Tell the Truth

The words "Tell the Truth" float above a city skyline shrouded in fog

One of the first things the City Council did this year was hold a hearing on legislation to require a racial impact analysis as part of proposed zoning changes. The Department of City Planning asserted that zoning changes don’t exacerbate gentrification or have disparate racial impacts. But everyone on the street knows otherwise. Zoning, while not the only force, is one of the drivers of development and change in a neighborhood. If that were not true, why even have zoning?

One of the prime lessons illustrated over the past four years is the importance of telling the truth. Controlling the narrative with lies, whether it’s about crowd size or the results of an election, is how demagogues grab and maintain their power. When people give up the truth, they give up power.

The exercise of controlling the narrative may be overt and dramatic or it may be subtle and almost invisible, which is how the structural racism that surrounds us operates. Good people who believe they are committed to racial justice may nevertheless be using tools that lead to racially disparate impacts, and it is often hard to acknowledge the truth that a seemingly well-functioning system is embedded with bias.

Pratt Center often calls its work “technical assistance,” but really, what we do is help to tell the truth. Flawed Findings Part I and Part IIPublic Action Public Value, and Our Hidden Treasure, our most recent reports, each sought to expose information hidden by today’s land use process. They show that the process as it currently exists conceals the likelihood of disparate racial impacts, of residential and commercial displacement, and of the immense profits to be made by a zoning change. Without this information, communities are undermined in their efforts to achieve justice and elites escape responsibility for their actions.

Another lesson learned over a longer term has been the importance of keeping up the pressure: even when great progressive candidates win an election, there needs to be ongoing pressure – truth telling – to counteract the inertia and pushback by opposing interests.

There is a new administration in power in Washington, and a year from now, there will be a new administration in New York City. This new leadership will be the result of incredibly determined coalitions that are able to unify because of their shared commitment to justice and a shared understanding of issues and strategies for moving forward. Pratt Center's commitment to these coalitions is to provide the technical assistance – the tools to support truth telling in order to build a just, equitable and sustainable city.  


27 Jan, 2021