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Lessons Learned: Reflections on PolicyLink’s Equity Summit 2015

By Manuela Arciniegas on March 9, 2016

In October of 2015, I packed my bags and headed to sunny California to join over 3000 organizers, policy advocates, artists, academics, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and civic officials concerned with bringing equity to marginalized communities at Policy Link’s Equity Summit 2015. The summit was incredibly inspiring on a number of levels, and below are a few lessons that I’ll continue to reflect on over the next year:

#1 Building a movement is a multi-sensorial experience. It demands we bring our whole intellectual, emotional, and holistic self to collaborate in creating solutions that advance equity and social justice for marginalized communities.

Equity Manifesto

“This is equity: just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all”
Excerpt from Equity Manifesto

Angela Glover Blackwell, President and CEO of Policy Link, inspired action when she read the organization’s Equity Manifesto aloud. Her soothing voice and clear, purposeful message magnetized everyone. She invited us to share innovative data and practices that could be used to overcome the gross inequalities adversely affecting marginalized communities of color. Hopes of realizing true equity and social justice in the communities we serve permeated the room.

Following Blackwell’s call to action, Dr. Raj Chetty, professor of economics at Stanford University, presented research findings from the Equality of Opportunity Project. This data proves that the neighborhood where a child is raised is critical for predicting long-term outcomes, including economic mobility. When children, especially boys, grow up in racially segregated “red regions,” as indicated in his report[1]—they face the least economic upward mobility and the most dire life outcomes. Our collective outrage at these disparities smoldered.

Red Regions from Dr. Chetty's report.

Understandably, inequity stirs up anger and frustration. But, it is this fire that inspires youth activists and captivates philanthropists and policymakers alike.

“Young people are right to be angry about the conditions of their communities. Youth organizing groups help them understand the root causes of the problems and process their emotions.”
Eric Braxton
Executive Director — The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing

This rage was emboldened and channeled into an overwhelming feeling of optimism when Policy Link aired “This is Our Moment,” featuring a poem by Mayra del Valle. When del Valle treated us to a live performance of “This is Our Moment,” it was met with a standing ovation. Her small frame and colossal message served as a rallying cry for the audience, demanding that we all bring our full selves to the task of creating equity by deepening our skillset, meaningfully networking and building unbreakable ties of solidarity. As a drummer and performer with an all-women’s Caribbean folk drum troupe, Legacy Women, I was heartened to see how social justice requires that we address culturally relevant ways of interacting with each other and of giving voice to our concerns and dreams.

It is through this interplay of poetry and dance performances, research, data sharing and candid conversations that we recognize each other’s humanity and learn to take care of it in holistic and dynamic ways. AFF recognizes that in order to best serve young people, we must be mindful of their lived experiences—taking into consideration the societal, personal, psychological, and material realities that impact their life—and engage in multi-sensory strategies that ignite movements.

“Due to the inclusive nature of youth organizing groups, there are so many ways youth can contribute—regardless of their skills, talents and interests.”
Eric Braxton
Executive Director — The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing

#2 Youth are leading us powerfully and building intergenerationality.

“This moment is not new. We’re not the first generation to fight back against racial injustice. Movements are generations-long.”
Rachel Gilmer
Chief of Strategy — Dream Defenders

Youth organizers from the Movement for Black Lives Matter, The Justice League, B.O.L.D.: Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (who work with Lakota Native American communities), Dream Defenders (AFF’s Florida-based youth organizing grantee partner) and a host of other youth-led movements captivated audiences throughout the summit. AFF actively supports youth organizing because we believe in the power of youth to direct their own lives and create the solutions they need to the obstacles they face. We also believe that youth organizing is an important component of a vibrant democracy. As a former youth organizer for environmental justice within the New York Environmental Justice Alliance and Sustainable South Bronx, I whole-heartedly understand the power of youth organizing and the importance of collaboration with older generations.

“In the Lakota culture we have a philosophy of 7 generations …honoring the 3 generations behind you and the 3 generations in front of you. The work we do is intergenerational. Elders are youth’s biggest advocates.”
Nick Tilsen
Executive Director — Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

I thought these insights revealed both the hard-earned stripes youth movement leaders possess and their commitment to bringing everyone in the community along. It was refreshing to witness the candid conversations between senior executives, youth organizers and leaders. I also found it refreshing how humor played a role in the dialogues, which shows how youth and elders can conscientiously build a multi-generational framework that requires reckoning with the present and co-creating the future. They defied the myths that youth are not interested in multigenerational movements or that elders are not thinking about passing on the torch.

Thanks for reading! I’ll continue my reflections on my experience at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit 2015 in my next blog post. Stay tuned.

[1] Refer to map of affected areas on page 99 of The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren.