Over the course of 2020, racial inequities demonstrated through the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, and criminal justice have been front and center. City and county managers are uniquely situated to lead and support their jurisdiction’s efforts to address inequities and advance racial justice, recognizing the reality that government played a central role in the creation and maintenance of racial inequities. City and county managers have the ability to lead and implement policy and practice change at multiple levels and across multiple sectors to drive larger systemic change.
ICMA and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) are working together to achieve racial equity in communities across the country. We are excited to share the experiences of several city and county managers who are using GARE’s framework of normalizing conversations about race, organizing within government and with community partners to achieve racial equity, and operationalizing with new policies, practices, and racial equity action plans.
Read on to learn more about these leaders and the strides they have made within their communities.
Our county’s vision statement was “Ottawa County strives to be the location of choice for living, working, and recreation,” until it was completely rewritten in 2016. What led to the change? In 2012, the county embarked on the Four Cs (customer service, communication, creativity, and cultural intelligence) organizational improvement, and strategic alignment initiative. The county partnered with the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) to provide cultural intelligence training for nearly 700 employees in such areas as diversity, implicit bias, and white privilege. Many employees reported that it was the most impactful professional training that they had received in their career. Strong support from major employers continue to emphasize the importance of the work. In 2016, the board of commissioners changed the county vision statement to “Where you belong.” Words are meaningful and this change has been key to providing a clear statement on where we stand to all employees and residents.
Our vision for Lane County is to be the best place to live, work, and play for everyone. This means that Lane County must be a healthy, safe, and thriving community. We cannot reach our full potential as a community until every resident has access to a level playing field to reach their full potential.
Oregon and Lane County have a tragic history of racist policies and practices—from forcible exclusion of people of color and restrictions on property ownership, to refusal to recognize indigenous tribes—that have created structures and institutions that continue to foster and perpetuate inequities based on race. We continue to reckon with this local history, just as our nation continues to reckon with its broader history of racial oppression and inequities.
Racial inequities have been built into the very fabric and foundation of our nation. Therefore, it’s going to take all of us—particularly those of us who have historically benefited from inherent privileges in our society—to make racial equity a part of our community’s vision, values, and daily work.
In Lane County, our racial equity priorities are to:
3. Operationalize: Establish a racial equity lens that is embedded into all decision-making.
Our vision and priorities for racial equity in Lane County were developed in partnership with our GARE cohort team, and reviewed and approved by our county-wide equity committee. Our GARE cohort team is made up of nine employees that together participated in GARE’s nine-month Northwest Cohort in 2019. Our county-wide equity committee is made up of the county administrator, appointed department directors, the elected assessor, and one representative from each department from varying levels of classifications (from front line staff to upper management).
The process to develop the vision, priorities, and goals included several facilitated focus groups with the teams mentioned above, as well as our Board of County Commissioners and our Equity and Access Advisory Board, comprised of volunteer community members. In June 2020, our Board of County Commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter and Lane County’s commitment to putting in the work to achieve racial equity.
In addition to the LEDA training previously mentioned, the county also facilitated and hosted annual diversity forums featuring practitioners and industry experts to speak on racial equity and inclusion. The Cultural Intelligence Committee (CIC), a 15-member volunteer employee-led group, promoted lunch-and-learns, training, and engagement around racial equity, and remains active in both the community and internally. Ottawa County was also one of the early adopters of GARE, joining the network across the county. In 2019, the first diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) office was staffed. In 2021, we are planning to work with the local municipalities, townships, villages, and cities—along with internal departments—to establish learning communities that will create and implement racial equity toolkits and action plans, and operationalize these within each of their respective locations. Leadership will be learning racial equity competencies through this model, through partnering with the county DEI office, and continued work with GARE.
We have incorporated our racial equity priorities into our county-wide strategic plan to align the work with organizational and community priorities, and to ensure accountability. We recently established an equity lens for our organization and are working to operationalize the lens into our regular decision-making. We have created new committees, comprised of staff at various levels of the organization, to take on specific objectives that fit under our racial equity priorities to further work on normalizing, organizing, and operationalizing racial equity. We invited two speakers from GARE to conduct a day-long racial equity training for all of our supervisors, managers, and emerging leaders last winter.
In order to build racial equity competencies for middle management and frontline staff, we have expanded our capacity by bringing on new facilitators (emerging leaders in our organization) to conduct Equity 101 trainings for all of our employees. We have a requirement that all employees conduct a minimum of three hours of equity training each year. We have conducted trainings that focus on tools, such as “affirm, counter, transform,” to better equip our employees to have impactful conversations about racial equity.
I have sent daily emails to all employees since mid-March to provide updates on the COVID-19 pandemic, and I often use this forum to reinforce our racial equity priorities and address information about systemic racism, which includes the racial inequity exposed during this public health emergency.
Finally, we are excited about the upcoming virtual town halls that we will be facilitating to ask residents what it would look like to achieve racial equity. We are seeking our community’s input on how to view our policies and practices from various perspectives, and how to best approach dismantling systemic racism in our organization and community.
I have hired directors who come with racial equity competencies and together we offer training for all staff in race equity strategies and planning. With broader support from directors, we can count on increased engagement from middle management and frontline staff. In 2014, Governing for Racial Equity (GRE) training was conducted by Race Forward, blended with Trauma Informed Healing training done by the National Compadres Network. We trained 50 staff, including nearly all directors and middle managers. The training was innovative and the first of its kind in the country.
Out of this training came the development of a GRE steering committee made up of equal parts community and city leadership that continues to meet to this day. The leader of the steering committee is Jose Arreola, community safety administrator and director for community alliance for safety and peace. Jose has been a champion of the city’s racial equity efforts. His participation has been instrumental in moving race equity forward internally within city hall and externally with community partners. The goals of the steering committee were to:
5. Conduct or begin actual new projects, policies, or practices.
The development of the Salinas case study “Building the We” and the short documentary of the same name are how we “tell the Salinas Story.” In 2015 and 2016, we expanded the training to include all staff. In 2016, we registered for the Government Alliance on Race Equity (GARE) and invested in a team of nearly 20 staff with representation from all departments to attend the year-long Northern California cohort in Oakland. We graduated GARE cohorts in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In February 2020, the city council of Salinas accepted a grant award from the California Endowment of $120,000 over two years to fund continued and expanded race equity training for staff. The key outcomes of funding from this grant are:
1. Increased capacity of city employees to deepen a shared understanding of structural racism and its role in perpetuating health and other key life inequities.
2. Increased understanding of the city council to deepen collective shared understanding of structural racism and its role in perpetuating health and other key life inequities.
3. Increased commitment and implementation of healing-informed GARE practices across all departments that allows the city to make substantive progress toward institutional change.
4. Participation and engagement of city leadership in East Salinas Building Healthy Communities-Towards a Racially Equitable Monterey County.
One of the key priorities of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Office is to lead the development of their strategies across the county. Part of that work includes racial equity work through implicit bias templates (i.e., racial equity toolkits) which are then applied to policies, programs, procedures, and decision-making, including budgeting. In addition, the DEI strategy requires an audit of current policies and procedures, which are being reviewed in tandem with the overall goal of operationalizing DEI throughout.
In 2016, the Salinas City Council approved an allocation of $647,000 toward the development of the Alisal Vibrancy Plan, a key new project influencing policy in land use and development in an historically under-resourced and low household income area of our city. The Alisal is the most densely populated, low income, and predominantly Latinx community in Salinas. The Alisal is where most of our large campesino (farmworker) population live. A key to the success of this plan was the development and sustainment of an all-resident-led steering committee that worked for nearly three years from start to finish. The Alisal Vibrancy Plan fundamentally shifted and improved how we think about and execute community engagement in the city of Salinas.
Partnerships with community groups have been key to our success, but also one of our greatest challenges. Other key partners in this effort are activists and they occasionally protest the city’s actions. We have had to have very difficult conversations and temper our egos to stay the course in achieving the important goals of developing a more just and equitable Salinas for everyone. This is often much easier said than done. However, we are still working together today and have secured funding to continue training and developing race equity tools for at least three years, which would complete nearly a decade of continuous race equity training and development for the city.
We have seen a major improvement in relationships with communities of color. It wasn’t so much that we had a poor relationship; it was more of a nonexistent relationship. We created a Cultural Intelligence Committee (CIC) made up of a cross-section of county employees and one of its tasks was to establish better ties with our communities of color. The CIC began lining up county officials and staff to co-sponsor and attend events such as the Latin Americans United for Progress annual dinner and meeting, the Asian-Pacific American Chamber of Commerce annual awards dinner, and the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce Minority business awards luncheon.
The county also established the first diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) department with a full-time executive director in 2019. Robyn Afrik, who implemented and managed the DEI program for Meijer Corporation was selected to lead the office. Robyn also happens to be the first woman of color to serve as a director for the county, also signifying a major county commitment to our communities of color, which has been received tremendously well.
In 2019, Ottawa County became the first government to be awarded the Champion of Diversity Award by the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce.
My best advice is to focus on the “why.” Work to develop consensus in your organization and, if possible, in the greater community as to why it’s important for you to undertake this work. In my opinion, many local government diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts die before they begin because they haven’t focused enough on the “why.” We chose to focus on future prosperity instead of blame, shame, and guilt, and this fits our conservative culture in Ottawa County.
We lead with race because we recognize that the creation and perpetuation of racial inequities has been baked into our government structures throughout history and that racial inequities across all indicators for success are deep and pervasive. While we also know that other groups of people are still marginalized—based on gender, sexual orientation, accessibility, and age, to name a few—focusing on racial equity provides the opportunity to introduce a framework, tools and resources that can also be applied to other areas of marginalization.
This work is not easy. It requires patience, humility, listening, self-reflection, balancing varying perspectives, and arguably most important: commitment. As a white man with 40-plus years of privilege under my belt, I wonder how I’m qualified to lead a local government through racial equity reckoning and transformation. I often worry I’m going to say or do the wrong thing. You’re not going to get everything right all of the time, but that’s not a reason to delay the journey.
One of the easiest and most impactful things you could do right now is to reach out to your employees of color and ask for feedback on their experience as an employee in your organization. Give them space to offer an honest assessment of their experience. Just listen and learn. Use this new dialogue to open up other conversations that engage employees in thoughtful discussions. We don’t have to have all the answers; we just have to listen and be open to new thoughts and ideas that help us achieve our vision for racial equity.
Reaching out and listening to employee experiences has been an impactful practice for me and a realization that while I have the privilege to set this work aside and take a break when I need to, our employees of color do not have that privilege. They live and breathe the realities of racial inequity every moment of every day in ways I can’t imagine. It has to be exhausting, terrifying, and infuriating. For the rest of us, all we can do is everything we must do to make our organizations and communities the best places to live, work, and play for everyone.
STEVE MOKROHISKY is county administrator, Lane County, Oregon. He is president-elect of the National Association of County Administrators (NACA). ICMA member since 2007.
For more information about GARE, visit www.racialequityalliance.org.