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 Analilia Garcia, Racial and Health Equity, Senior Health Care Program Manager at Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your current role in Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
I am the Racial and Health Equity, Senior Health Care Program Manager. It’s a new position developed as a result of our strategic planning process in 2015 in which our department re-affirmed our commitment to health equity and made a new commitment to lead with race. I have been in this position for a little over a year, but it feels like a lot longer because I was an instrumental part of the strategic planning team that helped formalize health equity work for Public Health. My role is housed in the Office of the Director where I report directly to the deputy director and work closely with staff at all levels of the Department of Public Health.
Santa Clara County is very diverse and employs roughly 20,000 people. We at Public Health have about 450 people, but I am proud that within the last couple of years we have been able to engage other departments including, Social Services, Behavioral Health, and the offices of LGBTQ Affairs, Immigrant Relations and Cultural Competency, housed in the County Executives office, in racial equity work. People are very curious about the movement we have started in Public Health and it’s my job to operationalize and help other people in key positions understand why we are doing this. I share what the public health approach might be to certain issues and encourage other departments across the system to engage and strategize to collectively, and proactively address systemic issues to advance racial equity.
Q: How did you arrive at this role?
I knew that education and opportunity were key ingredients in preparing me to make a difference for my family and community. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, I worked at La Clínica de La Raza in Oakland for 10 years in their community health education section. I worked closely in partnership with promotoras and youth on a wide range of health and social issues to combat root causes of inequality that adversely impact health outcomes. This motivated me to pursue a master’s degree in Community Health Education from San Jose State. From there I felt a strong sense of urgency and responsibility to continue my education, and I received a doctorate degree from Berkeley in Public Health. My focus has always been at the community level, a focus on social and racial justice and activism at its core, in partnership with youth and adults. The transition to the government sector has been challenging, and it wasn’t until Julie Nelson told us at the start of the Northern California GARE learning year in 2016 that as local government leaders, we were now joining a national movement as “bureau-activists,” that my role in local government really clicked. I translated my work in the community to my work in government and recognized how community organizing values and principles I applied to my daily community work could now inform my racial equity work in government.
Q: What inspired you to do racial equity work?
My life and professional experiences have brought me to this point. I am the daughter of Mexican immigrants and when my parents came to this country in the early 70s they were faced with so many challenges. They didn’t know English, and as the eldest of seven children, I had to learn to speak English out of necessity, as a means of survival for my family. It became my responsibility to translate everything for my parents and I was often put in a tricky position where I would witness how the system disrespected and discriminated against my parents. I was expected to translate what the people around me were saying, but I also didn’t want to upset or disrespect my parents, so I learned at a very early age not to translate the “bad stuff.” Through this process I learned early on that our government systems are not set up to work for everyone—and that is unjust and unfair. We were being treated differently because of where we were from, what we looked like and because of our accent.
While there were challenges growing up, my parents instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic, education, humility, and family. I stand on the shoulders of the many generations that came before me and I am reminded daily of the privilege and responsibility I now have because of their sacrifices. I translate that into everything I do. I work with tireless conviction, passion and dedication.
Q: In your opinion, what role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
The government has a moral obligation to not only acknowledge the inequities but to go even farther and take action! Acknowledging the role that government has had in perpetuating the structures and systems that result in deeply inequitable outcomes is essential. We have a duty to dismantle those systems and change them, especially when it comes to our decision-making. We have to start asking ourselves the critical questions: who will benefit and who will be harmed by the decisions we make? Have we truly addressed what the community needs? Are their voices at the table and remain there? Will some benefit more than others? Fortunately, we are finally having those conversations in our department, but we have a long way to go. We have a moral obligation to look at the historical legacy that we have inherited and proactively assess the impact of our actions.
Q: What have been the most challenging aspects of this work?
There are challenges on multiple levels. On a personal level, taking care of yourself can be an uphill battle. We all come to this work with some level of trauma and sometimes it can be difficult to recognize your own limitations. You work hard and go, go, go and soon enough, you burn out. Sometimes I feel like I am just one person up against a giant system that is entrenched in a long history. So finding ways to take care of myself and take care of my colleagues has been essential.
On a larger scale, there are a lot of politics in this job. I am new to working in government but I recognize the importance of establishing and building relationships, just like I did in community work… However, navigating the politics can be very different. I have to be intentional in everything I do. I speak as a representative of a system, but also from a place that acknowledges my responsibility to the community. Sometimes these two positions are hard to reconcile. It can be difficult to establish infrastructure for work intended to dismantle oppressive structures from within these same structures. But it starts with conversations and this year I have had wonderful allies, champions and advocates to navigate these tough conversations.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect to you personally?
I’d say changing the way we reach our staff as we address racial equity. I decided to go to every single staff meeting in order to introduce myself and the racial equity trainings that we were preparing to launch via our Racial & Health Equity Learning Institute. Usually the managers get together to discuss trainings and then disseminate the information down the ladder to the staff, but I knew that I didn’t want my message changed or watered down. I wanted to connect with folks and truly meet them where they were at. I knew that this approach would take a lot of time and energy, but it was entirely worth it and important in building our base and momentum at Public Health and beyond.
Staff often feel like they are not being taken into consideration or included. I had the opportunity to meet with our staff across 40 programs and hear stories that really resonated with people. I got a sense of the curiosity behind why we are doing this work. Because I was there to explain what we were doing, how it’s going to work, and why it’s important, the staff didn’t just see this as another initiative, rather our racial and health equity approach is here to stay.
People were excited and many wanted to be trained to be trainers. One person came up to me and told me, “I heard what you said, and it spoke to my heart and who I am.” These are the people in jobs behind a desk or doing clerical work, and they are stepping up to be important champions who are as passionate about this work as I am. It’s contagious! I truly enjoy what I do, I love going to work every day and I feel honored that I get to do this.
Q: What do you think is holding us back?
Bureaucracy is a challenge that we are up against. I am a government employee trying to move the system, but that same system is designed in order to impede this type of progress. Having leadership at the table helps you navigate that red tape, but the bureaucracy still exists. It’s easy to get jaded, throw up your hands and say, “government isn’t gonna change and that’s the way it is and always will be.” But we can turn off that noise and focus on the small changes. We can turn these challenges into opportunities. The way I see it, I work for the local government so I have a real opportunity to make direct positive impacts on the lives of people in my community.
Q: What do you hope to see accomplished in the next 10 years?
I hope that we work toward closing the gap. There is so much work to be done to eradicate the racial disproportionality across indicators. We can close this gap and become better as human beings. From a government lens, I hope that we really institutionalize policies, practices, procedures that treat people with respect and dignity and we work in the best interest of families and communities. There needs to be a shift in perspective, a radical transformation to have the greatest impact where communities are truly better off as a result of our collective efforts.