Pushing For Equity Within The City Of Austin

Austin Skyline

By now, many of you have probably heard that a 2015 study named the Austin area as the most economically segregated large metro area in the country.

Or maybe you’ve read the report from the Task Force on Institutional Racism, which points out that the median income in Austin is nearly twice as high for white families as it is for black and Latino families.

Or perhaps you’ve heard about the city’s 1928 Master Plan, which intentionally pushed communities of color into East Austin. As the Task Force On Institutional Racism describes it, this, along with several other city policies, “are directly responsible for segregation and gentrification driven displacements we witness today.”

So then how do we as a city begin to address these issues? That’s where the Equity Assessment Tool comes into play.

In 2015, Austin City Council passed a resolution which directed city staff to evaluate the impact of their existing policies and practices on racial equity, as well as to develop an Equity Assessment Tool to measure success and help implement new policies, “to help identify and address the inequities that impact the quality of life for low‐income communities in Austin, which are disproportionately communities of color.”

The first report from that Equity Assessment Tool has just been published by the city’s Equity Office (which was created in 2016).

Here’s a snapshot of what’s in the report:

The Equity Assessment Tool is still in its pilot phase

To test out the Equity Assessment tool, eight city departments participated – Austin Public Health, Austin Water Utility, Economic Development, Human Resources, Austin Public Library, Parks and Recreation, Public Works, and Austin Transportation. A second cohort of city departments has already begun to use the tool and a second report is expected by the end of the year.

City Strengths

One strength the report notes is that the city does have strategies to promote diversity in hiring. Some city departments have utilized multi-ethnic chambers of commerce, boards and commissions, and community organizations to identify candidates who might not have applied for positions otherwise.

City weaknesses

  • Data Collection – A key weakness that the report identified is that not many city departments have data about the race/ethnicity of their contractors, consultants, community engagement activity attendees, or users of their services. “Without segmented data to inform decision‐making, it is difficult for the City to assess the impact or lack of impact it is having on communities of color and other marginalized populations,” the report noted.
  • Community Engagement – The report also said that many departments lack strong two-way community engagement with the public, instead relying on the community to contact them (often via email or an online form) if an issue arises or if they have feedback to give. And if feedback is collected, there are limited metrics in place to measure the effectiveness of community engagement efforts.
  • Information Sharing – Language and a lack of consistent translation services was also identified by the report as a city-wide weakness. “There was no clear process for determining when public documents, policies, applications, notices, and hearings were translated for individuals with limited English proficiency or visual or hearing impairments,” noted the report.
  • Hiring and Training – The report found that many city departments don’t have a formal training process in place (for new or current employees) on institutional racism or discrimination.

Next Steps

Now that these city departments have used the tool, they have a baseline to begin measuring how policies can support equity, as well as how community engagement can inform their work.

On top of that, the Equity Office is going to use the Equity Assessment Tool Report to work with departments to create Equity Action Plans to actually start addressing some of the issues identified in the report.

Equality Vs. Equity

One key point that the report made is that in trying to distribute city services equally, many city departments are actually exacerbating existing inequities.

“Some departments have well-intentioned policies that disproportionately benefit majority groups or inadvertently disadvantage marginalized groups,” explained the report. “When attempting to shift policies from equality to equity, departments must work to ensure access to resources or services is based on need, rather than equal division, which was challenging for some.”

You can read through the entire report here>>

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