Reimagining Conferences, Uplifting Voices: What Equity Work is About

At the beginning of the year, as the new Chief Equity Officer, I wrote a blog post about the Alliance’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization. I talked about the need for wholesale transformation – a movement that requires continuous internal examination and practice, coupled with the conscious undoing of inequitable policies and practices within the field at large.

Within the past few years, the Alliance has taken sizeable steps to help spearhead racial equity work in homelessness systems by creating tools, rethinking trainings, expanding our advocacy, and producing webinars, to name a few. Turning the lens on ourselves, however, hasn’t always been easy in terms of internal decision making.

Reflecting on the Past and Moving Forward

One area in particular that sticks out to me is our conferences. Many people in the field look to the Alliance’s conferences to learn about best practices and to exchange ideas about ending homelessness. I was even one of those people before I joined the Alliance, and often walked away from the conferences feeling energized about the work. At the same time, though, I felt disconnected because I didn’t see or hear from many speakers that looked like me, or that represented populations disproportionately impacted by homelessness. There was little, if any, analysis of the complex role racism plays in issues like access to housing and sustainability. There was no centering of the lives of people of color (who have some of the highest rates of homelessness) to discuss targeted strategies to address the harms inflicted on their communities. You get the point.

Fast forward several years: our speakers are now more diverse. We’ve integrated discussions on racial disparities and equity into a number of workshops at our conferences, with a broader goal to give racial equity and justice a standard place in varied discussions about ending homelessness. What has still been a major gap is our willingness to share power, until now.

Alliance staff have largely formulated the topics for the conference. Though our equity content has increased, we haven’t opened content planning up to the field and allowed for input in a scaled or meaningful way. What have we been so afraid of in terms of inclusion? Why didn’t we move to a more co-creative model before to uplift diverse voices in the field? These perspectives only help to strengthen our work.

At the upcoming March 2023 conference, we are committed to change. The Alliance is calling for presenters to submit ideas for three new session formats: Innovation Sessions, Spotlight Sessions, and Transformative Talks. Submissions are due by Nov. 7th, 2022 and are open to anyone with knowledge of, background in, or expertise in unsheltered homelessness, especially people with lived expertise. We hope to hear from you and will continue to ask ourselves the tough questions in the spirit of equity, justice, inclusion, and belonging.

That’s what racial equity work is all about.