What we Have Learned from Public Engagement on Race and Equity

Back to Winter 2022: Volume 110, Number 4

By Matt Leighninger

In the last two years, it has become clearer than ever that issues of race and equity are critical to how we educate children, ensure justice and public safety, and safeguard public health. To better understand this challenge and opportunity, we should look back at previous attempts at public engagement on race and equity, to identify what we learned, what we achieved, and what we have not achieved.

In the United States, race has played a key role in the development of public engagement practices, not just on issues relating directly to cultural identity but in engagement on education, policing, immigration, health, budgeting, and many other priorities. Race was probably the most common focus of public participation efforts in the 1990s, and in many places, those processes had impacts on hiring practices, school policies, and economic development decisions.

But while those efforts had many worthwhile outcomes, and helped write the playbook of effective engagement practices, they did not produce structural changes in how public institutions function. While they seem to have affected many policy decisions, upheld cultural diversity as a value that should be celebrated, and strengthened relationships between citizens and their public servants, they don’t seem to have had lasting effects on the ways that local governments, school systems, and police departments make decisions or interact with the public. In the next phase of our work to achieve equity and fairness, we should focus on specific tasks that will transform how our public institutions operate with respect to history, opportunity, and equity.

How we learned to talk about race in the 1990s

In tracing the evolution of public engagement, one important turning point was the series of race-related civil disturbances that occurred in major American cities in the mid-1990s. The turmoil surrounding Rodney King, and then O.J. Simpson, revealed a yawning chasm between the racial perceptions of white people and people of color. The sudden sense that we were divided as a nation, and the violent results of that division, spurred a wide array of local leaders to make “race relations” an immediate priority. Elected officials across the country realized that, while they might address racism and race relations through their work in areas like economic development or housing discrimination, they also had to deal directly with the race-related perceptions, biases and beliefs of their constituents.1

This kind of public outreach had rarely been done before; most communities lacked venues for people of diverse backgrounds to talk to each other about race or any other issue. Many different kinds of local leaders began looking for ways to involve people in productive discussions on race. They hoped that these efforts could help to overcome community divisions and prevent public debates from being dominated by extreme voices. A wave of local public engagement efforts swept the nation, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens2 in forums, trainings, workshops, and small-group dialogues. Human relations commissioners, YWCA directors, heads of interfaith groups, elected officials, and other leaders began creating opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to talk about race. These projects mushroomed virtually overnight, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens in forums, trainings, workshops, and small-group discussions. By the end of 2002, large-scale intergroup dialogue programs had been initiated in at least 266 communities in 46 states.3

As these organizers experimented with different kinds of meeting formats and recruitment methods, they discovered tactics that were also being pioneered in fields like education, planning, and public safety. Like most of these public issues, race affects people at a personal, emotional level. To allow participants to share their experiences in a productive way, local organizers gravitated toward strategies that emphasized small-group discussions, either on their own or as breakout groups within larger forums or workshops. Organizers either realized from the beginning, or learned by trial and error, that these small-group sessions would function more effectively if they included four main components:

  1. Having an impartial facilitator was critical. Many organizers felt that if the facilitators tried to “educate” the participants or direct the group toward a particular conclusion, the dialogue would backfire. They found that facilitators could be successful if they remained impartial: giving everyone a chance to speak, helping the group manage the allotted time, helping the group use discussion materials, and trying to manage conflicts within the group.
  2. Allowing groups to set their own ground rules was important. When the participants in a small group set their own norms for the discussion, they were more likely to abide by the rules, and the sessions tended to be more civil and productive. Participants typically proposed rules about not interrupting others, maintaining confidentiality, and keeping an open mind.
  3. People valued the opportunity to compare personal experiences. Encouraging participants to talk about their cultural backgrounds and experiences with racism turned out to be a critical way to begin the discussions. It defused some of the tension, allowed participants to get to know each other better, and helped people see how our policy opinions are often based on our personal experiences. This initial conversation also established a level of trust within the group.
  4. Using a written guide to help structure the sessions proved beneficial. Groups tended to be more effective when they followed a guide that provided discussion questions, background information, and suggestions for managing the sessions. Some of the guides also presented viewpoints that mirrored the main arguments being made about race; these views were intended to present a sampling of the ideological spectrum, so that participants could analyze different ideas and options and relate them to their own experiences. These guides were sometimes written by local organizers but more frequently supplied by national organizations specializing in race dialogues or public deliberation.

None of these techniques for successful small-group discussions were entirely new. They had been used, in one combination or another, by dialogue efforts and organizations well before the 1990s; in fact, they can be traced back to the civil rights movement fifty years ago, the Chautauqua adult education methodology of a century ago, and other precedents in other eras.4

And just as some organizers were employing these techniques to address race, other leaders were using them on other issues. But the dynamics of race as an issue, along with the sheer scale of public engagement on race in the 1990s, meant that these tactics were reinforced and disseminated more than ever before; they set the template for public engagement at the beginning of the 21st Century.

How we learned to move from talk to action, on race and other issues

There was another key realization that emerged from this work: holding a few small-group dialogues would not be enough. In order to make sufficient progress on any of these issues, it seemed important to have large numbers of people, and many different kinds of people, participating in the discussions. All kinds of leaders felt that the best way to end racism, boost volunteerism, or develop trust between citizens and government was to involve a critical mass of citizens in the effort.

Local organizers also learned that no single group or organization would be able to recruit the large numbers and different kinds of people that would make the project credible. Outreach through the media or by public officials would help to legitimize the effort, but citizens would be much more likely to participate if they were approached by someone they already knew. The only way to accomplish this kind of large-scale, one-on-one recruitment was to reach out to all kinds of community organizations—businesses, churches, neighborhood associations, clubs, and other kinds of groups—and ask the leaders of those organizations to recruit their own members.

Together with the small-group discussion techniques, these recruitment tactics became key ingredients of public engagement. Organizations with missions that focused explicitly on race, such as the National Conference for Community and Justice, the YWCA of the USA, and state and national associations of human rights workers, began to popularize and promote these strategies, as did civic groups like the Study Circles Resource Center (since renamed Everyday Democracy), the National League of Cities, the League of Women Voters, America Speaks, Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Civic League.

These recruitment tactics seemed to demonstrate an old and recurring phenomenon: if you want to mobilize citizens, you must make it clear that they are part of something larger than themselves. Asking people to join a fascinating small-group dialogue usually isn’t enough. To persuade them to spend some of their free time this way, organizers had to show citizens that high-profile leaders had “bought in” to the idea, that many different organizations were involved, and that taking part would give them a real opportunity to effect change. Citizens needed to know that their small-group discussion would be one of many—one small part of a community capable of solving its problems.

Just as they learned how to recruit large numbers of people and involve them in productive meetings, local leaders also learned how to help those citizens achieve tangible changes in their communities. For some organizers working on issues of race, action planning didn’t seem important at first; some of them saw racism as mainly an interpersonal challenge, and they felt that creating civil, educational discussions would be sufficient. But in the small-group sessions, it became clear that talk was not enough.  Participants wanted to see changes happen, and they didn’t always expect – or trust – public institutions to put their ideas into practice.

To help people move from dialogue to action, some organizers began holding large-group events for all the participants after the small-group sessions had ended. They used names like “action forum” to describe these meetings, which were designed to categorize and prioritize the enormous variety of ideas that emerged in the small-group meetings, match promising ideas with sets of people willing to work on them, and highlight action efforts that were already underway. The forums followed different formats in different places: in some communities they looked like volunteer fairs, while in others they resembled old-fashioned political conventions, but most of them succeeded in attracting public officials and other decision-makers and giving participants a chance to connect with other problem-solving allies.

At some of these concluding forums, local leaders launched new task forces or committees to take on action ideas that were popular in the small-group discussions. Many of these new citizen groups foundered once the enthusiasm of the forum had worn off and the group members had begun to feel isolated and powerless again, but organizers realized that they could overcome some of these challenges. In some cases, they recruited people with professional expertise and authority to assist the groups (for example, police officers for a task force devoted to police-community relations). In others, they worked to get media coverage of the task forces. Other, more basic techniques were also successful, such as simply checking in with task force leaders periodically or holding a subsequent forum several months later at which task forces reported on their progress.

One example emerged from a public engagement effort in Fort Myers, Florida, in 1997. More than 600 people were involved in the project. In the small-group dialogues, participants had talked about the fact that one low-income neighborhood had no grocery store, forcing residents to shop for food at convenience stores. A task force set up at the action forum began working with the city, the county, a local supermarket chain, and a minority business development organization to explore the idea of a new grocery store. The task force members, several of whom had business expertise, conducted a market survey, and drafted a financing plan. They found that the city and the minority business development group were arguing about how to spend their Community Development Block Grant funds. The task force helped to settle the dispute and promote the shopping center idea as a way to provide job opportunities and basic services for low-income citizens. Two years later, the Dunbar Shopping Center was built.5

Similar efforts led to policy changes and other outcomes in other communities, such as new police and fire department hiring policies, school redistricting decisions, community policing plans, and the construction of new schools in underserved neighborhoods.6

As these programs proliferated, local leaders realized the importance of involving rank-and-file public employees in the small-group discussions. When teachers, police officers, social workers, or city planners were in the room, the solution ideas developed by the group were usually more informed and more influential. Action efforts were more likely to succeed because they were backed by stronger citizen-government relationships. This practice has also been a key ingredient in the success of participatory budgeting processes in the United States and other countries.7

Challenging assumptions about race

As these processes proliferated during the 1990s and early 2000s, they seemed to be challenging three basic assumptions about race:

  1. The participants in these processes were questioning the notion that racism is just an easily identifiable, individual sin – that we are all either racists or non-racists. When people take a closer look, they usually begin to see racism as a blurry spectrum, a series of individual and institutional biases that get progressively more inaccurate and damaging. Rodney King’s question, “Can’t we all just get along?,” was a basic plea for tolerance, but once citizens begin to talk about race, they usually go much farther than that, addressing complex issues of structural racism as well as simpler forms of prejudice.
  2. Participants were examining the belief that we should learn to tolerate, compensate for, and eventually ignore the cultural differences between us. Citizens cherish their cultures and traditions, and they want to hold on to them. As they begin to recognize just how diverse their communities are, they often acknowledge that these differences will probably always affect how people interact with each other. Diversity is both a strength and a challenge: sometimes you celebrate diversity, sometimes you have to deal with it, but the challenge is how to do those things effectively, not how you can make differences disappear.
  3. People were testing the assumption that a “level playing field,” where every individual has a uniform opportunity at happiness and success, is the best outcome we can hope for. In its place, their actions seem to suggest a field where the players are equal but different, and the focus is on helping them work together.

As communities delved deeper into issues of race, and began to make some progress, their motivations for addressing cultural difference were transformed. Initially, race was a mandate for dialogue and personal growth: the first impulse behind these efforts may have been to inoculate people against racism, so they could be purged of bias once and for all. But as people began to realize the complexity of the issues, and the increasing diversity of their communities, they began to see this as valuable, ongoing work. Instead of settling for a level playing field, where everyone would be treated uniformly by teachers, judges, principals, and police, communities began trying to build arenas where the players acknowledged differences openly, cooperated continually, and recognized each other as equals. In so doing, some citizens and some officials began to see race as a mandate for effective governance. “There is a kind of natural progression here,” says Roger Stancil, former city manager of Fayetteville, North Carolina. “When you get different kinds of people talking to each other, they figure out they have interests in common and they start to act on them. They realize that they won’t always agree, but they want to help each other anyway, and they begin to see how important it is that everyone is at the table.”8

The limits of temporary processes

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative argues that the recipe for progress on racial equity is to “get proximate and stay proximate.”9 By this he means that people of different backgrounds need to talk with each other, work together, and get an up-close look at the everyday challenges each of them face, in order to minimize the misunderstandings and maximize the many benefits that cultural diversity can bring.

During the 1990s, we “got proximate,” producing many valuable outcomes at the local, state, and national levels. But we didn’t build in ways for large, diverse numbers of people to “stay proximate,” and this limited the long-term impact of the work, as demonstrated by the re-emergence of highly visible forms of racism in the last decade.10

While the efforts to engage citizens on race may have brought more people to the table, they didn’t change the table itself. That is, the tactics of successful small-group processes, proactive network-based recruitment, and collaborative action were not incorporated into the way that official public meetings are structured, or even the way that parent-teacher associations, mutual aid groups, neighborhood associations, and other grassroots organizations operate.

Those productive engagement tactics are still used, perhaps more than ever, but they occur almost entirely within the context of temporary projects that focus on a crisis or controversial policy decision. In her essay, “Participatory Democracy Revisited,” Carole Pateman argued that most examples of public participation today “leave intact the conventional institutional structures and political meaning of ‘democracy.’” They do not, in her words, “democratize democracy.”11

In the absence of these more systemic changes, the benefits of public engagement on race have been meaningful but mostly temporary. Certainly the fraying of police-community relations, the evidence of racial profiling by officers, and the persistence of race-based achievement gaps in student test scores do not demonstrate great progress in our efforts to build more cohesive and equitable communities.

Staying proximate

In addition to the changes that public institutions could make, community organizations and grassroots groups can make changes that contribute to cross-cultural awareness and racial equity. Building on our prior work to get proximate, there are several ways we might stay proximate:

  • Identify, create, or support regular opportunities for people to come together to make decisions, solve problems, and build community. There are inspiring examples large and small, like On the Table in Chicago, Illinois, Meet and Eat in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and the dialogues held by the Portsmouth (NH) City Council. We can return to some of these in-person practices once the pandemic ebbs, and/or we can expand the use of virtual platforms like America Talks.
  • Embrace and adapt new practices that reinvigorate existing engagement opportunities, like the student-led parent-teacher conferencehigh-impact volunteering, and participatory budgeting.
  • Offer programming content — meeting agendas, short videos, discussion questions, readings — for people meeting in all these settings to help them raise and address issues of cultural identity.

These are all strategies for helping people stay proximate, but some of them do not explicitly address race and equity, at least at first. That’s all right: by creating safe spaces for people to talk about their experiences and who they are, various kinds of cultural differences will emerge. In these settings, when people are comfortable being open about the differences between them — gender or class, for example — they are better able to surface and address all kinds of differences. So, for example, people in small towns where there is very little racial diversity can productively address racial equity, especially if they start out with the differences that are more central in their daily lives.

For public institutions, the work ahead

As we consider the next steps for our public institutions, we should bear in mind the link between engagement and race, as well as the unfinished business of engagement on race. In order to bring people together on all kinds of issues, you have to acknowledge the differences between people, affirm that all cultures and groups are valued, and give people a sense that their past experiences with discrimination and bias will be rectified, or at least not repeated. In turn, it is difficult to make progress on issues of race without bringing a diverse array of people to the table. The two enterprises, improving engagement and increasing intercultural understanding, complement and probably require one another.12

Meanwhile, people trying to engage citizens, on race or any other issue, should be thinking about the long term and not just the decision or crisis of the moment. How should people be engaged in public decision-making and problem-solving, in both official and informal settings? How should citizens and public servants interact, on a daily basis? How might those interactions reduce discrimination, celebrate diversity, and address inequities? How can we move not only from talk to action, but from action to change, change to impact, and impact to sustained transformation?13

These are particularly important questions for the people leading public institutions today, and for the people doing the vital work of those institutions. For local governments, the newly released 9th edition of the Model City Charter offers some inspiration for taking on these questions and some guidelines for approaching the work. This is the first edition of the Charter to include a whole section on engagement, and it has a much greater emphasis on equity, woven through all the sections.14

The next phase of our learning and engagement on race should follow this shift from what individuals should be doing to what institutions should be doing. There are many resources, trainings, and professional development opportunities that help people examine their beliefs and habits and become more effectively “anti-racist” as individuals. That work is important but different from the work to transform institutions. All over the country, leaders of institutions such as local governments, school systems, police departments, libraries, and universities are looking for ways to make their institutions more effective at fighting racism and building equity.

A small group of people involved with the six-state Community Voices for Health (CVH) project, an initiative led by Public Agenda and Altarum with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, began developing an initial plan for how institutions might approach this challenge. An opportunity to delve into the concept of anti-racist institutions emerged in New Mexico, where the CVH work was led by the New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils and supported by Everette Hill and Eduardo Martinez of the Meridian Strategies. We started by examining the Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiative (REDII) process developed by Hill for use by nonprofit organizations, schools, and small businesses.15 Hill, Eduardo Martinez, Treston Codrington, Quixada Moore-Vissing, Jennifer Orellana, Nicole Hewitt-Cabral, and I explored ways to adapt REDII to fit the needs and goals of local governments and other public institutions. We mapped out six main areas of equity-building work for institutional leaders and staff to consider:

  1. Building understanding by interpreting and interrogating the history of how the institution has addressed equity, race, and other differences in the past.
  2. Reworking institutional charters, mission statements, and other foundational documents with an equity lens or interpretation.
  3. Examining the institution’s human resource policies and practices and how they might support more equitable processes and outcomes, including how racial equity measures can be linked to the individual performance plans of managers and supervisors.
  4. Designing regular processes for people inside the institution to interact productively and honestly, building on lived experience, with an appreciation for diversity and equity-building.
  5. Designing processes and formats for engaging with people outside the institution in ways that are participatory, equitable, building on lived experience, and have an appreciation for diversity and equity-building.
  6. Developing and implementing processes for gathering, sharing, and analyzing data that can help illuminate whether decisions are being made in equitable ways, and whether the impacts of those decisions are themselves equitable.

In each of the six areas, there are many tools, skills, and resources that may help institutions move forward in their work on racial equity – and there are undoubtedly some gaps that will need to be filled with new tools, skills, and resources.

The primary goal of these efforts should be to address inequities and rectify injustices. But surprising as it may seem, we may have even more to gain than that. Establishing sustained ways for people of different backgrounds and beliefs to understand each other, work together, and govern together will have benefits for all of us, and for generations to come. It is simply another way of asking the most fundamental question of our time: what kind of democracy do we want?

Matt Leighninger is Head of Democracy Innovation at the National Conference on Citizenship.


1 Much of the analysis in the next two sections is adapted from my 2006 book, The Next Form of Democracy, which Tina Nabatchi and I revisited in our 2015 book, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy. See Leighninger, Matt. 2006. The Next Form of Democracy. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, and Nabatchi, Tina, and Matt Leighninger. 2005. Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy. New York: Wiley.
2 The word “citizen” has a rich history in democracy, but it can also be a confusing term. Sometimes it is defined in a narrow, legalistic way, meaning only those people who hold U.S. passports or are eligible to vote. In this article, I use “citizen” to include all residents, and to imply that all of those people have a stake in the success of their community.
3 Walsh, Katherine Cramer. 2007. “The Democratic Potential of Civic Dialogue.” In Shawn Rosenberg (ed.) Deliberation, Participation, and Democracy: Can the People Govern? New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
4 See Nabatchi and Leighninger, Chapter 3.
5 Ibid, pp. 109-112.
6 Ibid, Chapter 4.
7 Leighninger, Matt, and Chloe Rinehart. 2016. Brazil Has Reduced Inequality, Incrementally. Can We Do the Same? New York: Public Agenda and Kettering Foundation. Leighninger, Matt, and Chloe Rinehart. 2016. Power to the People! (And Settings for Using it Wisely?) New York: Public Agenda and Kettering Foundation.
8 Next Form, p. 98
9 Heimer, Matthew. “’Do Some Uncomfortable and Inconvenient Things’: A Civil Rights Champion’s Call to Action for CEOs.” Fortune, June 26, 2018.
10 Carrega, Christina, and Priya Krishnakumar, “Hate Crime Reports in US Surge to Highest Level in 12 Years, FBI Says,” CNN. October 26, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/30/us/fbi-report-hate-crimes-rose-2020/index.html
11 Pateman, Carole. 2012. Participatory Democracy Revisited. Perspectives on Politics, 10(1), 7-19. doi:10.1017/S1537592711004877
12 Leighninger and Nabatchi, Chapter 4
13 For one explanation of this sequence, see Equity in the Center, Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture. 2020. https://equityinthecenter.org/resources/
14 Model City Charter, Ninth Edition, National Civic League, 2021.
15 Everette Hill is Principal and Managing Director of the SISGroup. The REDII process is focused on equity-building grounded in the race construct by 1) interrogating colonial consciousness in design groups, 2) redeveloping colonial organizational structures and documents once we have pushed through the colonial consciousness to an intersectional consciousness, and 3) developing an organizational culture that is supported by language, practice and ongoing PD&T that anchors the changes in both the policy framework and the organizational culture. For a description of how the REDII framework is being applied by the New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils, see https://www.nmhealthcouncils.org/culture-of-health

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners