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Equity Office asks city to look through a new lens

Thursday, August 24, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

In the fall of 2016, the city of Austin readjusted its rudder and straightened itself on a course toward equity. Ten months ago, Brion Oaks stepped in as the chief equity officer of the newly established Equity Office, which is a dedicated city-funded effort to eradicate disparities in Austin.

The Equity Office stems from City Council’s desire to have somebody embedded in the system who is officially part of the city’s budget and therefore has the ability and the portfolio to have a presence in the city departments.

As chief equity officer, Oaks will head an office of two or three staffers who will focus on working with community groups to identify disparities in city programs and services while also brainstorming ways for city departments to address those gaps.

Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin Monitor that because the Equity Office has a recurrent funding stream, it has an increased chance of succeeding, and as a result, Oaks’ staff will continue to grow.

Recently, the Equity Office’s team has released its first tool. Called the “equity lens,” this initiative asks city departments to answer a simple set of questions that are aimed at reducing inequities and improving access to all groups. The answers to the questions are intended to provide a structure for institutionalizing equity considerations within individual departments. According to Oaks, the questionnaire was developed in conjunction with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.

“We need to have city governments where everything that we do has an equity lens put on it. It needs to be culturally embedded where it just becomes part of everything we do. That is not the case now,” said Adler.

Indeed, fully developed equity offices are rare. There are only about four top-tier, city-based equity offices today, in Seattle, Portland, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. However, the trend is gaining momentum with Boston, Minneapolis, Tacoma and San Antonio all creating equity offices in the past year, and Oakland in the process of creating one.

“I really think that this 10-1 Council has brought a different focus onto government and you have to look collectively at what the book of initiatives are,” said Adler. “This is a Council that has had a much greater focus on equity and access issues than I think Councils have had in the past.”

Currently, Austin has eight departments – or 20 percent – that are part of the pilot program: Austin Water Utility, Public Works, Human Resources, Parks and Recreation, Public Health, Library, Economic Development and Transportation.

Oaks said that he would like that number to jump to 50 percent of the total departments by next year. This fall, the Equity Office will be doing recruitment for 10 to 12 additional participants.

Current departments have completed the first phase of the pilot program where they answer questions to self-assess their sensitivity to equity issues that exist within Council’s six strategic priority areas: economic opportunity and affordability, mobility, safety, health, cultural and learning opportunities, and trustworthy government.

According to Oaks, program participants are now in the quality-control process. Phase three, he said, will be a partnership with the University of Texas Center for Place-Based Initiatives where they will do an evaluation and analysis of the assessments.

“The fact that we’re self-assessing ourselves, we think it’s really important to have an independent third party actually help to do that evaluation,” Oaks told the Austin Monitor.

Moving forward, each department will perform these self-assessments annually so that racial equity action plans can be adjusted year to year.

Adler agreed that equity initiatives should be continuously revisited. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it as something where we hit the mark and then we’re done. Because that’s not going to happen anytime soon,” he said.

According to Adler and Oaks, for Austin to become an equitable city, it will require a conscious unraveling of many city systems and departmental functions. However, they both agree that a good way to jump-start this process is by first addressing racial inequities, which is why the equity lens is a race-first tool.

Oaks explained that the dominant indicator of poor outcomes is race and ethnicity, so when you overlay that at other intersections “like gay and African-American” you see the disparities compounded.

“If you look at our city,” he said, “If we say low-income children, that’s really speaking to Hispanic and African-American children. They’re five to seven times more likely to live in poverty in our community.”

As a result, at the Equity Office, “We’ve been really conscious about leading with race,” Oaks said.

“If we solve race disparities, we will have solved the other disparities,” stated Adler.

However, the mayor did also point out that the Equity Office is only one component of a citywide initiative to establish equity in Austin.

He clarified, “I don’t know if it’s necessarily better than any of the other initiatives, but we’re going to keep throwing out initiatives as we move this thing forward.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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