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 Jennifer Swift, Staff Service Analyst II in Administration and Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator for Napa County Health and Human Services.
Q: Let’s start by introducing your role in Napa County local government.
Technically, I am a Staff Service Analyst II in Administration; however, through this position, I function as the Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator for Napa County Health and Human Services (HHSA). HHSA is an integrated agency of about 500 employees across 10 different divisions. My position is unusual in that it encompasses global agency work, and as an analyst, I report directly to the Agency Director Howard Himes like the Division Deputy Directors. This structure is intentional so that our Diversity and Inclusion work couldn’t be fought over or politicized by various divisions. As the Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, I am responsible for administrative support of the Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan (DISP) and I aid in the fulfillment of the Agency Vision and Mission regarding race and cultural equity. These duties include staff development, participating in related agency-wide initiatives, providing and acquiring resources and support as well as relationship building within the communities we serve.
Q: How did you arrive at this role?
I have worked for Napa County HHSA for 5 years now, but how I came to work in government was kind of unconventional. I got my B.A. in Sociology, M.A. in Psychology while in my thirties and prior to that spent 24 years providing services and advocacy to individuals with developmental disabilities. I worked at the local non-profit and State level, including employment development and community integration in a wide variety of roles geared towards providing services and advocacy for individuals with disabilities. I planned on doing clinical psych work, but the economy had different plans. I completed my doctoral coursework but then had 18 months of unemployment due to State budget trimming. A former co-worker called and asked if I would be interested in a 20 hour per week extra help position doing Diversity and Inclusion at Napa HHSA. After meeting with Randy Snowden, then director of HHSA, I accepted the position with the caveat that I’ve never done this for “everybody before.”
At the time I started, people were not really ready to talk about race or diversity; diversity and inclusion meant hosting “multi-cultural potlucks,” and frankly, I am not really a
“potluck person.” Instead, I suggested that we start working on the strategic plan that was established but had since been gathering dust. Over time, my responsibilities increased and my position turned into a full-time role. I reconfigured and handpicked folks for the Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee (DISC) and we began taking steps toward normalizing the conversation around race and advancing racial equity in our practices. None of what has been accomplished at HHSA could have been done with the talented and dedicated folks that make up the DISC and Race and Cultural Equity Action teams, I’m just conducting the symphony.
Q: Tell me more about what inspired you to do racial equity work.
Race and cultural equity work evolved out of my personal relationship with growing up as an African American Woman in a sometimes hostile Napa County and coming from a family legacy of enduring and combating racism and inequity. That coupled with a strong desire that current and future generations not be damaged physically and mentally by something so preventable. I grew up in this community and have experienced discrimination from an early age. When I was nine years old, I witnessed the aftermath of a cross burning, was told along with other participants at my first job through the Regional Occupation Program in 10th grade “you were only hired because you’re Black, you’re a Mexican and you’re a pretty white girl.” At my high school, effigies of Blacks and Filipinos were hung from nooses on the quad and all of this stuff happened without much discussion, support or interference from adults who also represented their government-sponsored agencies. But to really understand where this fire for equity comes from you’d have to go back a few generations.
My paternal great grandmother was Native American and “married” to an ex-slave. They were burnt out by the Klan in Biloxi, Mississippi and fled to Tennessee where they started sharecropping. Needless to say, racism was rampant and they weren’t welcome. When my grandmother was an adult and the Klan would ride, she sat on her front porch with a shotgun on her lap to protect her 17 kids, refusing to bow down. She wanted a better life for her kids and encouraged my father to sign up for the Navy so he could get out of the south. When my dad was just 15, my grandmother falsified his birth date so that he could enlist early and have a better life… I guess you could say that I have a family history of not liking to be told where and how to live.
My dad joined the Navy and got transferred to California, and even though life in Napa wasn’t accepting of African Americans, he knew that my siblings and I would have a better education here. He moved into a house on the Napa/Vallejo town line so that we could go to school in Napa and have the opportunities that he did not have. Some people may call it stubbornness, but this is the mentality that comes from being the first black people that many folks in Napa had ever seen – aside from the ones on TV, no joke. I carry all the resilience of my ancestors with me every day into this work.
Q: What role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
I believe the obligation and responsibilities lie with the government to address inequities. Through acknowledgement, reconciliation, and leadership, we in government positions can enact real change. Government must acknowledge that we are the gatherers of knowledge and expertise and that we have the power to determine how and to whom this information is distributed. Most community members can see and recognize the inequities they may face, but because government has yet to acknowledge its involvement in instilling the dominant cultural values via laws, regulation, policy, practices, and organizations, the result is circular ineffectiveness, blame, and miscommunication. Reconciliation with past harms brings remediation and healing relationships within the organization and community at large. This can look like real effort at collaboration, inclusion and equitable outcomes and leadership, but no matter what form this takes, I believe it is imperative that we recognize that equitable outcomes can’t be achieved alone. The burden should not be on individuals or community organizations; the government ought to lead the way as the backbone in addressing racial inequities. Taking a leadership role has important symbolic value because it demonstrates commitment to the cause and partnership with the community we seek to serve. And since government typically has access to a wider range of resources such as information, technology, varied skill workforce and funding, it makes business sense as well.
Q: What has been particularly challenging about pursuing this work?
The pervasive idea that any of this work, whether it be diversity, inclusion, or equity, is extracurricular rather than a known method to improve organizational and community climate, increase innovation and engagement and produce better outcomes for our community members. Race and cultural equity are integral to overall health and wellbeing. If that’s the general mission of most government organizations, how can it not be a central component of how we do business?
It has also been challenging to contend with the number of natural disasters, political climate, and community tragedies that have impacted life in Napa. Nevertheless, we have faced these challenges with flexibility, foresight, and adaptation, all of which wouldn’t have been possible without the support our former and current Agency Directors, Randy Snowden and Howard Himes.
Q: What has been rewarding for you?
I have been able to learn so much from the talented and passionate mentors who have dedicated countless hours to this work. I have developed my own awareness of the impact of racial inequities on me and my community and I’ve learned strategies to minimize and cope with the damage. I’ve had the opportunity to be instrumental in the healing of my community in a way I could never have imagined. We are creating a better place to live, not only for current residents but for my son’s generation as well. Being able to build on the work of previous generations, that is probably the most rewarding.
Q: What is holding us back from achieving racial equity?
I think there are many things holding us back. If I were to use broad strokes, I’d say, “fear.” Fear means different things in different contexts, fear of change, fear of challenging the status quo, fear of loss of vital resources, status, personal status etc. I often think about how, in our society, we have adopted a way of being that poses the biggest barrier to overcome racial challenges individually, organizationally and beyond. Dr. Jaiya John used the term “relative deprivation” in one of his workshops he did for us in 2014. I interpreted this term as the belief that we are individuals who operate outside of community and that if all is equal, there will be less for us. This mentality of competition and us versus them is baked into our individualistic national culture. It seems to be a cornerstone of capitalism and is rampant in arguments against marginalized, under-resourced or excluded groups and seems to be at the core of the isms: racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, professionalism, ableism, etc.
Lastly, when folks hold this stance, there seems to be a level of imperviousness to information and data. My hope is that by making community environments full of diversity, inclusivity, and equity, our collective conscience will change and we will be exposed to its benefits, growth, and opportunities. So I guess the only way we can eventually get there is by acknowledging the problems we face today and working the processes of educating, informing, and making policy and practice changes. All the while it is critical that we engage our partners and wider community to get us there.
Q: What has been one major accomplishment for you in this role?
Being able to weather the challenges and help orchestrate the work of the Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee members and others around the Agency. By getting involved with GARE and other culture shifting organizations, we have been able to start actually talking about race and cultural equity at work. You can have diverse folks in your organization or community, you can even “include” them occasionally in leadership or discussion, but until you have equity to go along with it, you are just perpetuating a dysfunctional system. With the support of other organizations and community members, these conversations are disseminating into the Napa community and that’s amazing to me. If you would have told me five years ago that I would be instrumental in initiating open and honest conversations around race and cultural equity in Napa, I would have probably said “Nah, that’s not going to happen in this place! Besides, I won’t have anything to do with it because, by that time, I’ll be a practicing Psychologist.” But here we are – “best laid plans” and whatnot. I am proud that we have made strides to create a more inclusive and equitable Napa for future generations.