The Racial Equity Dialogue Series: Starting the Conversation About Racism in the North Carolina Balance of State CoC

This blog post is authored by staff at the North Carolina Balance of State Continuum of Care.

A Call to Action

In response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, North Carolina Balance of State Continuum of Care (CoC)’s Racial Equity Subcommittee convened to reflect, grieve, and discuss the intersection of systems, such as police violence and homelessness, where racism often goes unnoticed and unchallenged. This conversation became the seed of the NC BoS CoC Racial Equity Dialogue Series, which allowed stakeholders to engage in conversations about structural racism like never before.

These conversations have proved a critical step in understanding how racial disparities are present in homeless service systems, including ours. Having conversations led by peers brings stakeholders to the table to foster learning, and paves the way for a more successful implementation of policy solutions in the future. Holding these spaces compels us to interrupt cycles of systemic racism, build capacity to most equitably serve those in our system, and influence policy changes along the way. If we do not take these steps, the system will not change.

Exploring Racial Disparities on a CoC Level

As with many other communities, racial disparities exist in the NC BoS CoC and must be addressed: Black residents in our CoC make up 19% of the total population, yet they represent 37% of people experiencing homelessness. Similarly, Native American/Alaska Natives make up only 2% of the population, while they represent 4% of people experiencing homelessness and 6% of families experiencing homelessness.

To address racial equity in our CoC, the Racial Equity Subcommittee, created in 2019, began its work quickly.  For instance, the Subcommittee developed equity specific questions for inclusion in funding competition scorecards, completed a Racial Equity Assessment for 2020, and engaged the NC Bos CoC Steering Committee in a joint racial equity training. 

The NC BoS CoC Racial Equity Subcommittee understands that implementing strategies to combat racial equity cannot begin with an assumption that everyone has the same understanding of the problem, or even the existence, of systemic racism in our organizations and systems.

The Racial Equity Dialogue Series was then created as a way to dive deeper into understanding racism and how it interacts with the homelessness system.

Creating the Racial Equity Dialogue Series

The purpose behind the Racial Equity Dialogue Series is to have open, peer led conversations about racism/systemic racism in our organizations and systems to improve policy outcomes.

The series offered virtual facilitated panel conversations that centered four topics: Police Violence and Community Response, Systemic Racism in the Homelessness Services System, Racism in the Criminal Justice and Re-Entry Systems, and Racism and Voting. The topic selection was grounded in the current events and local context that demonstrate the reality of racism in our communities, beyond statistics and data.

Police violence was present in our national consciousness throughout the summer, and was the impetus for the Dialogue Series itself. The second Dialogue on systemic racism held a mirror to our own system and reflected how our provider organizations perpetuate racism, including what steps they can take to address it. We then discussed external factors like the effects of legal fines and fees leveled on a population of parolees that is disproportionately Black and is too common a barrier to accessing jobs, housing, and benefits as a third session.

Finally, in the face of perhaps one of the most consequential elections in decades, we examined racist voter suppression and the barriers and disengagement felt by people of color experiencing homelessness, which seemed appropriate since the discussion was held in late October during early voting in North Carolina. 

Except for the fourth Dialogue on voting, each installment included members of the Racial Equity Subcommittee on the panel. This allowed audience members to hear from their peers working in emergency shelters, coordinated entry programs, and rapid rehousing programs speaking directly on ways that our system is impacted by racism. Outside experts joined the panel in second, third, and fourth installments to bring perspectives from adjacent systems. We also centered the voices of people with lived experience and people of color throughout the series.

Interrupting the Silence and Impacting the Future

The Racial Equity Dialogue Series ended in October 2020, with ongoing assessment of its impact. A survey was distributed to all attendees eliciting feedback of any impact at the personal, interpersonal, or organizational level. We hope to determine whether attending one of the Dialogues has sparked conversations in a workplace or prompted further research. We want to know which topics resonated the most with attendees, as well as what was missing. We also want to know the racial demographics of who attended: the goal of the Dialogue Series was to reach a broad and diverse audience. Initial survey results show a nearly even split of Black and White respondents, who offered largely positive feedback.

Many of the respondents noted that they had initiated workplace conversations about racism because of attending a Dialogue, with a few having even written to their elected leaders. The results are still being compiled, but even without a full analysis of survey results, the NC BoS CoC Racial Equity Subcommittee concluded that the series was successful and strongly favor hosting another series in 2021.

With over 50 attendees at each session, the Racial Equity Dialogue Series has begun making the invisible visible. Until we talk openly about the presence of structural racism in our systems, disparities will continue. The Racial Equity Dialogue Series has interrupted that silence and begun shedding light on the ways the services we offer are impacted by systemic racism and structural white supremacy.

We believe that analyzing our systems in a public, yet conversational, way will build the capacity of the CoC to impact racial disparities, and provide equitable services along our path to ending homelessness in the North Carolina Balance of State CoC and beyond.