Urban Wire “It’s Change Work”: How Three DC-Area Chief Equity Officers Are Driving Community Progress
Alex Tammaro
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photo of Black Lives Matter activists in DC

Each turn of the pandemic brings new challenges, and communities have responded, bravely and creatively, by bridging digital divides, expanding safety net supports, and engaging community perspectives. Yet much of the burden isn’t new and is, instead, the extension of the systemic inequities communities of color shoulder.

The DC metropolitan region is among the country’s most diverse, but a legacy of national and local policy decisions, many intentionally perpetuating discrimination, has caused measurable and persistent inequities in education, employment, housing, and health outcomes for people of color.

Amid increased urgency to address racial injustice, greater DC’s local governments formed racial equity offices, appointing leaders whom the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments brought together to form the Chief Equity Officers Committee.

Chief equity officers Karla Bruce of Fairfax County, Amber Hewitt of Washington, DC, and Tiffany Ward of Montgomery County recently spoke with Urban–Greater DC’s Peter Tatian about their progress, challenges, and visions for a more just, resilient DMV region. In sharing their experiences, they’ve set an example for other local governments and highlight how cross-sector support, commitments by local leaders, and community-set metrics are mandatory for an equitable recovery.

Chief equity officers’ responsibilities

Chief equity officers Ward, Hewitt, and Bruce are among the nation’s first to hold this title, and though they represent neighboring communities, each approaches the role focusing on their respective jurisdictions’ specific needs, dynamics, and contexts. 

“The role of the chief equity officer has no one definition,” says Bruce. “While there are some core elements, it can be—and should be—a role that uniquely fits the community that it serves.” Her county’s effort, One Fairfax, involves building infrastructure, galvanizing political will, and making connections through strategic planning and training, what Bruce calls “the inside work.” 

This nuance is at the core of the officers’ responsibility. Structural racism, though huge in scope, is locally expressed. And this complexity extends to the “outside work,” which, Bruce says, involves organizing and movement building—in other words, elevating community voices: “My role is really to align efforts of the county…in response to what the community is demanding of us.” 

What one city, town, or village does influences policy in a neighboring city, town, or village, creating an opportunity for community leaders and partners across sectors to collaborate and learn from each other. After all, disentangling racism from the status quo will never be a one-woman job.             

The pandemic’s effect on progress

In addition to its devastating toll on public health, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated societal inequities, culminating in heightened job, housing, and income insecurity for people of color. Hewitt says, “We have to widen our lens when it comes to health equity and racial equity,” looking beyond health outcomes toward the social determinants of health.

Hewitt, who tracks and evaluates five pandemic outcomes—including effects on housing insecurity, mental health, and students’ experiences—points to the roots of chronic conditions. She notes that these early health inequities are responsible for increased rates of transmission, hospitalization, and fatality in communities of color, another insidious expression of institutional racism.

And in pursuit of an equitable recovery, Bruce asks us to critically examine a campaign to “build back better.” “Are we?” she asks, “And how would we know if we were?” This illustrates another facet of the chief equity officers’ responsibility: determining the metrics for progress, how we measure them, and how we evaluate whether they’re tangibly advancing racial equity.

What does progress look like?

All three chief equity officers agree that local communities, especially those most affected by racial inequities, should decide how success is defined and measured. Centering residents’ perspectives and priorities in implementation and review is key for other local governments’ equity campaigns.

Ward views her role as an amplifying force, requiring each current and future project, program, and policy to evaluate its budget decisions through a racial equity lens. To accomplish this, and to evaluate their local programs thoroughly and conscientiously, Montgomery County developed a racial equity tool. 

Ward says, “[The tool] asks [county government officials] what disparity they’re actually targeting—if they’re targeting a disparity—what data they’re using.… Who have you talked to in these communities? How have they expressed their needs? How is this showing up for them in the day-to-day?” Reinforcing the collaborative nature of the chief equity officers’ role this tool requires policymakers to consider where assumptions or good intentions might be unfounded.

“It’s taken 400-plus years to get into this mess,” Bruce says. To dismantle this monumental issue, those undertaking equity campaigns have to loosen their grip on measurable results as the only results with value. “It’s not going to be easily measured through a set of indicators or a dashboard or solely through the actions of chief equity officers.”

Instead, Bruce believes engaged community members should evaluate solutions. “We have to be focused on how the community defines success,” says Bruce. Ward says asking more—and bigger—questions is a critical component of the chief equity officer’s responsibility, starting with, “Are people better off?… We have to center this work in the communities we purport to help.”             

Looking forward and sharing lessons

Each chief equity officer noted how important cross-sector relationship building is for their continued success and how the integrity of and political will supporting this local stakeholder network is as or more important than a single chief equity officer. 

Bruce says that for local governments interested in appointing an equity officer, the work begins long before anyone is appointed. “The first step in an equity journey is not to have a chief equity officer,” she says. Instead, the first step is collaboration and commitment among community leaders across sectors.

Ward says progress requires community engagement at every step, and democratizing the process, and committing to this process, is one objective way to advance equity. “Racial equity work is change work,” Bruce says. And for resilient racial equity efforts, Ward suggests local leaders “work within the processes and the systems you have now to identify some of the barriers, some of the obstacles, so that your chief equity officer can be successful.”

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Research Areas Race and equity Greater DC
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Structural racism
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
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