A Year to Catalyze Each Other

At the close of 2019, the Foundation for Tacoma Students and the Gates Foundation announced a catalytic investment into the Graduate Tacoma community-wide movement. Named the Community Learning Fund, the work focused on three core areas: Community Partner Capacity & Capability, Data Capacity & Capability, and Postsecondary Access & Completion. As part of the investment, the Foundation convened a cohort of 38 youth-serving organizations committed to a year and a half of peer learning. Our shared goals:

  1. Increase our understanding of the various types of inequities impacting young people in Tacoma.
  2. Increase our understanding of the ways that practices, policies, and behaviors influence systems change.

Shortly after our first convening in February, COVID-19 and nationwide uprisings in the face of police brutality not only lay bare the need for the Foundation and Graduate Tacoma Partners to explicitly confront centuries-long racism and inequities in our community. The events of 2020 stressed the urgency of launching the Community Learning Cohort.

Amidst a tumultuous summer, the Foundation piloted a Racial Equity Organizational Assessment tool. All Community Learning Fund members were asked to complete the assessment for their respective organizations. Simultaneously, the Data Capacity & Capability workgroup engaged in their first workshops on using a continuous improvement framework to design and adapt youth-serving programs with a racial equity lens. The work the Community Learning Cohort has done to address internal policies and practices particularly hindering the success of students of color has the potential to inform the way we collaborate in Tacoma moving forward. 

We spoke to five organizations participating in the Fund to reflect on the weeks following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Manuel Ellis, Rayshard Brooks, and Jacob Blake. They shared how their work became newly defined in the last year and signaled a turning point to double down on their efforts to be anti-racist.

Challenge: How do we authentically connect more Black and Brown mentors to our extensive network of students?

big brothers big sisters of puget sound

Following the death of George Floyd, I remember this feeling of just sickness. My work with youth started in Minneapolis. There was a sense that the work many of us have invested has made little important headway against the entrenchment of systemic racism. It’s been too incremental. As tough as it is, it feels like maybe we had to go to that level of interruption and darkness before we can achieve transformation. Here in Tacoma, families are facing real insecurities about how to make ends meet, where is the food going to come from. We did a shift to be relevant to the changing needs of the families and kids we work with by providing virtual programming and food assistance. 

Simultaneously, though, the assessment surfaced deeper questions about how we reflect racial equity in every aspect of our work. It’s been extraordinarily timely to have the Community Learning Fund even though we are all facing different challenges. For Big Brothers Big Sisters, we have been grappling with the barriers keeping men of color, specifically African American men, from filling mentorship roles with our organization. [su_expand more_text=”Show More” height=”0″ link_color=”#c74b37″ link_style=”dotted” link_align=”left”]

We want to be an agency that provides men of color a safe place to be their authentic selves. And we are currently developing the framework to support that effort.

With the grant we received through the Community Learning Fund we also began working with Archway Consulting to conduct focus groups with Tacoma community members. This has both helped us prioritize areas where we need to improve, as well as engage in difficult conversations agency-wide. We see Big Brothers Big Sisters as a partner to the larger network of support systems and services for children. In Tacoma-Pierce County, we know that means effective and inclusive power-sharing. Today we are following the lead of our community and exploring new relationships with organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to create new responsive programs, find ways to serve youth more effectively, and funnel resources to BIPOC-led and rooted groups.

—Diana Comfort, Executive Director-Tacoma Pierce County[/su_expand]

Challenge: In our role as a convener, how do we address the larger systems of oppression embedded within the early childhood system?

first 5 fundamentals

The Community Learning Fund generated a resource-sharing opportunity to improve our work in supporting community-based initiatives in achieving their collective goals for children and families. Like others in the Cohort, we are using multiple tools to guide our anti-racism work.

We are in a unique position as a community convener; we are not a direct service provider for families and students. To this end, we have been looking, first, internally at our board and staff, how we operate as an organization, and our role as a facilitator in the community. Second, we are analyzing the ways in which systemic racism is embedded in, and impacting the early childhood system.[su_expand more_text=”Show More” height=”0″ link_color=”#c74b37″ link_style=”dotted” link_align=”left”]

Completing this racial equity self-assessment elevated that we are working intentionally to improve our policies and practices, however we need to increase our documentation efforts. Furthermore, we have also identified a need to be more transparent with our external community partners about the internal anti-racism work we’ve been doing.

We have learned a lot from this moment in time. Transparency about what is happening behind the scenes as we institutionalize and operationalize an equity framework is a key to moving forward.

—Susan Barbeau, Executive Director

—Rachel Hall, Project Child Success Manager[/su_expand]

Challenge: So many of us are doing similar work. How can we be in closer communication, work collectively, and have more of a unified effort under specific areas of racial equity?

vibrant schools

Kimi Ginn: We just finished a two-year grant where we supported the University of Puget Sound’s Masters of Teaching program to assess curriculum, pedagogy, resources, and to work with masters candidates on undoing institutional racism. Now, we have been asked to come back to UPS to help them partner with Tacoma Public Schools for professional development with their teachers. This is a new opportunity to influence institutional change, and it’s happening at a pivotal time.

What we have to plan for with the aftermath of Covid 19, is how we can support the social emotional needs of students in Tacoma Public Schools as well as staff. We know there’s going to be academic remediation, but what about the social emotional restoration. [su_expand more_text=”Show More” height=”0″ link_color=”#c74b37″ link_style=”dotted” link_align=”left”]

Aki Smith: Towards the end of the last school year, we knew people personally and just from testimonies that parents, students, families are hurting. And I, myself, am a parent of a child in the Tacoma school district. I think also just recognizing that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people in our city because we have high populations of low income families and folks of color who are locked into areas where they might not be able to get resources. It creates this ripple effect on people of color who have lost access to community spaces where they normally have an outlet to work through some of those emotions and find a way to channel them into action. 

In the same way, the election year and what we’ve seen on the media of police violence, not only are we grappling with that as adults, but also children are growing up in a world where they’re seeing people who look like them endure many forms of violence. So like Kimi said, the social and emotional toll of 2020 has to be addressed.

In the tool piloted through the Community Learning Fund, one of the areas for growth that we marked was finding ways to share learning outcomes from the work that we do, because we’ve primarily only shared to funders in the form of the report of activities that we conducted. 

That awareness has since gone into intentionally designing the upcoming professional development work with TPS, our decision to purchase office space in a central location, and into the job description for our newest hire, associate director, who will help shape our digital communication.

—Kimi Irene Ginn, Executive Director

—Aki Smith, Steering Committee Member[/su_expand]

Challenge: How do we more holistically connect our departments, programs, and services around a racial equity lens?

metropolitan development council

We are a Community Action Agency, which means we are one of the first Community Action Programs founded by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act with the primary purpose of lifting people out of poverty and breaking the cycles of poverty for future generations. Our goal is to mobilize and wrap services around people — get them into stable housing, provide energy assistance and weatherization, help them find employment, education, or support people so that when they’re in school, they have the things they need to focus on attaining secure employment and a decent living wage.

One thing that we have struggled with historically is referring those we serve between departments and understanding what each of our departments do. So that’s been, I think, the biggest takeaway that’s happening with this work is we’ve been able to come back with tools and ask some serious questions at both the organizational and departmental levels.[su_expand more_text=”Show More” height=”0″ link_color=”#c74b37″ link_style=”dotted” link_align=”left”]

The issues that have surfaced in 2020, very directly impact the mental health and morale of both the people we serve and the people on staff doing the work. So our initial goal was to create space for our community, community and organizational leaders, as well as those we serve, to discuss these topics and reflect on them and have an outlet where they can hear that they’re not alone with what they’re experiencing or trying to process and when possible, providing solutions and resources.

What developed out of that was a weekly series of online conversations held every Monday evening,  called Straight Talk, presented in partnership with the Tacoma Urban League. We have discussed issues of education, the impact of Covid-19 on black & brown and marginalized communities, as well as voting and the election season. We also partnered with the Emergency Food Network to provide food care packages to our clients and students following a needs assessment of the families we serve.

On a more long-term scale, the survey was very timely because we are in the process of strategic planning. Those results were not only included in that work, but also allowed me to make the recommendation to our leadership team that we include some of our direct service staff in the planning. Using an equity lens, if we cannot include the voices of our internal people on such processes, it becomes difficult to deliver service models that hear all of the voices we serve.

—Lori Parrish, Youth Education Manager[/su_expand]

Challenge: How can we continue to leverage thought partnerships in Tacoma to establish racially just programs and internal practices and policies?


Racial justice is a journey. No matter where you are on it, if you ever think you’re at the end then something is wrong. Because there’s a lot of work to be done, and until the entire community is thriving, no one organization will ever really be there. And so, having that as a core belief, that regardless of where an individual organization is, it takes community to make this work happen. 

The Racial Equity tool, coupled with the disproportionality of COVID-19 and the timing of George Floyd’s death, has increased our focus and intensity on the issue of racial justice. Over the years, we have been involved in a lot of statewide work, including a task force with the Governor’s office to address racial inequities. We also continue to look at how our programs, in particular our workforce development programs, are serving and are informed by communities of color.[su_expand more_text=”Show More” height=”0″ link_color=”#c74b37″ link_style=”dotted” link_align=”left”]

With everything that we are doing, when we went through that evaluation, we were low on quite a few of them.

It was good for us to have an external tool that asked questions in a different way than we would have thought about it so that we could really think about “Ok, where are we really?” and “How do we answer this truthfully?” I think it was really helpful to do another introspection and reflection with a tool that was not our own, that’s actually coming from a different source so it could maybe dig into some things in a way that we hadn’t done as closely and also the ability to look at the answers across the community through the Community Learning Fund and see how we can all work together to get to a better place.

We’re in other community groups as well. But being able to have conversations around what’s working, what’s not working, you have this opportunity to take the strategies you’re working on to another level, because you have other people in the room, with other experience outside of your own.

—Eu-wanda Eagans, Sr. Vice President of Workforce Development[/su_expand]