This is a post I’ve been pondering for a long time. It’s not going to be perfect nor fully enlightened because I’m neither perfect nor fully enlightened. The only thing I can promise you is that it will be honest.
I struggle with our national dialogue on race. That puts me in the same position as roughly three hundred million other people. I’d like to believe that I have good intentions – I want a world where everyone is treated justly – but I’ve come to even doubt my own thoughts.
I’m going to give you a short history, not as a way to inoculate myself from criticism, but as a way to frame my confusion. I’m from a small town in Central Minnesota. I often joke (and it is a joke) that we have lots of diversity; we have families descended from Swedes, Norwegians and Finns. When I started writing about cities, it was within the context of my professional experience working in such places.
I have always said that I write in a way that explains things to my dad. He’s a retiree cynical of cities, planners, government, and basically everything I do professionally. That made my task an uphill battle. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve never been inclined to wrap difficult conversations about city finances in the language of racial justice. I can make many related points a different way, so I do.
The language of racial justice is also not my language. Being honest, I’ve not had to think about race a lot in my life. You can call that privilege – I’m not going to reject that characterization – but specifically it’s a function of the fact that I’ve not worked or lived in places with much racial diversity. Before college (and even then), my only real interaction with people of a different race was in the Army, which has a unique way of breaking down differences, imposing a commitment to a single purpose in a way not applicable to society at large.
Most of the people I know here in my hometown want people of color in this country to be prosperous and successful, but they just aren’t confronted with the question of race much beyond that abstract desire. My neighbors cheer for black athletes, celebrate black cultural icons, and many voted for Barack Obama. They also generally believe that anyone can get ahead by working hard, we should all respect law enforcement (including ICE), and the United States is the greatest country in history. They find it confusing to be called racist – which the broader culture often does – even though I now better understand why that happens.
I once heard Ta’Nehisi Coates say that the median white American family has a net worth twenty times that of the median black American family. After years, I’m still marinating on the implications of that fact, which are as numerous as they are devastating. Yet, being from a (mostly white) community where today the median household income is $32,000 (which is 14% below the U.S. median black family from 2010), that kind of devastating macro-statistic doesn’t motivate much real change in the conversation on race. The 20:1 disparity is seen by many across the U.S. as de-facto racist – and I understand that assessment – although that’s not a conclusion I would have naturally reached through living here.
There is a lot about Strong Towns that has shocked me. I was not prepared for people to read and share my writing. I never dreamt that would happen. Leading a national movement is not what I set out to do. I’m still often stunned by our reach and influence.
What has shocked me even more is how many struggling communities – many majority minority – identify with our message. It’s not that the message is not for them – I think Strong Towns is a universal approach applicable to prosperous and struggling communities of all sizes – but just that I’m writing for my dad, yet there are many groups of people very unlike my dad who find value in what I’m doing. That is humbling.
What is especially humbling is when the people inviting me to speak, showing up, asking questions, hanging out afterwards to talk, and then taking action, don’t look anything like my dad. I found myself struggling with this for a while. We can call this my “white guilt phase.” How do I not be the know-it-all white guy coming in from out of town to tell them what they should be doing? How do I not pander? How do I discern what it is in my message that is a byproduct of a privileged upbringing? How do I avoid saying something inadvertently offensive? How do I be respectful in a conversation where I don’t intuitively know the norms? White guilt is inwardly focused, and it took me a while to move beyond that. I may not fully be.
When I’m struggling with a big question I tend to turn to books. Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of books and articles on human psychology, group behavior, race, segregation, Jim Crow and related topics. At one point I discovered that an academic knowledge wasn’t getting me where I needed, so I’ve also listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts and videos of non-white people speaking about race, but also many other things. At one point, I deleted most everyone from my Twitter feed and added in as many prominent non-white voices as I could identify, just to get some semblance of authentic, unfiltered dialogue.
I don’t say any of this to exonerate myself on racial issues. I’m behind the curve and have a lot of work to do, but I’m committed to doing that work. Yet, I must admit, in many ways I’m more confused now than when I started. The idea that there is a single Black perspective, or a uniform Hispanic perspective, or one LGBT perspective, is as comforting for a white person as it is wrong. There are lots of humans, and while experiences and identities shape their lives, as individuals they are very confusing, and often quite irrational, just like me.
When I hear 'strong towns' I always think of charles marohn's blog and how he ignored segregation and blamed events in Ferguson on stroads, so I avoid looking at anything related to the term at all costs, lists or otherwise, lol.— sahra (@sahrasulaiman) April 13, 2019
As Strong Towns has grown in reach and influence, we’ve been pushed – from outside and from within – to speak more authoritatively on issues of race. Just this past weekend, I was taken to task by a Streetsblog L.A. writer for “ignoring segregation” in a piece I wrote about Ferguson back in 2014 during the rioting. While there were lots of media outlets at the time focusing on racial issues, I stuck with a Strong Towns analysis of the finances and tried to explain (to my dad) why people living in a place like Ferguson might feel trapped, hopeless, and angry.
Here’s what I wrote:
I do sense I’m missing some of the soul and substance of an issue getting my news primarily from print sources (and those, primarily of foreign origin). The ongoing matter in Ferguson is one of those instances. Add in the racial complexity – of which I am, by my own admission, lacking in intimate understanding – and I feel at an even greater disadvantage. I’m going to tread where I feel on solid ground, knowing others have more to contribute on this subject but hoping I can offer some relevant thoughts that you have not heard in other places.
Our lengthy Twitter exchange ended with this critique:
That's kind of the crux of it... I haven't seen that kind of more inclusive lens that engages the barriers to access to the public space or wealth accumulation, etc. communities of color have faced in strong towns discussions, more generally.— sahra (@sahrasulaiman) April 13, 2019
I don’t think that’s wholly unfair, especially from the perspective of someone who writes frequently about race as she does. When I write that the sidewalk is too narrow for two men to walk side-by-side, that social convention would call for them to walk in the street if they are to walk together, I’m explaining (to my dad) why anyone would walk in the street (and specifically, it’s not because they are socially deviant). There is a universality to my explanation; I’m writing with the hope that anyone can see themselves in a similar situation.
While not being exclusionary, that universality doesn’t acknowledge the unique circumstance that Michael Brown would have found himself in as a black man. I get that assertion, but I’m not sure what to do with it. I don’t have that experience. I can infer it, and I can wrap my insight in academic language about racial discrimination, or I can mimic language I’ve picked up elsewhere, but I can’t authentically represent it.
And this might be the part that offends the most: I don’t think that additional racial-based analysis is critical to the focused point I was trying to make. In other words, if my dad can open his heart to two humans being forced to walk in the street because their sidewalks are too narrow, if he can be sympathetic towards a city that has too much debt and not enough opportunity, then that understanding simultaneously advances both his place (which is struggling) and Ferguson (which is also struggling). I acknowledge that it doesn’t score a home run for racial justice, but advancing incrementally down the long arc of the moral universe also seems worthwhile.
The same critique could be made about the piece I wrote calling for an end to routine traffic stops. Coming days after the killing of Philando Castille, I knew this one would inflame an already tense conversation (it did here locally). If you read that piece, I went to great lengths to make all my characters as white and comfortable as possible. I sincerely want to end routine traffic stops, and my approach here was to try to give everyone – especially those who don’t feel threatened by the current system – an easier path to oppose this policy.
Now, I can be criticized for not giving the long history of police oppression of minorities, not dwelling on Jim Crow, not touching on the “Southern Strategy” or any other aspect of systematic racism. I acknowledge that my approach with this piece did not send overt signals – photos, buzzwords, insider language – to oppressed groups that they are specifically invited into the conversation. I didn’t do those things. I didn’t do the opposite either. I did something else, something authentic to me, something I hope in my limited capacity built some bridges of understanding.
And so, this is where we’re at. I’m a flawed human with a past already lived, wiring in my brain that helps me see the world in a unique way, but not a complete way. I struggle to reconcile my intentions with my actions, my lack of intimate knowledge with the expectation that I speak as a leader. I’m scared of my flaws and my blindspots, yet I crave knowledge and understanding and am willing to humble myself to gain insight. I’m an imperfect, 45-year-old, white man from a small town in central Minnesota inadvertently serving as a leader of a non-profit organization.
My approach is not beyond critique, but it’s very intentional. I am prepared to own it. I’ve even gone so far as to write it down as a way to discipline myself to be very intentional about this. Here’s what I committed myself to doing some time ago:
I will, with intention, expose myself to non-white voices, particularly when those voices are not filtered by the dominant media culture.
I will purposefully listen to people-of-color, and reserve judgement on their opinions, until I have thought deeply about what was being said. (seek true understanding)
In interacting with people-of-color, I will strive to listen ten minutes for every one minute of speaking. (respectful rule of thumb for humility)
When I have the opportunity, I will reflect back what I’ve heard to check my understanding. (seek authenticity)
I will continue to work to make sure that the language I use is not exclusive – that it doesn’t intentionally or unintentionally turn people away – and that, speaking with authenticity, my language will be as broadly inclusive as possible. (question the impact of my own words)
I will stop getting caught up listening to white liberals on matters of race.
As for that last point, I mean it as sincerely as the rest. I really struggle with the messages I get from white liberals. On something like my Ferguson piece, I’ll have one white liberal tell me that it’s my duty to speak out and another white liberal tell me that it would be distasteful to inject myself (as a white male) into such a racially-sensitive moment. For me, filtering this country’s racial dialogue through white liberals added multiple levels of disorientation that, I felt, was keeping me from any true discernment.
I’ve received a lot of advice from white people on how Strong Towns can become more racially inclusive. This advice included things like having more photos of people of color on our website, hiring someone of color to work on diversity issues, inviting people of color to be on our board, and asking people of color to write for us about diversity. I think the motivations for this advice were sincere, but for me to do these things felt inauthentic. Like a quick fix of a nagging problem instead of a true shift in understanding.
And let me be clear: I think these are admirable goals – to have more people of color at all levels of our organization would be progress, in my opinion – but achieving those results without the work, as simply a checkbox unaccompanied by a deeper understanding, would be hollow. So, what we have done instead is commit to the work. We make extra effort to solicit feedback on our ideas from people of color, and we humbly listen to it. We have invited more people of color to write and speak for us, but not only about diversity issues. We ask them to talk about Strong Towns issues from their perspective, which often includes racial insights (but doesn’t have to). And when we’re invited to share our ideas with non-white groups, we do everything we can to make that happen (even if it means traveling overnight in a blizzard, which I did this year).
When it comes to racial understanding, I have flaws. Strong Towns has flaws. The approach we are taking is an attempt to both acknowledge and to work on those flaws, not cover them up and pretend they don’t exist here. I’m not looking for a quick fix, and I’m not asking for a pass; quite the opposite. Our strategic plan states that, “it is our intention to grow to reflect the full spectrum of the American experience.” To me, the operative word here is “grow.” I’m dedicated to that work, and if it is to matter, that work will be ongoing and difficult. I see no other way.
To conclude this conversation, I want to point out one aspect of diversity where the Strong Towns movement is the clear leader: political diversity. There is nobody else in the urbanist, city-building, safe streets, urban planning, etc… space that is simultaneously meaningful and has such broad political diversity.
Our small staff has political diversity. We have liberals, conservatives, and the non-affiliated working together for common purpose. Our 2,700+ members have broad political and geographic diversity. We have self-identified Republicans and Democrats among our ranks, along with a healthy dose of independents, living in small towns and big cities, in red and blue states.
This is really important to us because the kind of change we’re trying to make isn’t the kind that comes about from crushing your political opposition. We’re trying to change the way people relate to their own neighborhoods, to empower them to control their own development pattern, to work collectively with their neighbors to build places that are both financially stable and prosperous.
It is my personal belief that our political diversity at Strong Towns is critical to meaningful improvements in racial justice. I might be wrong, but that’s my personal belief. I think a city-focused organization grounded in a commitment to political diversity can grow to have meaningful racial diversity. That’s what we’re working to do.
We have a lot of work ahead at Strong Towns to meaningfully engage people of color and to grow the racial diversity of our movement. We’re committed to doing that work and I ask you to help us with that growth.