer compartmentalize the personal from the political,” Hiscock explains. They had come to find that such a value was indeed specific to white culture, and that it failed to build trust.

“Specifically addressing racial equity…changes the tone,” asserts Hiscock. Not only did diverse crowds of people start showing up for meetings, but more became involved in local policymaking and planning—spurred on by the new Harrison Neighborhood Association’s commitment to developing leaders that represented the whole community.

The Harrison Neighborhood Association changed their vision statement to reelect these refreshed values, culminating in a Community Benefits Agreement Campaign. No longer was homeownership and gentrification their primary focus to benefit the few.

Now, they would work for a broader-based vision of what makes strong communities: local jobs employing local people; affordable, right-sized housing; environmental stewardship and justice; and planning for rich community life.

To share more about this transformation, Larry Hiscock hopes to host a second conversation at Metro State to address how Dayton’s Bluff might benefit from the same lessons and methods.

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