Do Cities Need Dedicated Offices of Equity? The Answer Seems, Yes!

In the age of Obama, many people believe we are living in a “post-racial” world. But race continues to polarize people and cities. Ferguson, MO was not a town most people knew before 2015, but now it has come to symbolize race relations in this country, more pointedly, the destructiveness that results when communities of color are marginalized and issues around race go unaddressed.

We know race and ethnicity affects people’s chances and outcomes across a host of areas. To mention a few well-known statistics, Blacks and Native Americans have an unemployment rate 2x that of whites, 65% or fewer Black or Hispanic men graduated from high school compared to 80% of whites, Blacks are incarcerated at nearly 6x the rate of whites, and 57% of Black and Hispanic households spend more than 30% of their household income on housing cost making them the demographic with the highest housing burden.

So in light of this growing consciousness, one would be hard-pressed to find a mission statement for a local government that did not include the words “equity” or “equality.” And race relations is becoming one of the focal pints of state of the city speeches. Yet how these speeches translate into actual outcomes is far from clear if cities lack agencies responsible for gathering data on inequalities, developing strategies to aggressively tackle them, and measuring change over time.

Increasingly, cities with significant gaps in outcomes due to race are lobbying for dedicated offices within government to strategically work on achieving equity. One recent example is Oakland’s Office of Race & Equity. Oakland Councilwoman, Desley Brooks, was instrumental in the creation of this office. Oakland has a long and highly-publicized history of problems around race. The Oakland Police Force, by federal order, has had to reform its policing tactics. Economic disparities also abound. Household income of whites is 2x that of black residents.

Dante James, Director of Portland’s Office of Equity & Human Rights, is assisting in the search for Oakland’s Director. James recently wrote on Op-Ed piece explaining why the office was needed. “Looking at the most impactful social indicators of success; it is not class, it is not gender, which are most decisive. It is race that is the ultimate predictor of the most detrimental outcomes in society,” James wrote. I agree. Compared to the achievements in gender and LGBTQ equality in the country, racial disparities have been much harder to overcome.

Having dedicated offices to tackle equity makes sense for a variety of reasons. First, these offices can keep government more keenly focused on this issue because someone owns “equity” and answers directly to executive leadership for the progress or stagnation in this area. Instead of letting agencies pursue equity goals on their own, these offices can set the direction and benchmarks. They also can create opportunities for inter-agency initiatives given that most strategies to tackle inequalities will likely require working across silos.

Equity offices can also play a positive role in government-community relationships, as they can be more reflective of community’s concerns. In Oakland, residents and community organizations asked their government for a dedicated office. People of color in Oakland were keenly aware of the disparities that were all too prevalent in their city, and they demanded greater transparency in government’s handling of this growing problem.

Equity offices can also promote an evidence-based approach, driven by metrics. Portland’s Office of Equity & Human Rights implemented a database that tracks demographic information by bureau and decision point. Centralized collection of data by this office eliminates one-off and agency-specific data collection, which is rarely standardized, to enable meaningful connections across multiple agencies and issues.

While Oakland’s and Portland’s offices were created to deal explicitly with race, other offices of this nature deal with equity as it relates to gender and human rights. In February, Mayor de Blasio of NYC created a Human Rights Commission. Its focus so far has been limited to the certification of U and T visas for immigrant victims of crime and human trafficking, but I look forward to seeing what’s next.

An extension of the principles behind the Human Rights Commission, is NYC’s Commission on Gender Equity. Led by Azadeh Khalili, an expert on both gender and immigrant equity, the Commission will work on issues “to promote economic, social, and physical well-being for women, girls, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, queer, and intersex people, and to develop policies that promote opportunities for these populations.” This office can set an example for the rest of the country in dealing with gender equity issues.

Indeed the U.S. is behind in establishing offices of this nature. In the U.K., Parliament established the Equality and Human Rights Commission in conjunction with The Equality Act of 2006. This commission’s express purpose is to “to challenge discrimination, and to protect and promote human rights.” Going further, in 2007 the U.K. government created the Government Equalities Office which is responsible for equality strategy and legislation across the UK government, particularly on issues relating to women, sexual orientation and transgender equality.

Similar offices can be established in the U.S. at national, state or local levels. I realize not every U.S. city has the resources or public will to create dedicated offices or commissions to address equity. But where dedicated offices are not possible, there are alternatives. Outside organizations that work directly with government can help them tackle equity using different models.  The most prominent, the Government Alliance on Race & Equity, (GARE) is headed by Julie Nelson, a former Director of the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. Other groups like All In Cities have increasingly made the case for equity using economics as the carrot. Inclusive economies, All In Cities argues, must include equity goals in economic development planning and decision making.

While I advocate offices, initiatives, or commissions to address equity, not everyone is in agreement that these measures are needed or effective. Some say that they duplicate the functions of other offices. Noel Gallo, a female, Latino, Oakland council member, voiced opposition to the dedicated office in Oakland because she asserted that there were five existing government bodies that performed the same function as the proposed office.  She argued it just added another layer of bureaucracy and cost. In fact, the initial estimate for the Oakland office was $819,000 a year. In 2016 the city council approved $467,000 each year for the office.  In Minneapolis, Equity and Inclusion positions accounted for $250,000 in the approved 2016 budget. However, in light of the importance of the problems these offices are tasked to address, the only reason these budgets seem unreasonable to me is that they are too low.