By Daniel C. Vock
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this year, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young announced he was restructuring the local government to address systemic inequities.
The Office of Civil Rights and Equity, newly created by executive order, expands the mission of the city's civil rights office. The department is charged with addressing racial discrimination and protecting civil rights, as well as determining the equity impact of policies, programs, and budgets before they are approved.
In the past year, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia have also established formal offices to ensure city officials and staff assess the consequences of their decisions. These offices join a growing number of initiatives recently created by planning and other city departments to institutionalize racial and income equity and justice concerns.
The burgeoning trend is a long time coming, and can be attributed to cities like Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and Seattle, says Gordon F. Goodwin, director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. Earlier adoption of initiatives and offices there have started to impact policies, projects, staff, and residents.
In 2015, for example, Portland's city council voted to make a set of racial equity goals and strategies, largely captured in an extensive toolkit, binding city policy. Austin's equity office has similarly completed an equity tool pilot and assessment, led a review of the city's new comprehensive code draft to identify racial and economic shortcomings, and partnered with the Office of Police Oversight and Innovation Office to analyze the police department's racial profiling data.
"When we focus on race, on people who have been on the fringes, where there have been gaps, quite frankly, in government services, then we know that we're going to create a better-working government," says Goodwin.
Planning for Equity in Philly
At the beginning of the year, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued an executive order adding equity concerns to the duties of the city's diversity officer, mandating equity training for city managers and supervisors and requiring that all city departments complete racial equity assessments and plans by 2023.
"Our administration wants to ensure that city government is focused on true equity — rather than just fairness or equality. Our policy-making, service delivery, and distribution of resources must account for the different conditions of the communities we serve," Kenney said during the announcement. "When we are able to correct historical wrongs and address current practices that perpetuate inequity, all communities benefit."
The Department of Planning and Development began its equity efforts before the mayor's order was issued, says Lauren Cox, a mayoral spokesperson. Its staff went through diversity, equity, and inclusion training at two staff retreats and in smaller groups. One of the first steps the agency took as a result was to offer more opportunities for planning students from lower-income backgrounds. Instead of only offering internships for college credit, the department began paying interns. It also sent staff to colleges and high schools to help attract a more diverse workforce to the planning profession.
Equity versus equality
Focusing on equity is different than thinking about equality, Goodwin says. He points to common furlough policies enacted during the onset of the coronavirus.
Many governments issued across-the-board furloughs, resulting in the same amount of unpaid time off for all employees. In Portland, however, city leaders took a different tack after considering the financial hardship 10 days without pay would cause front-line workers. While 1,200 full-time, nonunion employees earning more than $87,900 per year were furloughed for 10 days, lower-earning workers took less of a hit: five days of furlough or, depending on income, none at all.
"Typically, we look at things as: everybody gets the same amount of time away from work. [But] not everybody has the same salary or the same benefits," Goodwin says. "When we're talking about the equity piece, it's not about the resources and everything being fair there. It's about how we get the outcomes that everybody should receive from government."
Goodwin says cities that undertake equity initiatives need to talk directly about race and have broad reach across the institution, so they can affect budgets and other policy areas where race has not been formally considered. And, importantly, the city needs to make sure its efforts include a publicly shared commitment.
San Francisco's planning department launched a racial and social equity initiative in 2016, ahead of the formal Office of Racial Equity established by Mayor London Breed last year. In its first few years, the initiative called for a survey of the department's own internal processes, aided by a new equity assessment tool, much like the ones used in Austin and Portland.
Cities that undertake equity initiatives need to talk directly about race and have broad reach across the institution so they can affect budgets.
—Gordon F. Goodwin, Director, Government Alliance on Race and Equity
At a broad level, the tool helps employees think about who will benefit and who will be burdened by decisions and policies, plus how to mitigate any negative impacts. Staff are required to gather data and solicit community input to help answer those questions, as well as communicate the results and build in accountability for project outcomes. The department says the tool should be used for both internal and external work, including budgets, policies, plans, programs, phases of development, project review, and legislation.
One of those efforts is the city's community-led cultural district program, launched in 2018. Using hotel tax funds and staff support, including from the planning department, the program recognizes and supports cultural and identity-based districts throughout the city by providing economic opportunities, working to halt displacement, and preserving architectural and cultural history.
While the city's formal equity office, less than a year old, has yet to take part, it will likely get involved in this ongoing work, says Claudia Flores, the planning department's community equity team manager. And the efforts that are already underway are beginning to have impacts, she adds.
The department is working to create more inclusive hiring processes and make sure people from diverse backgrounds are in upper-level management positions. And as the city prepares to grapple with funding shortages because of the pandemic-induced recession, leaders will look at potential program cuts through the prism of how they affect communities of color.
"As public servants," says Flores, "we have a responsibility to advance racial and social equity to make sure that disparities and challenges are not made worse off by our actions."
Daniel C. Vock is a public policy reporter based in Washington, D.C.