Political leadership is a key factor in the success of launching and institutionalizing a racial equity initiative within government. With the political capital bestowed upon elected officials, they are uniquely positioned to advocate for the transformation of government policy and practice.
At the same time, raising racial equity as a city government priority can often seem daunting to tackle. Juan Sebastian Arias, with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity and a Graduate Student Research Assistant with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, recently sat down with former Mayor of Seattle Greg Nickels to hear about his motivation to lead Seattle to explicitly make racial equity a government priority.
Q: HOW DID YOU COME AROUND TO THE IMPORTANCE OF RACIAL EQUITY WORK?
Although I’m a Chicago native, I’ve lived in Seattle since I was 6 years old. It was and still may be one of the whitest big cities in the U.S. I grew up in a fairly segregated environment and had very little contact with people of color. Culturally, I was a product of white and male privilege. Yet over various life experiences, I have become aware that the world is a much bigger, more diverse place than my own experience allowed me to experience.
As I ran for mayor in 2001, a tragic event brought this point home. There was a police shooting of an African-American man during the early part of the campaign. As I talked to people in different parts of the city after, I was struck by the different perspectives across different communities. White and wealthy communities felt that that this was just part of what happened, that the shooting seemed justified. But in the African American community, there was outrage. Not just about this individual shooting but by an overwhelming feeling of ‘here we go again.’
While I was intellectually aware of the importance of equity – this vehemence was eye opening for me. I had conversations with the pastor of an African American church where we compared the advice he gave his teenage son about interacting with police to that I had given my son. I talked with a black mother and could see the differences in education that her children were having from those of my children in the same schools. I spoke with a lesbian couple who were reluctant to call the police because they felt they would not be treated well.
All these ideas were really sparked during the campaign. Then when I took office, I wanted to encourage a larger conversation around race across the city. But we recognized that if you just ask people to talk about race, it’s about as comfortable as oral surgery without anesthetics. People will just avoid it if they possibly can, which is what America has done for so long. So we worked hard to think through just how to encourage that conversation. We were fortunate to have people and organizations in the community that were organizing and advocating for us to address institutional racism. This led to the creation of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI).
Q: WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR FIRST STEPS TAKEN?
We decided to focus on the City workforce and City government as an institution. Our goals were to make the City a workplace where people felt they were treated equitably and where people could trust in their interactions. In some ways, government was going to be a control group – as people committed to public service – for making this broader change in the city.
We also got city employees involved within their own departments in small groups and committees, had them come up with recommendations that would work their way up to departments and ultimately to the mayor. We established a policy that every proposal in annual budget would be scrutinized under a racial and social justice lens. Use of our Racial Equity Tool was then expanded beyond budget to also be used in policy decisions as well.
Q: WERE YOU NERVOUS WHEN YOU STARTED?
Oh absolutely, there is a reason why people avoid talking about race until they have to! Emotionally, it’s very difficult and risky for people to approach – which is exactly why we need to. By the time we got into it, people were having more comfortable conversations about race – which was new. It’s important to meet people with raised expectations. And at the same time, you also have to be ready to meet these expectations. For us, there was no roadmap, this was never tried on this scale. If you raise expectations and don’t know where to go, that’s high risk. But one of the things you learn when leading a city is that you have to take those risks. No one else will be in a position to do so.
Q: WHAT WAS HARDER OR EASIER THAN EXPECTED?
I had hoped it would move faster. When I first started we had 101 things on our plate. The first manager of the RSJI was a marvelous person. He was the one that had to figure this all out with no roadmap. Once we got through the learning curve – some of the early trainings were awful, even terrible experiences. People blaming and accusing each other – people of color were enraged, and white people were defensive. And not in a constructive way. We finally got to a model that was able to talk about institutional racism, then we got to white privilege, and so on. We finally got to a place of understanding that we’re all victims in this and that we just need to understand each other. That was great. So what was harder than I expected was how long this all took; what was most rewarding was when people saw the light come on, realize they were not individually to blame and felt free to share their experience and create institutional change.
Q: ADVICE FOR OTHERS?
I wouldn’t say I have advice for others, but an observation is that communities that are able to have an honest conversation about race before there’s a crisis are going to be much better off than those that think we are in a post-racial society. There are clearly racial issues in our cities and it doesn’t take a lot for them to bubble up to the surface. And without a common understanding already being built in a place, these issues can be very difficult to address. So if anything, I urge folks to wade into these conversations, to learn from other people and to make mistakes. And learn from those mistakes! The fortunate thing for cities just getting started is that there is a field of practice for government that did not exist a dozen years ago. Take advantage of it!