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D.C. joins Montgomery, Fairfax in launching racial equity office

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D)
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) (Bill O'Leary/Pool/The Washington Post)

The D.C. government is launching a search for a chief equity officer, whose team will assess how budget and policy choices will address long-standing disparities in health, education, income and more.

The racial equity office will be housed in the city administrator’s office and was created as part of the Racial Equity Achieves Change Act passed by the D.C. Council last year. That bill, led by council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), also spurred the creation of a partner office in the council that will review proposed legislation for its effect on racial equity.

D.C. becomes the latest local jurisdiction to establish a racial equity office, following Fairfax County as well as Montgomery County, which passed a sweeping racial equity bill two years ago. An application for the D.C. position will be posted this week.

City Administrator Kevin Donahue said that the District’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be among the office’s primary focuses. Covid-19 has had a disproportionate effect on the city’s most historically underserved communities, bringing to the forefront issues such as vaccine hesitancy, learning loss, unemployment and housing instability.

“The chief equity officer, their core mission for the city is to amplify and accelerate the work of agencies when it comes to addressing racial disparity,” Donahue said. “Their other core mission is to develop ways to independently evaluate what we’re doing, for both its direct and unintended consequences on racial disparity.”

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The chief equity officer will also have a say in city budget cycles, examining spending through a lens of racial equity. Donahue said dialogue about equity already takes place but often as part of a conversation about other divisions within the city.

“Economics and geography, because they can correlate with race in the city, are often used as phrases that indirectly speak to race,” Donahue said. “The law and the office invites us to just make that a much more open and direct conversation about race.”

The office will develop training, curriculum and workshops on racial equity issues for D.C. government employees, including those who run programs and develop budgets, Donahue said. The legislation also calls for an advisory board made up of city residents to oversee the city’s racial equity work and evaluate its performance.

For the office to be effective, it must work closely with city officials and employees who run programs and are already receiving public feedback, Donahue said.

“Standing up is the easy part. Having the office make an impact is hard,” he said. “Any central office whose name reflects what should be the job of everyone in government always has the risk of inadvertently having that responsibility shift away from where it should be.”

The council’s new equity office is tasked with pinpointing how all proposed legislation might affect communities of color and other traditionally marginalized groups.

Whenever the council passes a law, the city’s chief financial officer measures its fiscal impact. The equity office will take a similar approach by assessing whether a bill would advance racial equity in the District — or exacerbate it.

“Only by building systems that are intentional in their design to account for our city’s legacy of racism and discrimination and are targeted to expand access will every District resident truly have the same opportunities to prosper in our society,” McDuffie said in a statement. “The Chief Equity Officer will be instrumental in our local government’s efforts to eliminate racial disparities and advance the goal of achieving equity in the Nation’s Capital.”