Let’s define Racial Equity – before it becomes meaningless.

Posted on February 5, 2019 | Parisa Norouzi, Empower DC

Residents rally to secure the Alexander Crummell School for public uses, not private profit-driven development as has been proposed by Mayor Bowser. The decades-long battle over Crummell School exemplifies racial inequity in the city’s use and treatment of public land.

Every few weeks, the Weissberg Foundation features a story from one of our Reframing <Washington> Empowerment Fund grantee partners to shine a light on their critical work. Learn more about these powerful organizations by visiting their websites.

Empower DC enhances, improves, and promotes the self-advocacy of low and moderate-income DC residents and builds their collective power in order to bring about sustained improvements in quality of life. Through popular education-style trainings, leadership development, community outreach, and member-led campaigns aimed to address pressing social issues impacting the constituency, Empower DC hopes DC becomes a city that invests its resources into uplifting the existing community, rather than enriching developers and displacing low income communities to make way for higher income people.

Maybe you’ve noticed the trend – everyone is using the word “equity” these days, including DC government, the philanthropic sector, and nonprofit organizations. But what does equity mean? And more importantly – what does it mean to the people whose lives it claims it will improve?

Last year, DC Councilmembers participated in Racial Equity training during their Council retreat. At the first City Council session of the year, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie introduced legislation called the “Racial Equity Achieves Results Amendment Act of 2019,” which he followed with a Race and Policy Symposium. The Department of Energy and Environment has included an Equity section in its Sustainable DC Plan. We’re expecting more and more talk about equity this year. But, will there be action?

While it’s exciting that the issue of racial disparity is gaining focus as a root issue that needs to be addressed – we are facing the imminent threat that the term “racial equity” will soon become meaningless. Similar to the term “affordable housing” – which is regularly applied to housing which is in no way affordable to low income people – “equity” is now being applied to initiatives that do nothing to tangibly change the economic conditions of Black residents and communities.

In reality, “equity” is not a term or concept regularly used by the people who are directly impacted by inequities. So, it’s easy for this language to be used which creates a veneer that an issue is being addressed – when in fact, the people who are directly impacted were never invited to the table to define the issue and its solution. So, like so many other out-of-touch initiatives, it becomes something that generates a lot of buzz in the government and social sector, yet produces no societal change.

In order for racial equity policies to be effective, we need to engage the people who have the most at stake – those who are impacted by systemic racism and white supremacy, those whose families have been harmed over generations of racist policies, and those who today are owed repair.

This Spring, Empower DC will launch a grassroots effort to talk to at least 1,000 DC residents in order to develop a shared understanding of what racial equity means to DC residents and communities, and what it will take to get there. We essentially want to create a measuring stick. DC residents need to be able to evaluate programs or policies that use the equity moniker, and confidently say as a community “if it’s not x, it’s not equity.”

From Empower DC’s perspective, furthering racial equity requires building political power within low income Black and brown communities, redistributing wealth including land and money, creating community-controlled institutions, and building the capacity of low income Black and brown residents to own, control, manage or replicate the programs and services needed in their communities. It’s not just about opposing policies that continue to harm and displace Black and brown people, but also proactively investing in people and communities over the long-term, in order to change economic conditions now and for future generations.

15 years ago, former Mayor Anthony Williams endorsed a plan to bring 100,000 new residents into the city. There was no accompanying plan to lift 100,000 current residents out of poverty, and to ensure that the city’s coming prosperity was shared. Will there be the political will to disrupt business as usual and take the steps necessary to further racial equity? We’ll do our part to get us there.


Parisa Norouzi has over 20 years of experience working with nonprofit organizations and organizing communities. After an early career as an organizer in the environmental movement, Parisa co-founded the city-wide community organizing group Empower DC in 2003, an organization which works to build the confident self-advocacy and organized political power of low-moderate income DC residents with a focus on fighting the displacement of residents amid DC’s gentrification boom. At Empower DC she has led the organization’s Child Care for All Campaign, the People’s Property Campaign, as well as organizing in the Ivy City community to secure community-led redevelopment of the Alexander Crummell School, among other initiatives.