Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity in government? We have interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. Some are working from the inside to change institutional practice. Others are organizing communities on the outside to apply political pressure and keep government accountable. What are their motivations and their challenges? What accomplishments are they proud of? This Racial Equity Leadership Profile series seeks to capture and share these stories from the frontlines of the movement for racial equity in government.
In this installment, GARE Research Assistant Alec Weiss interviews Zoe Polk, Deputy Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your role.
I am the Deputy Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. I manage the Citywide Racial Equity Initiative, and provide advice to city departments on how to identify and dismantle systematic racism. Most recently I’ve been working to develop equitable policies around the sale of cannabis as San Francisco legalizes marijuana.
This is a really important frontier. I am grateful to have the opportunity to help elevate marginalized communities that have suffered at the expense of the War on Drugs. I am working to ensure racial equity is an integral value from the outset because you can’t add it in later; it has to be baked in at creation. It’s my role to talk to the people in the cannabis industry to make sure they understand how the law is being drafted and ensure that it is inclusive to overly policed communities.
Q: What inspired you to do racial equity work?
I’m inspired by the nuance of racial equity work and changing the narrative on what counts as impact. Throughout my career, I’ve seen efforts to increase diversity and tolerance that have only maintained the status quo and have not ended racial disparities. Yes, it’s important to hire a diverse staff and increase engagement to communities of color, but that needs to accompany meaningful access to power, investment and political courage so that the systems that continue to perpetuate racism can be disrupted and dismantled. I value racial equity because it approaches the work with each of these components.
Q: Tell me a story of one of your major accomplishments in this role.
Most recently, I’ve been consulting on the City of San Francisco’s Cannabis Equity Program. This program was created to affirmatively address the damage that communities of color have experienced as a result of drug war tactics carried out by our government. The War on Drugs was a coordinated effort to criminalize black and brown people for decades and it is important to me that legalization of cannabis in San Francisco addresses how we are going to do justice to those communities after all of the injustice we have done. The San Francisco Cannabis Equity Program prioritizes those who have been criminalized by the War on Drugs.
In San Francisco, it is essential that we align our progressive thinking with action. This is a city where you need 1.5 million dollars to start a business. Given all the collateral consequences of drug arrests, including loss of employment, family savings used to pay criminal costs, inability to apply for employment or government assistance after release, someone with a prior conviction or arrest starts at a deficit and the city needs to reckon with that. When we say that we really want the cannabis industry to benefit the people who were most impacted by the War on Drugs, we have a responsibility to make that meaningful for people. As the City determined what to include in its Cannabis Equity Program, I worked to ensure the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people were acknowledged and incorporated in high-level meetings.
The resulting program is a start, but it needs on-going work to ensure that its accountable to the people it’s meant to help.
Q: What has been the most challenging aspect about pursuing this work?
We need to be aggressive in creating a City in which all residents can live, thrive, and benefit. It argue that Proposition 209 was passed to prevent discrimination and increase diversity, however, it has only been used as a tool to maintain white supremacy and prohibit California from being innovative to address stubborn racial disparities. We need to stop being afraid of this law because it is preventing California cities from targeting the communities that need resources the most. All too often people want to bring out Prop 209 to stop the conversation. There is an urgency that needs to be applied to racial justice initiatives and that energy is being stifled by this law.
Q: What have been the most rewarding aspects for you personally?
For me, it’s been rewarding to be that voice in the room. I am constantly in spaces where I have to step in and be the one to explain that structural inequity is not new. For example, I am often reminding people that African Americans don’t have generational wealth for historical reasons. I’m often in policy meetings with decision makers eager to know why black people suffer more frequently from homelessness, incarceration, health disparities, etc. It can be very frustrating to be the person consistently giving history lessons, explaining how slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and other government policies are directly linked to current conditions.
But any time I am frustrated or fatigued, I remind myself that I have access to the conversation. I have access because of my education, because of my class, because of the way that I talk, even as a black woman, and it’s my responsibility to be that voice. I am honored to have this responsibility. It has been particularly rewarding to do this work with formerly incarcerated folks around cannabis policy because they are a disenfranchised group whose voices are regularly stifled.
Q: What do you think is holding us back?
People are concerned with promoting their own personal benefit or the benefit of their constituency as opposed to taking a broader view. It can be difficult to show others how addressing racial inequities is good for our society and community as a whole. For instance, the current conversation around cannabis is indicative of many of the problems we face in advancing racial equity policies and programs. As we developed policies to benefit the communities who were most negatively impacted by the war on drugs, we heard, “How come you are not including veterans and women in the Cannabis Equity Program?” This is a problem because it erases the fact that there are formerly incarcerated veterans and women, many of whom are people of color. Policymakers and the people offering advice to policymakers need to acknowledge and create policies that incorporate all of the intersections with various marginalized populations.
Q: What is one thing you think we will be able to accomplish in the next decade?
I foresee big changes in the prison industrial complex. Most Americans believe in fair chances. Right now, more information is being made public about prison industrial complex, a multibillion dollar shadow industry that profits of off our justice system. I think we are at a tipping point where a lot of American can see this. We also know that if we disrupt this industry, many people’s jobs and livelihood will be impacted. However, if we can step away from the scariness of that disruption, and really look at how this system has destroyed families and people, we will be motivated to find a better way to deal with crime. We’ve been doing criminal justice this way for decades and we are not safer, we should be asking, “is there something else we can do?”
I think that we can get rid of the prison industrial complex entirely. There is enough conversation around how wrong it is and young people with energy and good ideas are motivated to tackle this problem. These young leaders were not alive during Jim Crow; they inherited racism, they did not create it. There’s part of me that is really hopeful about how the future generations will advance racial equity.