A team of equity ambassadors has been working its way quietly through the City of San Antonio’s dozens of departments this year.
Its mission is to ensure the City makes policies, delivers services, and distributes resources while taking into consideration “the different histories, challenges, and needs of the people we serve,” according to the website for the City’s Office of Equity.
“Equity is really about people,” said Chief Equity Officer Zan Gibbs, who began working in that position on March 1. “It’s about finding people who are the most marginalized in their outcomes” and figuring out ways to close the gaps on whatever disparities exist.
That takes shape in budget priorities, hiring practices, and structural changes in how departments operate, such as how City employees reach out to low-income families or how they prioritize projects.
Nationally, about 30 cities have offices of equity, Gibbs said. “The fact that San Antonio even funds this office is a big deal.”
Gibbs’ office consists of herself, three equity managers, and an administrative assistant. The office, in turn, identified a point person in each department to act as ambassadors for the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
At the ground level, the equity office focuses on people with low incomes and people of color, Gibbs said. But that doesn’t mean others are ignored.
“When you use a lens of the greatest disparities you are actually looking at the entire community,” she said.
It’s not about “more” needs, it’s about “different” needs, Gibbs said. “Equity work is not oppression Olympics … it’s about a level playing field.”
Earlier this year, Gibbs and her team developed a budget equity tool for City departments to start using as they develop their budgets and operational plans.
“It’s not that the tool is prioritizing certain communities over another, the tool is designed as a strategy [to enhance equity],” she said.
The new tool includes a list of questions that guide departments to think about how allocations, future programs, or outreach could help marginalized communities.
For example, the Office of Sustainability hired an employee last year to engage communities of color and work with the authors of the draft Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. In 2020, it will establish a Climate Equity Committee to help guide implementation of the plan.
As part of their budget presentations to City Council this summer, each department was asked to include a slide about how they are “embedding equity” into their operations, said Assistant City Manager Collen Bridger. “It’s a little bit like learning a second language,” she said of incorporating equity into City functions. “We’re in the 101 phase – nouns and verbs. Next year, we’ll put some sentences together.”
Gibbs said she hopes there will be more examples of departments incorporating equity into their operations. “We’re building the scaffolding now.”
The office established an Equity Committee, which comprises a representative from every City department and office – there are about 40 – to convene monthly. “It’s a citywide strategic think tank, in a way, for advancing equity,” Gibbs said.
Each department has a different culture, but each was generally receptive, she said.
“I didn’t encounter resistance, I just encountered a lot of questions,” she said. “The questions were all really smart. We basically taught people to have conversations about race and income.”
In 2020, the Equity Office will start department-wide equity assessments to help each department create equity action plans. They’ll start with eight departments that have a lot of contact with the public: the Department of Human Services, Parks and Recreation, the Metropolitan Health District, Human Resources, City Clerk, Neighborhoods and Housing Services, and the Economic Development Department.
The City’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion was established in 2015 but transitioned to the Office of Equity in 2017. That year, City Council approved the first-ever “equity budget” for 2018 that distributed street maintenance funds based on the greatest need by Council district.
The name has changed, Gibbs said, but a lot of her work deals with diversity and inclusion, too, as they are interdependent concepts.
“You can have a diverse workforce but not be inclusive,” she said. “You can have an equitable workplace but not be diverse.”
Metro Health had already established an equity office within the department when Bridger was hired as the director in 2017, Bridger said.
“There wasn’t much interaction between the City and Health Department offices of equity,” she said. “So when I came to the city manager’s office [in March] that was one of the first things I did.”
The Metro Health employee tasked with equity is now integrated into the work that Gibbs’ office does, dealing with health equity issues across city departments.
Often equity work involves “connecting the dots” between problems, causes, departments, and programs, Gibbs said. “We’re a dot-connecting department.”
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For now, the Equity Office works internally within the City organization, she said, but other cities have expanded the work of their equity offices to provide training to other entities.
Before talking about an expansion of the office and its scope, Bridger said, “I think we need to get a couple of years under our belt. … It will take several years to actually embed equity in every department in the City.”
Gibbs moved to San Antonio one year ago after working in racial, transportation, and housing justice arenas for 20 years in Portland, where she was an equity manager. Most city equity initiatives take their cues from Seattle and Portland, she said, as they established their offices in 2004 and 2011, respectively.
She loves San Antonio so far, she said.
“The only way you can do something alone [in San Antonio] is if you want to,” Gibbs recalled a friend’s description of the city.
That works out well for her, she said, because “equity work requires collaboration.”