Carrboro Takes a Closer Look at Social Equity

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Like many local government bodies, each year the Carrboro Board of Aldermen holds a day-long retreat to enable more concentrated discussion about one or more strategic issues. This year’s retreat was held on Sunday, February 28, in a sunny room at the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill, just past the pool tables downstairs. (Believe me, the pool tables were tempting.)

The topic, social equity and how to consider it in local decision-making, was mutually agreed in advance, and Alderwoman Michelle Johnson and I were tasked with setting an agenda, finding guest speakers, and, best of all, picking the caterer. (We chose Mediterranean Deli.) With skillful input from facilitator Andy Sachs of the Dispute Settlement Center, we agreed to the following objectives for our retreat:

  • Clarification of what equity can mean in the context of leadership and local government.
  • Understanding progress and disparity in Carrboro and Orange County, utilizing Triangle J COG’s Equitable Growth Profile recommendations as one comparison.
  • Appreciation for concrete tools that can be used at the department and municipal level to advance equity in operations and policy making.
  • Board priorities and next steps with regard to equity.
  • Identification of possible ways the Board can work even better together as it addresses the community’s challenging issues.

A Tall Order

Yes, those objectives were a tall order, but we all recognized that this first conversation would not be last. To get us started, we asked Aspen Romeyn of the Triangle J Council of Governments to provide us with some local level data to see where Carrboro and Orange County equity indicators stack up. You can see her excellent presentation here.

Some of the data is not surprising; some is eye opening. All point to the undeniable fact that people of color living in Orange County, no matter their economic or educational standing, are having a much harder time than white people of the same means. If you are a person of color and poor, you are poorer than your white peers. If you are a person of color struggling in the middle class, you’re losing even more ground than your struggling white peers. Race matters in some big ways in progressive Carrboro and Orange County, beyond the policing and educational disparities that are the focus of much of our collective equity conversations.

With data as a backdrop, Dr. James Svara of UNC’s School of Government offered up a framework for conducting a local government equity inventory that includes an analysis of:

  • Access and Distributional Equity
  • Procedural Fairness
  • Quality and Process Equity
  • Outcomes Across Population Groups

His discussion, as well as some auxiliary reading he provided before the retreat, offered concrete steps for evaluating our local government system and its contributions or roadblocks to social equity. Vetted by the Social Equity Panel of the National Academy of Public Administration, this framework and similar ones have been adapted and adopted by a few, but not many, local governments across the country. Perhaps the most notable is Seattle, which, with assistance from the Racial Equity Institute (REI) and its racial equity framework, developed an equity analysis to inform its long-term comprehensive plan.

My Takeaways

Ultimately it was a rich discussion in line with the retreat objectives. Everyone contributed positive ideas and valuable perspectives. Immediate next steps will include continued data review, various training opportunities for staff and the Board, and continued work on a number of relevant issues and policies that were already on our plate (like policing). Here are my personal takeaways as we work toward the longer-term:

  • Developing a shared language around equity is necessary if any governing body is to be effective and consistent in evaluating and implementing decisions toward equitable outcomes. But it’s also difficult to agree on that shared language. While every member of the Board of Aldermen would describe themselves as progressive, each of us brings to the table distinctive racial, ethnic and personal identities, life experiences, privilege, and practices in discourse that will make coming to agreement on any set of terms an interesting challenge. But getting past the difficulty is part of the process.
  • Assessment is key, starting with the ‘self.’ In the case of Town government, that means assessing personnel practices, service delivery, policy, operations and communications across departments, including the Board of Aldermen. It means we have to be mindful of the quality of system that good policy needs in order to succeed. Investing in data collection and review has to be part of the process. So is investing in people and their professional development.
  • We can’t act in a vacuum. The economic data is clear about that—the regional system needs to change, not just our slice of it. Happily, Aldermen Damon Seils and Sammy Slade, along with Planning Director Trish McGuire, attended a recent local government equity training sponsored by REI and report back good things. Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Orange County also were represented there, among other Triangle counties and municipalities. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can make happen together thanks to opportunities like these.

Finally, while it may seem obvious, it’s worth repeating that no one in Carrboro or Orange County has a lock on the equity conversation, or a lock on what it means to be a progressive decision-maker in 2016. It’s hard to find a politician, advocate or activist in Orange County who can’t recount their defense or advancement of any number of progressive principles. I’ve certainly done that myself. But being progressive isn’t enough. We can’t blame a system that is continuously marginalizing an increasing number of people on external forces. The system, and all its racial bias, is us.

Every formal and informal leader in Orange County, no matter their long tenure or good track record or personal lens into identity, must own the widening disparities happening on their watch and take the risks needed to turn around those trends. We need humility (and sanity, Mr. Trump) now more than ever.

I know our Board of Aldermen is up to the task, despite our differences and oft-competing priorities. I’ll look forward to another update on our equity discussions and actions very soon.