Introducing the Sister Cities Project
Creating connections between segregated communities in San Diego County
Just Action suggests policies and programs that local groups can pursue to redress their community’s segregation. To be successful, the groups should be bi-racial and multiethnic. But creating such groups can be challenging. The segregated areas in which we live, and our racially-homogenous schools, religious organizations, community centers, parks, and retail establishments make it difficult for many of us to naturally meet and become friends with people of other races. Though it may take effort, building these connections is essential for the creation of committees that can challenge and remedy segregation.
In Just Action we include several stories of African Americans and whites who have overcome these obstacles to form bi-racial groups. They are stories of regular people taking extra steps to become acquainted with other-race neighbors. But they aren’t the only ones.
I recently met Shawn McClondon, founder of the Sister Cities Project in San Diego. McClondon is a marketing professional and diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant to corporations and government who is one of the few African Americans living in a mostly-white area. He had grown up in a lower-income, predominantly African American community, alternating between attending an all-black public school in that neighborhood and traveling to a nearby all-white parochial school where his mother taught. After junior high, he moved between living in segregated black and white areas: lower-income African American communities with under-resourced schools and affluent, all-white neighborhoods where he was one of a handful of black students.
McClondon knows his experience growing up with both blacks and whites is unusual and that most people know little about others of different races, making it hard to empathize with one another. He’s concluded that “the real issue with racism is that we just don’t understand each other.” He felt this acutely after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the massive participation in subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Then living in an affluent, all-white area of San Diego County, he posted an invitation on a neighborhood social media page – “if anyone wants to get to know someone who's black, wants to talk to someone who's black, and just be friends…contact me.” He was booked for three weeks after that.
These meetings led to some ongoing friendships. They also further convinced McClondon of the power of personal cross-race relationships in breaking down racial divides. Soon he created the Sister Cities Project to connect residents of affluent and underserved areas of the same region —beginning with Solana Beach, a higher-income, white city in northern San Diego County, and a lower-income, predominantly African American and Latino community in the southeast. He recruited residents from both areas through personal contacts and through groups that formed to advance racial justice after Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
The Sister Cities Project works not only to build relationships but also to support economic development in its underserved partner neighborhood. It has three program components: “EcoExchanges” in which community residents meet to learn about each other and discuss issues impacting their communities; an “EcoHub” that supports African American female entrepreneurs by connecting them with technical support, training, and informal mentorship from residents of the affluent partner city; and the “EcoAgency,” a job training program in digital marketing for Southeast San Diego youth.
The program has helped create meaningful bi-racial relationships. Leslie Bridges, a white small business owner from North County, regularly talks with Southeast San Diego entrepreneurs whom she’s met through the EcoHub. She and other volunteers offer them advice and support and help connect them to a network of resources they lack but require to grow their businesses – lawyers, financial experts, and marketing professionals.
The EcoExchanges allow attendees to dialogue and expand their understanding of the racial disparities that exist in their county. Recent meetings have included discussions of the history of redlining in San Diego’s. Many attendees hadn’t previously learned this.
In one session a participant explained that the regional association of governments would soon vote to raise fares on the county’s commuter rail. The increase would have a disparate impact on lower-income areas where many residents rely on the rail line to reach their jobs.
A volunteer then organized project members to call the city council member from affluent Solana Beach; she sat on the regional board and would soon vote on the fare increase. Those who couldn’t call were offered a form letter to send instead. McClondon speculates that the Solana Beach councilperson had never before been lobbied on behalf of residents of Southeast San Diego. She ultimately voted against the increase and it didn’t pass.
McClondon and Bridges would like to expand the Sister Cities Project model to other cities. Bridges knows that policy change is needed to address racial inequities, but governmental and legal action is just “not moving fast enough.” That’s why she appreciates that the connections she’s made through the Sister Cities Project have had tangible and immediate impacts. She notes that once we know people of other races personally, it’s difficult to tolerate racial disparities and discrimination. “We all know that’s true. We don’t have to be in government or be in policy work to know that.”
The more we hear about whites and African Americans from segregated neighborhoods of the same city or region building relationships and working together to reduce their communities’ inequality, the more normalized it can become and the more we believe we can do that same. The Sister Cities Project emphasizes economic development but other projects it inspires can challenge the segregation of their communities in different ways, by implementing any of the campaigns that Just Action recommends.
You can find out more about the Sister Cities project here. If you know of other programs like the Sister Cities Project, or anyone working on building bi-racial groups, please comment below or reach out to me.
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