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Newly created Equity Office to address lack of equal representation in city government

Tuesday, July 5, 2016 by Cate Malek

Austin is a majority-minority city, or, in other words, a city where no demographic group forms a majority of the population. But that status presents considerable challenges when it comes to making sure Austin’s diverse population is represented equally in city government.

In a move to address long-running issues of inequality in Austin, city officials are in the final stages of creating an Equity Office. The new staff of three people will be responsible for monitoring a broad range of issues citywide, but will be especially focused on hiring and funding allocation.

“We felt like there were not enough Latina women in positions at the very top,” said Jill Ramirez, chair of the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission for the city. “We felt like our demographics were not represented in city government.”

Ramirez said her commission was also concerned about where city funds are going. “Latinos right now are 36 percent, almost 40 percent of the population,” she said. “We wanted to know if funding is allocated in a way that reflects those demographics, because we have huge needs.”

Ramirez and the members of her commission were instrumental in getting the Equity Office off the ground, but she said City Council was supportive from the beginning. In a memo written in August 2015, Mayor Steve Adler proposed that Council discuss the idea.

“While Austin prides itself on being a wonderful place to live, due to a number of inequities, it can be a difficult place for people of color,” he wrote. He added that the office would be tasked with using an “equity lens” to examine Council decisions.

In fall 2015, Council approved $183,000 to be used over six months to hire staff and set up the office. The applications for the chief equity officer have been received, and the city hopes to have someone hired in the next few months. The new office will have a very broad mandate, examining issues of inequality not only in city government but across Austin as well.

“They’re going to be working everywhere from public safety to public health, employment issues, workplace issues, environmental issues,” said Acting Assistant City Manager Mark Washington. “We’re really looking for someone who has a good overall understanding of where there is disproportionality in the community.”

Equity offices have become something of a trend across the country in recent years. Other cities with offices include Seattle, Boston and Portland, Oregon. City staff members studied these other cities to see what has worked well for them. But everyone involved with the new office was optimistic about the effect it will have on Austin’s problems with inequality.

“Like anything else that’s new, there are going to be growing pains at some times,” Ramirez said. “But I think (staff) is working diligently, looking at what worked well in some places and what didn’t. So they’re going to get the best of what they learned from those other places.”

Photo by M. Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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