Meet the chief equity officers May 5, 2021

Meet the chief equity officers

May 5, 2021

A decade ago, if you’d stepped into city hall and asked for the chief equity officer, you might have been met with a blank stare. But in the past five or six years, a growing number of cities have added these positions to their leadership teams, a trend that has dramatically increased since the outpouring of grief and anger across the nation in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others over the past year.

The shift reflects both cities’ increased and critical attention on racial disparities and their expanded focus on data broken down by race, gender, and ethnicity.

In general, chief equity officers identify the things in a city that lead to disparities in anything from the wellbeing of residents to city hiring practices. They train staff to reach out to underrepresented populations, and they guide departments in putting new policies into place. Chief equity officers are uniquely positioned to address a central obstacle in virtually every city—rooting out systemic racism in decision-making processes that can lead to inequitable outcomes.

Installing a chief equity officer has become an increasingly popular and effective tool for mayors who want to address inequities across city services. As Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser explained when she announced the creation of this position in her city in February: “We know that when more Washingtonians are given a fair shot, we are a stronger and more resilient city.” 

The move to create the position harkens back to Seattle, which, a decade and a half ago, created a race and social justice commission and a racial-equity toolkit. The toolkit guided city leaders through a process of examining their policies, programs and budgets to see if they harmed minority communities.

To some, the goal is nothing short of making sweeping systemic changes in the central ways city halls serve their constituents.

“We are fundamentally working to transform the nature of government,” said Julie Nelson,  who led the Seattle Office of Civil Rights from 2007-2014. She went on to found the Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE), a network of cities and other government entities.

Equity work can involve assessing each city department to determine whether its actions impact different groups differently and then shifting policy accordingly. In this case, the idea is to “interrupt decision-making processes,” Nelson said.

“If we keep doing the ‘same old same old’ we’re going to keep getting the same old outcomes,” she said. The job also can focus on training staff around issues of equity, making sure that the city’s workforce reflects its diverse population and seeing that contracts are going to women and people of color.

Precise titles and specific job responsibilities may differ for chief equity officers but one area of general agreement is that to be effective, they must be part of the city’s top leadership.

Erin Brown, Denver

Pull quote from Erin Brown. It reads: "We’ve made a deliberate decision in Denver to focus on racial equity so that all groups in the long run can rise. We have to focus on who are most marginalized to really improve outcomes."

Brown was deputy chief of staff for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock when the mayor tapped Brown to lead the newly created Office of Equity and Social Innovation in 2019.

At the time, individual city agencies were grappling with the impact of the city’s growth on marginalized neighborhoods, where the push for redevelopment was changing neighborhood character. Among them was Five Points, a historically Black neighborhood that once had thriving businesses and a vibrant music scene.

Efforts to address the problem weren’t coordinated.

“It was sporadic across the city. There wasn’t a plan,” Brown said, adding that agencies needed guidance and an answer to the question: What is equitable development?

“We’ve made a deliberate decision in Denver to focus on racial equity so that all groups in the long run can rise. We have to focus on those who are most marginalized to really improve outcomes,” she said.

Many chief equity officers come from the nonprofit world, Brown said. They have been engaged in people-centered work and have a strong sense of people’s needs, particularly people who have been left behind.

”You absolutely have to have a passion and a heart for the work,” said Brown, who formerly was the director of Denver’s Office of Children’s Affairs.

Stephanie Williams, Worcester, Mass.

Pull quote from Stephanie Williams. Read this: "There are a lot of textbooks out there, but if you really use the textbook method, you're not making real change around what works specifically for the city you serve."

Williams took the job as chief diversity officer for Worcester last November. One of her top priorities since then has been to develop a diverse workforce that reflects and meets the needs of the city’s population.

“Part of what I'm working on now is revising the city's affirmative action plan,” she said.

While the city’s first chief diversity officer, who was hired in 2016, reported to the director of human resources, Williams reports directly to the city manager and is a member of the city manager’s executive cabinet.

“Chief diversity officers…are new to municipal departments and institutions, but they’ve been around in higher education for years,” said Williams, who worked as the director of multicultural affairs at Anna Maria College for seven years before joining the city.

Worcester has been called one of the most diverse cities in the United States, with immigrants making up nearly 22 percent of its population. It has a growing number of people from Africa and a larger concentration of Ghanaians than any other U.S. city.

City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr., underscored that new residents from Africa have different ideas, histories, and expectations than African-Americans who have lived in Worcester for generations.

“Communities of color are not monolithic. They have very nuanced, very different experiences, very different expectations and very different sensibilities about things,” he said. “Really trying to understand that is critical.” As a result, Williams is looking at data, talking with community groups and listening to a wide range of voices in the city.

“There are a lot of textbooks out there, but if you really use the textbook method, you're not making real change around what works specifically for the city you serve,” she said.

“We're using a racial equity lens with our initiatives...but I don't go in and say, ‘This is what you need in regards to diversity, this is what it's going to look like.’ I really have to work with all the stakeholders,” she said.

In February, Augustus issued an executive order declaring that systemic racism is a public health crisis in Worcester. Some policy changes such as removing resource officers from schools and setting up a database for public complaints about police are aimed at removing bias in the city’s police force, school system and other parts of its government.

“That sends a loud message,” Williams said.

Brion Oaks, Austin, Texas

Pull quote from Brion Oaks. It reads: "For anyone who steps into this role as a chief equity officer, [you must] be able to organize and bring coalitions together to lead to this work."

In 2015, Brion Oaks was vice president of equity for the American Heart Association in Austin, where he had spent more than a decade looking at the disparities in health outcomes.

That same year, Austin was named the "Best Place to Live" in the United States by WalletHub. Community activists quickly pointed out that the city was not a best place for Black and Latinx residents and that big disparities existed. Those concerns led to the city’s adoption of an equity assessment tool that lets city departments judge how their policies, practices, and budget allocations impact different groups of residents differently. The assessment tool has guided Oaks’ since he became Austin's chief equity officer in 2016. “It’s really the cornerstone for our office,” he said. 

Oaks' goal is for all 44 city departments to use the tool and develop an action plan by this September. “We are actually in our final cohort of city departments that are going through the equity assessment process,” he said.

In using the tool, a dashboard shows each department’s assessment. The Watershed Protection Department’s assessment, for example, found that its management jobs were less likely to represent all racial groups equitably than jobs based out in the field.

The department, which protects against flooding, erosion, and water pollution, previously had made decisions about infrastructure maintenance solely on technical grounds. But the assessment found that flooding or other infrastructure failure could have a worse effect on communities of color “due to the impacts of systemic racism and historical segregation.” A community’s “social vulnerability” will now be taken into consideration when prioritizing projects.

"For anyone who steps into this role as a chief equity officer, [you must] be able to organize and bring coalitions together to lead to this work," Oaks said. "You need to develop a strong connection to the community and to people who have been the most marginalized."

They have to bring others along to their way of thinking. Oaks said it’s necessary to “give grace” since many people “have not historically been focused on racial equity.”

A chief equity officer has to push against the status quo, he said.