Racial Equity: The Responsibility and Opportunity for Local Governments

Group of people
Group of people

This post was written by Julie Nelson, Senior Fellow at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley and former Director of the City of Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights.

Having worked for government for 25 years, I have seen the potential for it to be a powerful force for equity and inclusion, but have also seen bureaucracy and perpetuation of the status quo. For those of us who believe that effective and efficient government means equity and inclusion for all, it is vital that our values be incorporated into routine operations. There are examples of local governments across the country doing just that.

Attendees gather at a City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative community workshop.

While I served as the Director of Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights from2007 to 2014, the Race and Social Justice Initiative resulted in a multitude of changes, including:

  • Passage of policies such as Paid Sick and Safe Time and Use of Criminal Background Checks in Employment Decisions,
  • Dramatic increases in the use of Women and Minority Business Enterprises in city contracts,
  • Fundamental shifts in the inclusion and engagement of communities in government processes, and
  • Use of a Racial Equity Tool in budget, policy, and program decisions.

I am currently working on a project with john powell, Executive Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley that provides support to local governments on efforts to achieve racial equity. The reality is that no individual jurisdiction has achieved success when it comes to equity, but there are plenty of best practices and lessons learned to share.

Historically, government has played a role in creating and maintaining racial inequity. With the advent of the civil rights movement, government began to take on a new identity.

However, despite progress in addressing explicit discrimination, racial inequities continue to be deep, pervasive and persistent across the country. Racial inequities exist across all indicators for success, including in education, criminal justice, jobs, housing, public infrastructure, and health, regardless of region. Clearly, addressing individual acts of discrimination is not sufficient.

A focus on racial equity in local government is critically important to getting to different outcomes in our communities. The goal must be beyond closing the gap; we must establish appropriate benchmarks that lift up all populations while paying close attention to those often excluded. Advancing equity moves us beyond just focusing on disparities. Deeply racialized systems are costly and depress outcomes and life chances for all groups. A focus on racial equity means strategies are targeted based on the needs of a particular group, but there are improvements for all groups. Systems that are failing communities of color are actually failing all of us. Racial equity increases our collective success and is cost effective.

Local government has the ability to implement policy change at multiple levels and across multiple sectors to drive larger systemic change. For example, many local jurisdictions have worked to reduce recidivism and racial inequity by implementing “ban the box” legislation for use of criminal background checks in employment decisions. This has led to adoption of this policy by the state of Minnesota, and as a result, a major corporation headquartered in Minneapolis, Target, changed their policy not only at the state level but nationally.

Lessons learned can help to inform our collective work on equity, including the following:

  • Analysis: Jurisdictions need to use a racial equity framework that clearly articulates the differences between individual, institutional, and structural racism, as well as implicit and explicit bias.
  • Capacity: Jurisdictions need to be committed to the breadth and depth of institutional transformation so that impacts are sustainable. While the leadership of elected officials is critical, changes take place on the ground, and infrastructure that creates racial equity experts and teams throughout local government is necessary.
  • Tools: Racial inequities are not random; they have been created and sustained over time. These inequities will not disappear on their own. Tools must be used to change the policies, programs, and practices that are perpetuating inequities.
  • Data and metrics: Measurement must take place at two levels – first, to measure the success of specific programmatic and policy changes, and second, to develop baselines, set goals, and measure progress towards goals. Use of data in this manner is necessary for accountability.
  • Partnering: The work of local government on racial equity is necessary, but it is not sufficient. To achieve racial equity in the community, local government must be working in partnership with community and other institutions to achieve meaningful results.
  • Urgency: While there is often a belief that change is hard and takes time, we have seen repeatedly that when change is a priority and urgency is felt, change is embraced and can take place quickly. Collectively, we must create greater urgency and public will to achieve racial equity.

The time is ripe for local government to work with other institutions and community-based organizations to eliminate race-based inequities. Centering community and leveraging partnerships are critical to our success.

Two upcoming opportunities to learn more about the work of local government to achieve racial equity are:

  • Racial Equity in Our Cities: A Webinar on Strategies and Opportunities for Sustainable Institutional Change
    Tuesday, March 4, 2014, 2:30-3:30 ET
    Click here to register.
  • Governing for Racial Equity Conference
    March 25 and 26, 2014, Portland, OR
    For more information: http://grenetwork.org/wp/

The project to support and align local government’s work on race and equity currently entails the following:

  • Conducting a baseline assessment of work being done by local government to eliminate racial inequities (Take part in the assessment by completing this survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/WWCWV6S.)
  • Supporting a cohort of local government that is at the forefront of work to eliminate racial inequities.
  • Identifying best and next practices for racial equity.

To learn more about the project, contact me at julie.nelson62@gmail.com.

Julie Nelson
Senior Fellow at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley
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