Interview with Rinku Sen, president and executive director of Race Forward & publisher of

In those exhausting and frightening days right after the election in November, I had the good fortune to catch Rinku Sen for a few minutes at the end of a long day of her organization’s biannual Facing Race conference. Though she must have been running on next to no sleep by that point, Sen was insightful, earnest, and eager to talk about the road ahead.

Rinku Sen

Photo of Rinku Sen

Rinku Sen

Shelterforce: What’s the role of small publications and advocacy journalism in this bigger fight over the narrative of our country?

Rinku Sen: I think the independent media is absolutely critical in this next period. Independent media may be the only consistent source [for] what is actually happening, without rationalizing what’s happening [or] minimizing it.

I think the independent media’s been pretty critical throughout this election campaign season. I say this being a member of the independent media, but I think our outlets—like Colorlines [and] Shelterforce—our beauty is that we are close to the ground, and we can report on things that The New York Times doesn’t hear about for months unless they’re reading us, right? And then, if they’re reading us, they may eventually decide that one of the stories we’re covering is important, like Standing Rock or Ferguson. Independent media is where I expect real drilled-down reporting is going to happen in this next period, and I really think that the American public needs to be encouraged to read it, to watch it, and to support it.

I’m quite certain that concerned reporters and editors are reading Shelterforce and Colorlines, and finding sources and stories in our outlets. And that’s a good thing. It’s good that we exist, and that they can come to our screens and pages to see what’s really happening.

Do you think people are going to return to paying for some of their media in order to keep us alive?

Rinku Sen: Yes, I do. I think the model might have to shift. Maybe we need to call it a donation and not a subscription. I am positive that we need to have fundraising infrastructure and revenue-generating infrastructure.

People who invest in independent and nonprofit journalism should find their way to us because we know how to do it. We know how to get to the ground. We know the actual networks of people who are affected by state action, by institutional action. We need support, and people should send us money.

Do you see opportunities for CDCs in the current environment?

Rinku Sen: I think that CDCs are really important. Local economies are still economies. They’re not just social spaces, they’re economic spaces. It’s important for people in the neighborhood, for example, to have some local institutions that they control and that they can influence. It’s where people live. How do you get any more central than that?

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

One of the places where the community development world gets into difficulty in figuring out how to talk about race is in the tension around mobility versus place-based development. Everybody, when pressed, will say we need both. Housing choice is essential, but we can’t abandon communities. But a lot of the folks, in arguing for mobility, tend to imply that anywhere that has a concentration of people of color is also a bad place to live.

Rinku Sen: Why can’t a community of color become a beautiful and economically viable community? Why is mobility our only option for economic viability, for safety, and for having good, necessary infrastructure where you live, [like] a grocery store, a hospital, [or] a subway? I am reluctant to say the only option for people of color, and for poor people of any color, is to move out.

That is not just because it’s hard if you don’t have enough money to move out, but because people do get things from being in a community that reflects their culture, whether that’s a single culture or a multi-culture. People get something from that; families get something from that.

A mobility emphasis is not going to provide safety and economic viability and grocery stores to every person who needs [them]. I think it would be great if we could build up a particular neighborhood or create paths to mobility without assuming that other people shouldn’t do something else. Just because we don’t want to do that other thing doesn’t mean that nobody should do that.

[Now,] there isn’t always resources to do them both. And in order to get resources, we sometimes say that the other way is the wrong way. But it’s not the wrong way. It’s just another way. I think if we can think strategically about how to generate the resources and the rules to enable both things to happen, that’s going to be the path forward. Sometimes people want to move and sometimes they don’t, and self-determination means having the ability to make that decision for yourself, for your own family, and having the resources to live that decision out.

One of the manifestations of racism is that it’s been harder to fund organizations that are led by people of color. We’ve been hearing about this a lot from a variety organizations, whether it’s community development financial institutions, CDCs, or other groups. Meanwhile, many others have very devoted, longtime white leaders who are trying to figure out how to transition their organizations when they retire. Do you have thoughts about making that move in a thoughtful way?

Rinku Sen: It takes courage to turn over an organization that you’ve built and may have been with for a long time, and having seen that organization through many ups and downs. It’s not easy running these organizations no matter what color you are. It takes a lot of self-reflection, courage, and appetite for risk. I’m not a person who is like, ‘Oh, these longtime white leaders just need to get out of the way.’ I think that’s too facile. That’s too easy.

But what I do know is that there is a lot of talent in the economic development world, in the housing advocacy world, in the organizing world, lots of talent of color, of all genders, and that talent also has to be nurtured, and it has to be given a chance to grow and to prove itself. Reading the timing is really important. Having a pipeline is really important, so thinking about that way before you’re ready to go, and then setting up the next crew for success is also important.

There is a pattern of white executive directors turning things over, and then all the mainstream support flying away. And that’s partly on the funders for making that decision, but it’s also partly on the outgoing director to make sure that the next leader—who might be of color, who might be a woman, who might be an LGBTQ person, who might be an immigrant—has the resources they need to succeed.

We did a survey about a year and a half ago and found that a large majority of the respondents were conflicted about working with the police. CDCs have people who complain to them about crime on their streets, so they organize a block watch. They do police-community relationship building. But they’re also hearing from folks who believe those things don’t increase their safety and that they don’t feel comfortable, and it’s a confusing spot to be in.

Rinku Sen: The relationships of communities to the institutions that shape their lives is a legitimate question for CDCs. I don’t think CDCs should be narrowly focused on building roads and creating housing and putting up physical things. They need to be concerned, as we all do because we’re civic actors, with how the civil society is hanging together.

I suspect that a good number of CDC [leaders] have never been in conflict with the police and so are uncertain when challenged by their own community members who have had negative experiences with the police and have a legitimate structural racism analysis of policing as an institution. I think CDCs would do well to listen and not dismiss those concerns, and then to put themselves in the position of backing up their communities. That’s what I really think they need to do.

If that means brokering and communicating some hard truths to the local police divisions, that’s what they need to do or enable. If it means joining with their community and challenging police behavior, that’s what they need to do.

CDCs, like all nonprofits, are spending the taxpayers’ money. We wouldn’t exist if there weren’t tax laws that took taxes out of the public coffers and made it possible for that money to come to us. So we have a civic duty, a public duty, and that duty is to deliver whatever we do—justice, economic strength, political power—to the communities that we claim to be helping. CDCs that aren’t working their way toward that end I suspect eventually will just kind of atrophy and die. The CDCs I know that really carry on for decade after decade, it’s because they’re connected to their communities, and they’re willing to back up those communities.

Rinku, thank you.

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