Now that New York City voters have overwhelmingly endorsed making racial equity a priority of city government, where should a new Office of Racial Equity focus its attention first?
We put the question to some big thinkers – activists, academics, researchers and lawyers – to hear their views.
It is no idle question. The voters in November approved ballot questions making racial equity a priority. That includes creating a new preamble to the city charter centering racial equity as a goal, creating a new Office of Racial Equity, and establishing a “true cost of living metric” used to determine eligibility for a variety of programs. All three questions garnered at least 70% voter support.
Some common threads through these discussions: Figuring out what to count in terms of measuring equity in the delivery of city services, and using that data to guide decision-making; and finding more ways to create career pipelines and opportunities, to make New York work for all its neighborhoods. Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Emerita Torres: Make citywide equity metrics
Vice President of Policy, Research and Advocacy of the anti-poverty Community Service Society of NY
The first steps should be coming up with some common terminology, some common metrics that can be used across agencies and across offices so that there’s a common language when we talk about equity. So that when we measure, we’ll be able to measure consistently across agencies.
And any equity plan should be based on an assessment. Where are we? Where are the agencies on equity? Because some agencies and offices may be further ahead than others. For example, perhaps the Mayor’s Office on Economic Opportunity might be ahead compared to, let’s say, the FDNY.
Before we talk about some of the programmatic pieces and then the policy side, we need to get the data right. We need to get the equity infrastructure right.
I hope what actually comes out of this is that we make tangible progress when we talk about the quality of life in somewhere like the Upper East Side versus in the South Bronx. It also takes a lot of political will and courage to really shift funds and resources into places that have been underinvested or disinvested in for decades.
Celina Barrios-Milner: Invest in a diverse workforce
Co-Vice President of Urban Institute’s Office of Race and Equity Research
Former Boston Chief of Equity and Inclusion
The first, and maybe this is obvious, is how are you investing the city’s resources? Who are you hiring? How are you spending your contracting dollars? Are they reaching women- and minority-owned businesses? Are you investing in your local economy? Are you contributing to companies that are far away? What researchers have known forever, but what the pandemic really laid bare, is that economic wellbeing is foundational to all the other indicators of success. So that’s why investing city resources in city residents is an important practice, so you’re contributing to the wealth-building in your own part of the country.
There’s always more that cities can do in terms of how they’re investing every single dollar. One area that we were looking at in Boston is our purchasing that’s not through these large bid contracts that are multiyear, but how are we doing our catering? It’s not a big flashy $5 million contract, but it’s a huge opportunity for ongoing work. Another piece is the personnel, which is usually at least half the budget. So the diversity and representativeness of your city workers is a really vital way to not just invest resources, but promote wealth-building opportunities.
More indirect but as important is the city’s land use and planning powers. Natural disasters, or acts of terrorism, or the pandemic – there are so many factors outside of a policymaker’s control. Land use is in our control.
For one, it’s having plans in place to have community input to know, what do people want their neighborhoods to look like? What are the opportunities they need? People live in their neighborhoods. That’s where life happens. That’s where their kids may or may not have access to quality after-school programming, or well-lit ways to walk home from school or the bus.
It’s well-documented the segregation in our cities and the disparate resources that are available. You have to make proactive decisions to change that. You shouldn’t have a different experience depending on where you live: you should be able to get healthy food, walk to reliable public transportation, get to a job that pays you well.
We know that when people of color, when women are doing well, so does the rest of the city. It’s not, it’s not a zero-sum game. And so investing and ensuring that our communities of color, our lower-income communities, our immigrant communities have access to opportunity is, is great for everybody.
Hawk Newsome: Focus on Black Communities
Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater NY and Black Opportunities
This Racial Justice Commission and office was founded off the death of Black people. So why now does it have to be all-inclusive? Why does America have a problem with addressing harm to Black people only? If you change the schools in Black communities, that impacts Latinx at an overwhelming percentage, especially in places like the Bronx and Queens.
When we talk about systemic racism, systemic anti-Blackness, you have to talk about economics, health care, which includes mental health, education, all of these things in our judicial system. Rikers Island needs to be closed. The most important part of criminal justice ties back into health care and mental health. Why? Because poverty is the mother of crime. Instead of wasting city money on programs, we need to be giving people employment opportunities.
We need a revamping of the educational system. Montessori methods for all preschool kids. We need vocational schools. We need an emphasis on tech, automotive repair, carpentry, plumbing. Our kids need to be prepared for a future. Not every kid wants to go to college and they can make six figures by having a trade, trade programs, financial literacy programs. White kids, because of the wealth gap, have different conversations at the dinner tables. They’re talking about mortgages, interest rates, credit, finance and the stock market. They have a different world perspective that prepares them for their future. Our kids need to be taught that now.
Dr. Hazel N. Dukes: Strengthen the career pipeline
President of NAACP New York State Conference
Former President of National NAACP
You get people out of poverty. For young people, you get education that is real, for students to learn to get engaged at an early age. And then we look at how we move people from poverty to be productive citizens that can perform the necessary jobs that we need for the running of the process.
Everything that has to be done in the real working world does not require a master’s degree or a bachelor’s. It requires some common sense – for the real job we need to have performed.
Community Service Society people have looked at the wages that we pay civil servants, what you need, such as a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in some agencies. Is that really what we need? To perform the duties that’s really required in the real working world? A lot of people, especially, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, do not get to perform because of the criteria that we have placed.
From that you can build a career ladder for people who have been stuck in the same place. For those persons who might not have the bachelor degree, might not have the master’s degree, but they can master the job performance that you need for the real workforce.
Now none of this is going to be done in six months or a year. But it’s a start, it’s a beginning.
Eli Dvorkin: Boost access to good jobs, business ownership
Editorial and Policy Director of the local think tank Center for an Urban Future
There’s arguably no area in New York City where racial disparities are as stark and alarming as in the issues around economic opportunity. We need to build an economy that is more fair for everyone.
Who has access to the jobs that are driving the city’s economic growth? Increasingly a college degree is a pretty essential prerequisite for gaining entry to most of the industries in New York where well-paying jobs are growing. And yet we have really stark disparities in New York in terms of college attainment along racial and ethnic lines. One key part of the strategy is pulling out all the stops to really help more New Yorkers obtain a college credential. That means focusing on major new supports for the non-tuition costs of earning a degree, meaning the books and technology, the childcare costs, the transportation costs – that our own research has shown are a major factor in driving students, especially low-income students in our CUNY system to drop out of college without a credential.
We also need to significantly scale and expand the workforce development programs that are working. In New York City, we have some really effective programs, all of which are just far too small in scale.
One other area I’d point to is entrepreneurship, which we know is one of the primary vehicles for building not just family wealth but community wealth and ultimately one of the primary mechanisms by which the city can help to close the racial wealth gap, along with homeownership. When we look at the landscape of small business and entrepreneurship in New York City today, we see that Black-owned businesses, while they have grown tremendously over the past decade, still account for just 3.5% of all employer firms in the city, despite a population that’s about 22% Black.
I would argue that business ownership doesn’t actually get as much attention as it deserves. We should have a start-up ecosystem in New York that includes multiple start-up competitions that are accessible to lower-income entrepreneurs. We also need a much stronger focus on helping our minority-owned small businesses grow and ultimately to close some gaps in employees and revenues between white-owned and minority-owned businesses.
Vanessa Leung: Disaggregate ethnicity data
Co-Executive Director of Coalition for Asian American Children and Families
Former Chair of NYC Panel for Education Policy
For so long we’ve been fighting for disaggregated data. In order to have the right policy and community response to community needs, you actually have to have better data on communities. The Chinese community makes up a large, significant portion of the AAPI [Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander] community, but there are a myriad of smaller groups that aren’t so small when it comes to a city like New York.
When those data are not captured, there are thousands of folks that are not identified. It really helps to understand where the inequities are across the city: when things get aggregated, things also get hidden. It’s really helpful to understand where services are reaching or not reaching, what are the types of services that will be important to ensure that every New Yorker across the city will be able to have access to the life-affirming services that they need.
Lourdes Rosado: Hold agencies accountable
President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice
Former Program Director of New York Civil Liberties Union and Civil Rights Bureau Chief for the New York Attorney General
One of the most important things we’re gonna be looking for is diversity and representation in both of those entities, the commission and the office. That it’s actually staffed by people, as well as appointees to the commission, who are directly serving communities, who are really representative of communities, and really also have a record of tackling systemic racism and putting together plans with very stated goals around equity.
This office and commission is supposed to put together a citywide racial equity plan. We have no specifics on what that plan will look like. Is it going to be meaningful key performance indicators? Are there gonna be goals and timelines, and mandates imposed on city agencies to actually further racial equity? Time will tell. What I would really ask of the City Council and the mayor is that they really insist that the new commission and the new office put together a plan that has really concrete goals and key performance indicators with timelines and mandates to agencies to get things done so that we can really see progress. I think I worry about this very loosey-goosey language that doesn’t hold anyone’s feet to the fire to actually get something done.