By Paul Kiefer
Editor’s note: This post has been updated. See below for update.
On Monday afternoon, the Black Brilliance Research Project announced a split with King County Equity Now, the organization that the city selected last year to coordinate research that will lay the groundwork for a public safety-focused participatory budgeting process later this year. The Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) is the name of that research effort.
In a post published on Medium, Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) co-lead Shaun Glaze wrote that Freedom Project Washington, the nonprofit that serves as a “fiscal agent” for the $3 million contract, will now be responsible for coordinating the project, with the BBRP conducting research as a direct contractor to the Freedom Project. At the same time, King County Equity Now (KCEN), the group that’s contractually in charge of the research effort, announced its own new “community research panel” that it says will complete the research.
Under the terms of the Freedom Project’s contract with the city council, KCEN—as the lone sub-contractor to Freedom Project—is responsible for a list of deliverables, including three reports and presentations to the council. KCEN fielded its own team of researchers, including Glaze, but also contracted much of the research out to other nonprofits and community organizations.
Glaze told PubliCola on Monday night that research teams that previously contracted directly with KCEN will now contract directly with Freedom Project. However, Freedom Project’s role as a fiscal sponsor is strictly constrained by the terms of the contract. For example, the contract does not allow Freedom Project to add or remove subcontractors at will; any substantive changes to the contract must to be approved by the city council, which is likely to have some major questions about the project now that the BBRP and KCEN have said they are going their separate ways.
The BBRP is, in large part, Glaze’s brainchild; Glaze joined KCEN in June 2020 and, alongside co-lead LéTania Severe, assembled KCEN’s research team last fall. Glaze and Severe have also been the primary authors of the work plan and research progress reports submitted to the city council.
In the letter, Glaze wrote that the BBRP’s core staff lost confidence in KCEN’s leadership team after KCEN incorporated as a nonprofit at the end of 2020. “When KCEN represented a collective of Black community organizations, having KCEN facilitate the research made sense,” Glaze wrote. “However, once KCEN chose to incorporate, the community partnership dynamic changed, and this created obstacles and barriers to the research.”
Glaze’s letter claims that KCEN leadership locked researchers out of their email accounts and research databases, “[cut] off communication when requests for transparency and accountability were made,” delayed paying research staff and “dismiss[ed] the lived experiences of some Black community members, including Black people who live in but were not born in Seattle and trans and queer people.”
Of the eight research teams that previously sub-contracted with KCEN, two were notably absent from the signatories of Glaze’s letter: artist collective Wa Na Wari and South Seattle-based nonprofit East African Community Services. PubliCola has contacted East African Community Services and Wa Na Wari about the future of their involvement in the BBRP.
Meanwhile, in a community meeting Monday afternoon, KCEN’s leadership team announced the creation of a new “community research panel” that will “help steward research efforts moving forward,” producing its own report at some point in the coming year.
The council expects a final report on the findings of the BBRP by February 26. According to Glaze, the BBRP team expects to meet that deadline despite the shake-up. It remains unclear what will happen if the council ends up with two separate reports with conflicting recommendations.
Update on 2/11/2021:
The details of the split between KCEN and the core leadership of the BBRP are still difficult to track, but a representative from Freedom Project Washington says that their group will now directly oversee the research teams. (Previously, KCEN was responsible for supervising the work and budgets of the research teams.) In an email to PubliCola on Tuesday, Freedom Project spokeswoman Sauda Abdul-Mumin said the group will also take responsibility for the final research report to the council, which is due on February 26.
The contract for the work, which is held by the Freedom Project, makes King County Equity Now the only subcontractor on the project, and explicitly states that the Freedom Project, as the city contractor, “shall not assign or subcontract its obligations under this Agreement without the City’s written consent, which may be granted or withheld in the City’s sole discretion.” The city attorney’s office is advising the city council (which holds the contract) on what it needs to do to change the contract now, less than two weeks before the final report is due to the city.
Both Glaze, who spoke to PubliCola by text Monday night, and Abdul-Mumin said the re-shuffling of responsibilities won’t hinder the research project. “This change does not impact the contract schedule,” Abdul-Mumin said, “and we are still anticipating a final report and hearing to take place this month. Very little has changed in terms of the research facilitation. This transition occurred to safeguard the stewardship of public funds and remain aligned in our commitment toward making our communities safe for everyone, especially those who have for so long been targeted by systemic racism and oppression.”
Abdul-Mumin didn’t confirm whether KCEN’s own research team on KCEN’s subcontract) will remain involved in the project. However, in an email on Tuesday, KCEN’s press team wrote that the “nearly finalized” research project outlined in the city contract will remain “under KCEN’s Black research umbrella”; they did not clarify whether they intend to submit their own final research report to the council. Instead, the KCEN press team highlighted other advocacy efforts in which their organization is involved; some of those efforts, including calls for the city to set aside $1 billion for an anti-gentrification fund, appeared in past research reports KCEN submitted to the council.
KCEN’s press team also responded to the allegations that their leadership delayed payments to research staff, saying that the city didn’t provide “significant funding” until January. The press team also said that KCEN has paid a total of $1.8 million to the project’s research teams, including more than $1 million that KCEN raised from donors.
The payment schedule included in the city’s contract with Freedom Project Washington specified that the council would release the $3 million allotted to the project in four payments: a $250,000 payment after the council finalized its contract with Freedom Project; a $1 million payment after KCEN submitted a work plan and schedule; a $1.5 million payment after KCEN submitted its preliminary research findings; and a final $250,000 payment after the council received a final research report.
Financial records obtained by PubliCola show that Freedom Project Washington – which, until Monday, was solely responsible for distributing city dollars to its subcontractors and reporting their budgets to the council – show that the nonprofit submitted invoices for the first three payments in November, December and January. PubliCola has reached out to the Seattle City Auditor’s office, which is overseeing the contract’s payment schedule, to determine when Freedom Project received those three payments.
According to their contract with the council, Freedom Project cannot “transfer or reassign” any “essential” research staff without the “express written consent of the city”; Glaze and Severe, the project’s co-leads, qualify as essential staff, so their transfer from KCEN to Freedom Project will likely require city council approval.
Additional reporting by Erica C. Barnett