By Imagene Harris, Network Kansas
At the beginning of 2021, the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative (KHFI) was headed into its fourth year. The program was really starting to get its feet under it. The five partner organizations - Kansas State University Research and Extension (K-State), IFF, NetWork Kansas, The Food Trust, and the Kansas Health Foundation - were finding our stride on working together, and we had started to collect enough data to understand the impacts of the KHFI. One noticeable outcome was that the KHFI had not received many applications from Black, Indigenous, or Persons of Color (BIPOC)-led food retailers.
Looking back, it is not clear if this realization was primarily led by data, the increased conversations around racial equity throughout the general society, the recent intake of two Black-owned food retail businesses which contrasted with the ownership of previous applications we had reviewed, or some combination thereof. Whatever the main catalyst, it was clear that we needed to discuss the racial equity goals of the KHFI and action steps were needed in order to reach our goals.
In March of 2021, the KHFI partners made the commitment to offer more support to BIPOC-owned businesses that met all other KHFI eligibility requirements, such as serving low-access and low-resource areas. I would love to share that the process that followed this commitment was straightforward and streamlined with exact answers and protocols that can easily be shared out with others. I would love to share that, but instead I will report that our path involved a few more loopty-loops and curves. In spite of a longer path, I think the KHFI partners would agree that we all appreciate the lessons learned along the more scenic route of our journey. What an opportunity to continue to strengthen our partnerships than by pushing each other through ambiguity and taking one-step at a time toward our goals.
Our first form of improving the program’s racial equity began with offering BIPOC-led businesses with parameters that were intended to try to offset systemic barriers and inequalities that exist within the funding system. In this case, we offered a higher grant percentage for BIPOC-owned businesses. A funding mix of 80% loan and 20% grant versus 85% loan and 15% grant for white-led businesses. This was our starting point of providing support, trying to design a program that better addressed systemic inequities. However, it soon became clear this was not the only limitation.
'Was our language relevant to the communities we were trying to reach?'
'Were we being inclusive and intentional in our outreach?'
'How do we build a policy that supports our arguments for the varied funding parameters?'
These questions were our curves.
These were our loopty loops.
We knew we could get from point A to point B but the pathway was not as clear as we had originally hoped when starting the discussion of racial equity.
The good news was that no one organization was taking on this task alone, nor was the KHFI the first program that had prompted questions about racial equity. Many of the KHFI partners had experience through their other work on how they had started addressing racial equity within their different programs and their organizations. For instance, IFF had recently created a racial equity policy for their organization and had ideas fresh in their minds around intentional language chosen and used as part of that policy. The Food Trust has worked with other states and communities and was able to share the experiences of others. The Kansas Health Foundation was able to provide information on what their other grantees and their own organization had seen and learned regarding racial equity policies. My organization, NetWork Kansas, during this same time was building a no-match microloan fund for minority entrepreneurs and was working through very similar questions around program design and outreach. The timing and shared experiences highlighted the value of the partnerships that exist within KHFI. No one partner carried all the weight of building a racial equity policy. We shared knowledge and information, and continue to do so, as a way to lift up the initiative and improve it over time based on our own personal and organizational experiences.
Pulling together our shared knowledge, we began to move to our next phase of building a more concrete racial equity policy; putting pen to paper and solidifying our reasoning behind our goal and program design. This, again, had us revisiting questions and spending several phone calls debating language and definitions, learning from each other, and sometimes leaving calls still not sure of the right answer. The team managed to create a draft racial equity policy for our April advisory board meeting and we were thankful for the open feedback from our advisory board members. Even with this feedback we were left with more questions than answers, and finalizing our policy started to feel like something we might never reach.
Still, we moved ahead.
The summer was spent finding more organizations and BIPOC leaders for feedback. We dug into questions such as:
'Should we lead with “minority-owned” or use the newer acronym of “BIPOC” as an attempt to be more direct and inclusive?'
'Is just changing the parameters enough?'
And again, 'What is our outreach strategy? Are we tracking the right metrics to be informed of our progress?'
As we entered the fall, it began to feel like every question was met with more questions and each question might lead to a different answer depending on the person or party that answered it. Ambiguity reigned. The team decided to take our draft policy to the Public Health Law Center for review. Perhaps an organization with such an official expert-sounding name we would finally find our answers. Someone would just state, “this is good” or at least “this is good enough.”
It was a fantastic call that led to a great discussion among all parties, but I would not say it concluded with a direct answer. However, I believe it led to something even better - an epiphany. If a direct and clear answer eluded us, then perhaps the answer is that we need to create a policy that is allowed to be dynamic.
That allows for change and flexibility.
That allows for trust.
If we know that all partners are invested in listening and learning, then we need to trust that we will apply that learning over time. We can adapt our policy and program design as we learn more, but the communities we are trying to serve are not benefiting from our quest to find exact answers that may or may not exist. A fair and educated attempt at action is better than nothing.
By the end of October, about six months after our initial conversations, we had finalized the KHFI’s racial equity policy and kept the original parameters put in place for BIPOC-led organizations. An unintentional and informal outcome was that we had developed buckets of how the KHFI partners would address racial equity:
1. Program design
2. Racial equity policy
3. Outreach to BIPOC-led stakeholders and potential BIPOC-led KHFI applicants
4. Data collection
We had made progress on all four, but, once our policy had been finalized, it was the third one, outreach, that seemed to need the most attention. We have started working on both aspects. KHFI partners are currently in the process of conducting interviews with BIPOC leaders and entrepreneurs to learn more about their understanding of KHFI and their interpretations and feedback of our program design. We have all started identifying other partners and organizations that we can educate about KHFI in order to reach more potential BIPOC applicants. For data collection, we added race and ethnicity questions to our applications so we could begin to measure our performance toward our race equity goals, and in conjunction with finalizing of our racial equity policy the evaluation team for KHFI started tracking and reporting on the racial equity progress including such metrics as BIPOC-businesses funded and estimated BIPOC residents served. After all, it is what gets measured that gets done. If we want racial equity to be a part of our standard practice then it is important to include key metrics in order to hold ourselves accountable.
We may not know if we are getting our policy and program design right (or wrong), but we do know continued learning is the key. We have to try. Moving forward is better than standing still. We know that keeping conversations going is important and, in the meantime, we cannot seek perfection before taking action. We know that continuing to ask questions around equity and inclusion will lead to racial equity being a standard practice of not only KHFI but the total work of all the KHFI partners.
As long as we are comfortable knowing we do not know everything, but we are capable of iterating as we gain new knowledge, then our support of and outreach to BIPOC communities will increase racial equity in our programs, organizations, funding systems, and the ecosystems in which they all live.
To view the KHFI Racial Equity Policy, please click here.