Advancing Racial Equity in Local Government

Rita Soler Ossolinski

In the wake of the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the National League of Cities (NLC) created the Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) initiative to strengthen local leaders’ knowledge and capacity to eliminate racial disparities, heal racial divisions, and build more equitable communities. REAL offers tools and resources designed to help local elected leaders build safe places where people from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds thrive socially, economically, academically, and physically. Since its inception, REAL has developed a portfolio that includes training, technical assistance, assessment work, and capacity building for city leaders.

This work has connected REAL to leadership in over 400 cities — to leaders who are committed to using an equity lens in the design and delivery of city services and to pursuing equitable access to those services for all residents.

Ivy Taylor

Ivy Taylor, former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, shares a warm moment with youngsters from her city participating in the My Brother’s Keeper program. San Antonio took action on several fronts to dismantle all forms of racism within its city government and is working to advance equity and justice.

The Present Reality

Our nation’s cities are currently grappling with overlapping crises, not one pandemic but two: the long-standing pandemic of systemic and structural racism and COVID-19. With the virus, data quickly emerged highlighting significantly disproportionate numbers of infection and mortality for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Heightened awareness of these disproportionalities became a spotlight on racial inequities. When George Floyd was killed while handcuffed and in police custody on May 25, it became a moment of reckoning. COVID-19 is the virus; system failure is the crisis.

The confluence of these two pandemics has sharpened the resolve among many city leaders to undertake the hard work of racial equity. NLC REAL is responding to inquiries, helping cities assess their readiness and define their desired outcomes.

The Data

Data on disparities based on race undergird REAL’s approach to our work with cities, including the content and design of our training, assessments, technical assistance, and capacity building. Race is the single greatest predictor of one’s success in this country, and the data consistently bear this out. From infant mortality to life expectancy, race predicts how well one will do. In education, employment, housing, health, and criminal justice, the data for BIPOC are clear and inform the reality.

  • By July 11, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID data tracker reported that in the United States 34 percent of cases and 17 percent of the deaths were among Latinx people, who make up 19 percent of the U.S. population; 20 percent of cases and 23 percent of deaths were among Black people, who make up 13 percent of the population; and 37 percent of cases and 50 percent of deaths were among white people, who make up 60 percent of the U.S. population.
  • In 2017–18, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that average graduation rates for white public high school students (89 percent) were 10 percentage points higher than the average for their Black peers (79 percent).
  • Pre-COVID, the Economic Policy Institute data showed that “Black unemployment is at least twice as high as white unemployment at the national level.”
  • Early in 2020, the Urban Institute reported that “the gap between the Black and white homeownership rates in the United States has increased to its highest level in 50 years, from 28.1 percentage points in 2010 to
    30.1 percentage points in 2017.” Less than 50 percent of Black individuals own their homes while nearly 75 percent of whites do.
  • In 2017, the CDC reported that life expectancy for Black individuals is 3.5 years less than for whites.
  • The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that the imprisonment rate for Black people in the U.S. was six times the rate for whites.
  • In 2015, the New York Times reported, “FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report showed that 31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African Americans in the general population.”

Using every measure for individual success in this country, it becomes clear that our BIPOC communities face extraordinary barriers.

Mayor Robert Garcia

City of Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, center, gathers with youths as part of the My Brother’s Keeper program, which focuses on tackling disparities to improve outcomes for boys and men of color.

City Examples

Nationwide, city leaders and staff are making a concerted effort to address the racial inequities in their communities. For many city leaders, it can be hard to know where to begin the work, or what to model their programs on. With the generous support of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, NLC REAL compiled profiles of 12 cities that have made a commitment to addressing racial equity in a unique way. By documenting and sharing the strategies of each city, NLC hopes to create a platform that makes it easy for city leaders and staff to learn from each other and develop strong networks of communication. Four examples are highlighted here.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

In response to a Michigan Department of Civil Rights report on the economic impacts of racial disparities in the city and Forbes magazine listing Grand Rapids as one of the worst places economically for African Americans in the nation, Grand Rapids developed a citywide effort in 2015 to improve racial equity.

Grand Rapids developed its own racial equity toolkit, tailored to local needs, that is used during the budget process and to address racial equity in other city processes and projects, including continuous improvement process planning and improving the future state of services, programs, and economic incentives.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss started Grand Rapids’ racial equity work during her first year in office in 2016. The first two years of the city’s work included a focus on community power building and the development of racial equity tools.

The city’s annual Neighborhood Summit elevates residents’ voices and provides meaningful support for community members to understand their own power and build power collectively.

The City Manager’s Office is developing accountability measures to build on the city’s racial equity toolkit and embed racial equity as a lens throughout its continuous improvement processes.

San Antonio, Texas

In 2017, San Antonio, Texas, was ranked as one of the most unequal cities in the country by the Economic Innovation Group. Recognizing the ranking and the history of segregationist policies that led to it, San Antonio’s leaders have made significant strides to reconcile the city’s past with an equitable future for its residents through the San Antonio Office of Equity.

Today, the Office of Equity works within city government to dismantle all forms of racism, supporting city departments’ responses to equity-related community needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The office also tracks and helps advance the nationwide movement for racial justice by providing technical assistance and training to city departments, using tools including the Equity Rapid Response Tool, the Racial Equity Indicators Report, and the Equity Matrix.

City leaders took steps to recognize the way neighborhoods have been shaped through exclusionary policies based on race. The Office of Equity is working with city leaders and departments to utilize an Equity Impact Assessment for budget decisions.

San Antonio embraced a partnership with SA2020, a nongovernmental organization developed through a community visioning process, which helped the city develop and track metrics to both extend the local government’s capacity and hold it accountable.

The use of an Equity Impact Assessment, including historical context, led the mayor and city council to approve a new allocation of street maintenance funds that account for historic inequities while distributing resources equitably among all council districts.

Tacoma, Washington

For the City of Tacoma, the push toward racial equity demonstrates the power that lies in the hands of concerned residents. Over a year before the city government took public action, community members urged local leaders to analyze the racial disparities in Tacoma’s hiring practices. After examining the lack of adequate representation in both race and gender among city government employees, leaders knew that a change was needed. With community members acting as catalysts, Tacoma has become dedicated to the cause of equity and empowerment for all residents.

Tacoma took stock of how important racial equity was to residents when it came to accessing city services and infrastructure. A resounding 71 percent of those polled noted that this issue was important to them. The city began developing the Equity and Empowerment Framework, a plan to make equity a consistent guiding principle citywide. The plan also laid out clear goals to guide the city’s work.

Tacoma created the Office of Equity and Human Rights to implement the policies laid out in the Equity and Empowerment Framework. The office uses its capacity to provide a platform for community organizations through the Equity and Empowerment Capacity Building Fund.

The city uses presentations and training sessions to educate city staff on inequitable policies that have shaped city government.

While analyzing how to make Tacoma’s staff more representative of the city’s population, Tacoma developed the Handbook for Recruiting, Hiring & Retention: Applying an Equity Lens to Recruiting, Interviewing, Hiring & Retaining Employees to institutionalize these practices and help educate other groups.

Long Beach, California

During 2018–19, the City of Long Beach was one of six cities in REAL’s learning cohort in the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation initiative. Long Beach is committed to creating a community where everyone can thrive. As a city with a majority of people of color, Long Beach was well-positioned to deepen the positive impact of governing for racial equity by building upon existing opportunities and developing a comprehensive racial equity plan. By creating a plan, the city moved toward institutionalizing governance practices that support equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. The plan also helped the city identify opportunities to be more explicit around race.

The city has demonstrated its commitment to advancing racial equity by:

  • Creating the Office of Equity and the “Everyone In” Economic Inclusion initiative.
  • Coordinating projects and investments to revitalize North Long Beach.
  • Sustaining ongoing work with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.
  • Conducting efforts to produce a demographically representative body of leadership and influence within the city.

For more about the continuing progress to advance racial equity in Long Beach see Long Beach Launches Office of Equity to Engage, Educate, and Serve.

Floyd crowds

Communities across the nation protested in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

The Future

NLC REAL will continue to work with cities and city leaders to fulfill its mission and vision. Striving to scale and amplify the work, NLC is collaborating with the network of 49 state municipal leagues to expand its reach. Training, capacity building, and providing support to cities in the development of racial equity plans will be the focus. Acknowledging that no two cities are alike as they undertake this journey and make a commitment to equity, REAL is prepared to tailor its resources and tools to specific needs. To access the resources available to city leaders, visit https://nlc.org/REAL. For additional information, email REAL@NLC.org.

Rita Soler Ossolinski is program director of the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative of the National League of Cities and can be reached at ossolinski@nlc.org.


Additional Resources for Cities

To strengthen local elected officials’ knowledge and capacity to eliminate racial disparities, heal racial divisions, and build more equitable communities, REAL offers the following resources and reports, available at www.nlc.org/racial-equity-resources-and-reports.

Municipal Action Guide: Advancing Racial Equity in Your City compiles six immediate steps for improving outcomes for all residents.

Municipal Action Guide: Responding to Racial Tension in Your City provides important contextual and tactical information to support your municipality’s efforts to respond effectively.

Repository of City Racial Equity Policies and Decisions includes examples of concrete policy and budgetary changes local elected officials have made to prioritize racial equity in their cities and towns.

Racial Equity Resolution provides a template and talking points that explain why pursuing equity is good for local government.

The City Leader’s Compass to the My Brother’s Keeper Landscape offers resources for city leaders working to respond to the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. This publication highlights a comprehensive set of steps cities can take to tackle disparities, change systems, and improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the National League of Cities and the City of San Antonio, Texas (Ivy Taylor and My Brother’s Keeper program participants); Courtesy of the National League of Cities and the City of Long Beach (My Brother’s Keeper program group); Brian Blanco, Getty Images, courtesy of the National League of Cities (George Floyd protest).

©2021 League of California Cities. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Western City magazine and is reprinted with permission.