Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | It’s a position that can come with tough challenges. City and county leaders should focus on three key actions to set their chief equity officers up for success.
Equity has become an increasingly pressing issue for local governments following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last year and the racial disparities in Covid-19 infections and deaths. As local officials seek to address the disadvantages felt by communities of color, one action some are taking is to hire equity officers.
A relatively new position, cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh have brought on equity officers to address systemic racism and structural inequities. And this trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Speaking this week at Govapalooza, a virtual festival for local officials, Siri Russell, the director of equity and inclusion in Albemarle County, Virginia, and Ray Baray, chief of staff at the International City/County Management Association and a former assistant city manager and chief of staff in Austin, Texas, offered guidance on how local governments can successfully add an equity officer to their ranks.
Leadership Support is Paramount
Demonstrating the importance of the chief equity officer role is essential for city and county executives. The best way to do that is to have them report directly to the mayor or county executive. In both Austin and Albemarle County, the chief equity officer reports to local leadership. This helps cement the position’s legitimacy and the significance of the officer’s role.
Support shouldn’t stop there. While chief equity officers are in high demand, it’s also a position that is subject to high turnover rates, according to Baray. That issue stems from the high-stakes pressure placed to get things done both quickly and right. However, many chief equity officers lack funding and other resources and can face outsized expectations about what they can accomplish. Additionally, the work is highly visible and political.
Mayors and county executives must ensure they provide their chief equity officer with adequate resources to do the work. Russell mentioned sometimes the position is created without a dedicated budget line, making it difficult for that officer to execute meaningful projects. Leadership support should come in the form of “dollars and social capitol,” Russell said. She went on to say that leaders could further demonstrate their support by showing that they are ready to stand up for their chief equity officer even in uncertain situations.
Engage the Community
Building community support is essential for success. Many communities of color have deep, historic distrust of government. Promises made, and promise broken, make them skeptical to trust new initiatives since past ones often haven’t led to meaningful change. That’s why it’s so important for local leadership to engage communities early on when adding an equity officer.
“Every step that you do, you need to include the community,” Baray said.
In Austin, city leaders engaged community members in the recruitment and selection process. The draft position description was developed with feedback from key community groups, who also participated in interview panels. And the final three candidates participated in a community town hall, which Baray said had an attendance of more than 250 people. Strong community engagement not only creates buy-in for the role but helps establish trust.
Be in It for the Long Haul
Equity is focused on addressing the systematic failures and structural inefficiencies that lead to worse outcomes for people of color in health, housing, wealth and overall wellbeing. Those outcomes didn’t emerge overnight and won’t be changed quickly.
A strong example of the challenges in play can be found in Albemarle County. Russell highlighted that there’s approximately a 10-year gap in life expectancy between white residents and Black residents. Reversing that disparity will take time, but if the county were successful at doing so, the benefit to residents would be huge. Although there is pressure to find quick wins, it’s important that local leaders commit to meeting longer-term goals that will truly achieve equity.
Route Fifty is the exclusive American media partner for Govapalooza.
Alisha Powell Gillis is the senior editor for Route Fifty.