Voices for Racial Justice is a non-profit organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota whose mission is to advance racial, cultural, social, and economic justice in Minnesota through organizer and leadership training, strategic convenings and campaigns, and research and policy tools. Their issue areas include: Education Equity, Health Equity, Media Justice, Criminal Justice, Environmental Justice, and more. These issue areas serve as entry points towards creating a more inclusive and equitable Minnesota.
Founded in 1993 as the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, the organization trained hundreds of community organizers who are now leaders in organizing campaigns, nonprofit organizations, and government. In 2004, the organization decided to put racial equity at the center of their organizing work. As a result of this decision, they embarked on an internal reform process and in 2014 changed their name to Voices for Racial Justice.
Voices for Racial Justice centers the voices of those most impacted by structural racism to lead and shape the work. To that end, they have partnered with community-based organizations and have hosted Community Visioning Sessions in order to develop their organizational agenda. In the past year, they notably hosted visioning sessions led by incarcerated people and families of incarcerated people. These sessions directly shape Voices for Racial Justice’s demands, with comments sometimes transcribed word-for-word in the organization’s materials.
Pressuring government to prioritize racial equity:
Voices for Racial Justice recognizes that it is not enough to change policy to achieve racial equity; they must change policy and also push for implementation of policy. Their engagement with local government is about shifting the way that government conducts their work so that 1) racial equity is centered in their decision-making, and 2) communities most impacted by structural racism are engaged at the onset of the decision-making process.
Voices for Racial Justice, partnering with local community-based organizations, has supported local government agencies in their work to center racial equity. A big component of that work, which is reflected in Voices for Racial Justice’s partnerships with local organizations, is ensuring that these agencies are engaging with community members in authentic and meaningful ways.
They have also worked to pressure local lawmakers. Since 2006, Voices for Racial Justice has released legislative report cards on both state policymakers and the Governor, grading them on their work to create an equitable and inclusive Minnesota. Since 2012, they have released Racial Equity Agendas that outlines visions to achieve racial equity.
Some local elected officials have begun to prioritize racial equity, and have since become “champions” in local government. These champions are legislators who have voted consistently to advance racial equity and have shown leadership on racial equity by serving as chief author or co-author on racial equity legislation.
For example, State Representative Susan Allen, who received a grade of A+ in the 2015-2016 legislative report card, co-authored several bills to advance racial equity, from criminal justice to tribal sovereignty.
Since the release of the report cards, there have been more champions pushing racially equitable policies through both the House and Senate. Despite the increase in “Racial Equity Champions”, Voices for Racial Justice points out that Minnesota still maintains some of the worst racial disparities in the country. For them, it’s simply not enough to pass policy; it is essential that policy for racial equity is paired with implementation and community accountability. This is where the organization is pushing in their engagement with local government.
The main challenge for the organization in this work is: how do they support these agencies while also retaining their ability to push from the outside? How do they navigate that relationship in a way that is accountable to communities most impacted by structural racism?
Insights from challenges/victories:
Voices for Racial Justice Executive Director Vina Kay says that it is essential to remember that their organization is accountable to communities most impacted by structural racism.
Key to this accountability is ensuring that people from these communities are a core part of the work that Voices for Racial Justice does with local government—whether trainings, consultations, or evaluations. Another key to accountability is ensuring that their engagement with a government agency is aligned with any “outside” strategy—which means that any engagement with a government agency must be in coordination and shared with community partners who are organizing to pressure that agency.
These accountability strategies helps the organization avoid “being a checkbox” for local government efforts to engage community. They also help establish long-term infrastructure for local communities to continue to organize and engage with local government agencies.