In 2002, the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI) began in the living room of Civil Rights Attorney Maya Wiley, with a $75,000 seed grant from the Open Society Institute as a project of the Tides Center. The brain-child of Maya and Jocelyn Sargent, a political scientist, they started CSI in the wake of September 11th to bring policy strategy capacity to support inclusive public policy solutions to a devastated city. Our nation stood at a crossroads, trying to rebuild New York City and to pursue those who had perpetrated this crime while (we hoped) maintaining the civil liberties and principles of equal opportunity upon which our country was founded. The federal government made $20 billion available to support rebuilding from the attacks, but the bulk of this money targeted two wealthy neighborhoods in Manhattan. What of the other communities devastated by the reactionary policing of immigrants and Muslims that swept wage earners into deportation centers and back to their home countries, leaving entire communities with destroyed families and without their economic lifelines? This led Maya and Jocelyn to ask:
“How do you support leaders, from the grassroots to the decision-makers, to build a more perfect union?”
This was the seed and the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen’s book “Development as Freedom” provided the goal. Maya named CSI to articulate the goal rather than to emphasize the problem. As Sen defines it, social inclusion is multi-dimensional, including political, social and economic spheres, which have a powerful structural component. It makes clear that we need strategies that break out of silos. This helps explode the “it is class not race” myth. Maya and Jocelyn identified a need to promote a better understanding of the role that race plays in American society in perpetuating poverty and political and social isolation of not only communities of color, but even of White people who are poor.
For the first year, Jocelyn and Maya worked, unpaid, to build collaborative, applied research projects with communities of color to help them create truly transformative policy solutions. Jocelyn then joined the Board of Directors and Maya led the staff. CSI issued its first formal report in 2003 on educational opportunity in Mississippi, and by the beginning of 2004 was able to hire staff – a Researcher and an Advocacy Coordinator. It was a major step toward real impact. In 2005 CSI commanded a $500,000 budget and a staff of five focused on supporting better schools and economic development opportunities in Mississippi and South Carolina. CSI was training foundations and communities alike on structural race analysis that could show why and how race matters and how to catalyze new strategies for lasting transformation.
“Inclusion is characterized by a society’s widely shared social experience and active participation, by a broad equality of opportunities and life chances for individuals and by the achievement of a basic level of well-being for all citizens.”
When Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast region, the nation had another 9/11 moment on its hands. CSI created a monthly “Race to Rebuild” report card on equity in post-Katrina rebuilding. CSI analyzed the advocacy capacity of communities, issuing a “Race to Rebuild” leadership report on five southern states and spent two years supporting an informal multi-racial, multi-state leadership network on equitable rebuilding.
In 2008, CSI assumed the stewardship of the Alston Bannerman sabbatical program, a 23-year-old program which, over its history, has supported nearly two hundred community organizers of color across the nation by giving them an opportunity to take time off for reflection and renewal.
Additionally, beginning in 2005, CSI began working on how to talk effectively about race. Over the last two, we’ve been rolling out empirical data and trainings on communicating more effectively with new and long- standing partners. Our Communications Testing has provided a bold and highly effective response to the race wedge that the far right is pushing to undermine inclusion.
From increasing Black rural farmers’ power on land use planning in Richland County, SC, to partnering with the Mississippi NAACP to fight for broadband access in the Mississippi Delta, to supporting health care reform messaging in Texas and helping US Congressional Representatives learn why and how to talk about race constructively, CSI has devoted years to supporting solutions that work for everyone.
(left: Maya Wiley; right: Jocelyn Sargent)