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Our take on the state of the region

Juneteenth: A Promise Unfulfilled

Author: Dwayne Marsh

This year, as Juneteenth reminds us of the struggle of more than 4 million enslaved African-Americans and their descendants for equality and justice, we face a growing realization: the pervasive impacts of structural racism continue to be the greatest barriers to unleashing the promise of a multiracial democracy.

We often hear that this date symbolizes how far we’ve come: from limited awareness of the significance of Juneteenth to its recognition as a national holiday, and now to real talk in some corners on the viability of reparations – due to the work of our social movements for racial justice.

But today, it’s hard to take solace in that perspective. Juneteenth emerges from the unthinkable – withholding freedom from newly liberated peoples. In 2023, we have our own unthinkable realities that must be confronted: economic insecurity, housing instability, the assault on basic rights. The struggle is more real than ever to end police brutality, build economic justice, and create a more equitable society.

Are we willing to simply stand by and accept that our region – one of the world’s most affluent – lost more than 25,000 Black residents from 2010 to 2020 – a 6 percent decline in a decade? That 2 out of 3 Black women-headed households pay more than they can afford on housing? That median wages for Black workers have decreased in the past decade while wage disparities have grown? We cannot rest until these data have changed.

To truly honor our ancestors this Juneteenth, we need to do more than educate. We have to ask ourselves, from wherever we are positioned, “What will be our legacy?”

For our part, over this last year, the organization I lead – Northern California Grantmakers – began exploring the transformative power of reparations. We designated a portion of our membership revenue to indigenous land taxes: an early step that we hope will be more than symbolic. We do this knowing far more is needed, and also that modeling the change we want to see is essential.

I’m proud to be a Board Member here at Urban Habitat, where the team’s strong support of community land trusts honors the legacy of Black Southern farmers and their decades-long struggle for land ownership. Land trusts have proven to be one of the most transformative tools that communities have to prevent displacement, democratize decision-making, and equitably manage land.

We each must make commitments – personal, professional, and in communities of solidarity – that honor our ancestors’ work for liberation. To realize the promise embodied in the Emancipation 170 years past due, we must both remember and take action.

This is why I am pleased to support Urban Habitat as a longtime member of the board: this team continues to lead in building the kind of region we deserve, centering equity and inclusion while closing the gaps still lingering from the very first observation of Juneteenth.

Dwayne S. Marsh, President and CEO, Northern California Grantmakers
Urban Habitat board member since 2016