The Future Growth of our Cities Requires a Racial Equity Lens to Create Opportunity for All Families and Kids

by Director, Mission Promise Neighborhood Richard Raya

My great-grandparents were indigenous Yaquis compelled to head north to the Bay Area a century back after waging battle in the Mexican Revolution. My parents toiled as farmworkers in the fields of Northern California and came of age during the Chicano Movement. And my tribute to the experience of those who came before me was to leverage their hard work and determination into earning my master’s from the University of California, Berkeley. The truth is, all of their names should have also been listed on my diploma.

I never forget my roots. That’s why I consistently bring a racial equity lens to my work as Director of the Mission Promise Neighborhood (MPN), which is a place-based initiative in San Francisco’s Mission District, long a welcoming immigrant hub. The Mission was also a historically redlined community and, more recently, the neighborhood’s working-class Latino residents have faced federal anti-immigrant policies coupled with displacement pressures caused by income inequality and the high cost of housing. 

Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, MPN worked to combat these discriminatory legacies by partnering with 20 long-entrenched neighborhood organizations to provide wraparound services to families along the cradle-to-career continuum. One goal was to reverse the trend of gentrification and its subsequent displacement of a community of color by six-figure-earning tech workers, drawn to the urban experience the Mission offers. This staggering fact tells the story: Over 9,000 Latinos are now gone from their neighborhood of choice. This amounts to nearly one in three Latinos.

Meeting these challenges head on, MPN has been making great strides to create equity in the neighborhood, ensuring everyone still has a place at the table. Our success is due in large part to having schools serve as community hubs, which are vital to any thriving city. After all, a city is simply a patchwork of neighborhoods — and the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why MPN places Family Success Coaches (FSCs) at eight schools, plus several early learning and care centers. These FSCs act as a connector to the neighborhood’s culturally relevant services, with a goal of family economic success that translates to student academic achievement.

To activate community members so they could make their voices heard, MPN also began a parent leadership program and a policy arm. Partly as a result of our community’s advocacy, we began to preserve existing rent-controlled units and even build new 100% affordable housing developments in a neighborhood that had been seeing nothing but market-rate gleaming towers constructed for a decade.

This work has always been about power-building and systems change. In addition to working with the City to create a fund for affordable housing development, we partnered with the San Francisco Unified School District to pass the Latinx Resolution, which mandates that the district work with the community to develop strategies to reduce academic disparities for Latino students. 

The aforementioned fostered the beginning of the stabilization of the Mission, and a promise kept to our kids via a dramatic increase in kinder-readiness and graduation rates. 

Then in March 2020 the pandemic hit. 

Latinos are only 15% of San Francisco’s population, but since the start of the crisis they have at times comprised 50% of the positive COVID-19 cases in the city. Systemic inequities created the perfect storm for this disproportionate effect on the Latino and immigrant community, with frontline essential workers living in overcrowded conditions that afforded little opportunity to isolate. Sadly, many were compelled to choose their livelihoods over their lives, the immediacy of putting food on the table tonight and paying next month’s rent paramount to the possibility of falling ill to the virus.

The good news is that MPN was built for this moment: The community infrastructure that we built to respond to historical inequities was primed to respond to this new inequity. Our FSCs were able to immediately reach out to the nearly 1,000 families on their caseloads and connect them to emergency income relief funds, affordable housing, eviction-moratorium applications and small business loans. The City, school district and philanthropy tapped us to distribute new emergency benefits because of that community infrastructure we already had in place, including the trust of our most vulnerable residents. We also worked with our partners to use anecdotal and data-driven evidence to convince Mayor Breed to identify $28.5 million in urgent COVID-response funding for our community, since we saw first hand the on-the-ground, unmet need.

We must work together to institutionalize place-based investments, such as Promise Neighborhoods, not only as part of a long-term equitable recovery solution, but also as a way to begin reversing the negative legacies of redlining and other discriminatory policies.

Let’s all have this honest discussion. Now is the time to create thriving cities replete with equity of opportunity.

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