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February 23, 2021

Local governments aim to improve racial equity and social justice

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer at the hands of a police officer brought America’s longstanding issues with racial justice into the spotlight and prompted nationwide protests by millions of people. But efforts to address inequities have been happening at the local level long before last summer or even the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some of those efforts were explored at the ABA Midyear Meeting webinar “Creating Local Change: Racial Equity & Social Justice.” Representatives from local governments in Dallas, Montgomery County, Maryland, and King County, Washington, who have successfully implemented racial equity and social justice measures, discussed their effectiveness and lessons learned in the development, implementation and impacts of their laws.

The webinar kicked off with a presentation by Dr. Susan T. Gooden, dean and professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University and an internationally recognized expert on social equity.

Gooden talked about how race is “a nervous area of government.” She defined social equity as “fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract, and the fair and equitable distribution of public services, and implementation of public policy, and the commitment to promote fairness, justice and equity.”

Gooden said that the structural inequities in society can cross over many areas — health, education, criminal justice, housing, environment and economic well-being. For people of color in America, these structural inequities hit all the areas and have led to intergeneration effects that have carried inequality through centuries.

To combat this, structural change is necessary. Gooden called the path “naming, blaming and claiming.” Naming entails identifying the specific practice or action that is racially unjust. Blaming identifies the responsible sources. And claiming replaces racially inequitable practices and policies with ones that are just and equitable.

To accomplish this, Gooden says several things are required including an unwavering commitment from senior leadership, work supported by ordinary government employees, and normalizing discussions about race and institutional racism.

Change in Washington state

Seattle, located in King County, was one of the first cities in the country to implement a race and social justice initiative more than a decade ago and has been improving its efforts since. Panelist Arun Sambataro, senior policy adviser on equity and social justice for the King County Office of Equity and Social Justice, manages countywide efforts to address the root causes of inequities, particularly structural racism. She was an architect and lead author of the 2016-2022 Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) Strategic Plan, and also refined the county’s Equity Impact Review process.

Sambataro said the efforts started with a vision: “A King County where all people have equitable opportunities to thrive.” She said that would require equity, defined as the full and equal access to opportunities, power and resources so that all people achieve their full potential and thrive. To accomplish that, they needed to lead with racial justice where they dismantle systems, policies and practices that perpetuate structural racism and forms of discrimination based on power and privilege.

In 2008, King County launched an Equity and Social Justice Initiative, which in 2015, resulted in the creation of the Office of Equity and Social Justice in the County Executive’s Office. The office has developed plans to assist immigrants, to protect civil rights and promote employee resource groups.

Creating equity in Maryland and Dallas

Nancy Navarro, a member of the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, has led the charge on important pieces of legislation including pay equity, minimum wage, and earned sick and safe leave. She has worked to encourage economic growth and development in traditionally underserved regions.

In 2019, Montgomery County adopted a Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, creating structural municipal changes to advance equity measures across the county. Montgomery is the largest populated county in the state and has grown both in numbers and diversity in the past three decades.

“Equity creates a vibrant socioeconomic ecosystem for all,” Navarro explained. “The twin pandemics of the virus and racism has shone a spotlight on disparities.”

The act established an Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice, a chief equity officer and other staff. It required training for all county employees, a Racial Equity and Social Justice Action Plan by all county departments and a Racial Equity and Social Justice impact statement for all bills.

New York state introduced a Racial Equity and Social Justice bill modeled after the Montgomery County bill in April 2020.

The county also adopted an economic development platform to encourage a thriving and diversified economy, racial equity and social justice, innovation and environmental sustainability. It focuses on housing, transportation, workforce development and business development.

Panelist Elizabeth Cedillo-Pereira, chief of equity and inclusion for the city of Dallas, said that equity is an ethical practice for Dallas. It means that each person has the resources and services necessary to thrive in each person’s own unique identities, circumstances and histories.

The Dallas Office of Equity and Inclusion has helped steer policy towards empathy and equity. It has developed an Equity Impact Assessment Tool to help guide response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The office has also worked to bridge the digital divide, has an eviction assistance initiative, and welcomes immigrant communities through the Dallas SAFE Program, which helps with legal assistance for immigrants facing deportation.

The program was sponsored by the Section of State & Local Government Law and moderated by Chris Jennison, chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Paralegals, and Chhunny Chhean, director of Procurement Services for the City of Dallas.