Change happens at the speed of trust: Key lessons from ILG’s equity roundtable
Julia Salinas is a senior program manager with the Institute for Local Government. She is leading the organization’s public engagement pillar and equity work. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The pandemic has brought equity to the forefront of many city programs and services. From updating recruitment practices and hiring equity officers to developing equity ordinances and reexamining public policies and programs, cities throughout California have made notable changes to their daily and long-term operations. However, while many cities have made significant headway, others are just figuring out how to implement concepts of equity. While resources exist, many are navigating this journey alone or with limited budgets.
As part of its LEADING LOCAL leadership series, the Institute for Local Government (ILG) recently hosted a virtual equity roundtable, which brought together more than 125 local government staff and elected officials from around the state to connect on the challenges and successes they have had in their equity journeys and learn about the equity approaches of four cities, counties, and special districts. The roundtable was part of a broader effort by ILG to advance equity in local government.
“Like the League of California Cities, ILG believes that addressing systemic inequities in local government is an important change to make, but that those changes need to be considered individually by jurisdictions,” said ILG CEO and Executive Director Erica L. Manuel. “ILG’s goal is to work closely with Cal Cities to lift-up local government best practices and lessons learned on the ground and create spaces for jurisdictions with similar issues to connect and learn from each other.”
In the coming year, ILG plans to help build the capacity of California’s local governments to advance equity and public engagement in their communities through peer learning, collaboration, and the distribution of related resources.
The equity roundtable was the first in a series of activities that ILG will spearhead to implement this work throughout the state. The roundtable provided a forum for an important conversation about issues that need to be considered and addressed when embarking on this kind of initiative. Ten major barriers emerged that local governments face when advancing equity work in their agencies and communities. Those barriers are substantively related to lack of capacity and culture change, and include:
- Moving from intention to action — lack of guidance on how to do the work
- The ability to prioritize and commit resources to the work
- Data collection to demonstrate inequities in the agency and community
- Engagement with the community
- Trouble finding consultants to help
- Staff turnover
- Lack of executive and management support and buy-in
- Political acceptance
- Fear of change within the organization
- The ability to keep the momentum for change
Roundtable participants agreed that many local agencies face these barriers, including those striving to make meaningful changes related to equity. They reinforced that understanding how to overcome these challenges is key to success.
Randi Johl, Temecula’s legislative director, city clerk, and executive director for the city’s Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Commission, was one of the roundtable panelists and she shared some of the major challenges and “bright spots” from her city’s equity journey.
Early lessons in equity from California cities and counties
The city of Temecula is just starting its second year of work on equity issues through the commission — just one aspect of the city’s equity work. The equity initiative loosely follows the National League of Cities Race, Equity, and Leadership model.
Temecula’s eponymous first phase focused on “normalizing the conversation” through city council engagement and the passing of a resolution to support unity and equity, council and staff training, and important conversations between law enforcement and community members. The city also created the Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Commission during this phase.
In the second and current phase, Operationalize the Action, the city is engaging in community dialogue, drafting a city council protocol manual, and reviewing citywide policies and programs for equity purposes. In the third phase, Organize the Sustainable Effort, the city will focus on a more inclusive budget process and add an equity value to their Quality of Life Master Plan.
According to Johl, a key challenge for this work is that support will ebb and flow as elected leaders, staff, and community leaders change. By institutionalizing new policies, processes, and systems, equity can remain a focus, regardless of leadership change. The city took its first step towards internal and external community acceptance of the work by adopting a resolution supporting the fair and equal treatment of all human beings.
Additionally, culture change is about relationship-building. It takes time and requires engaging all stakeholders: community members, staff, and elected and appointed officials.
Johl said, “For some people, you’ll never move fast enough, and for others, you’re moving way too fast. Equity work is about seizing [the] momentum to keep the work forward-moving — even if at a slow pace — while managing expectations and listening to everyone.”
She emphasized the importance of understanding your audience and finding champions of equity work within your organization. Johl described four categories: advocates, supporters, skeptics, active resistors. “It’s really important to connect with the advocates. Don’t lose supporters. Give information to skeptics, and don’t try to change the minds of active resistors — meet them where they are.”
Johl also shared how much the agency has learned by hearing about the personal and lived experiences of council members, community members, and staff. The city built new connections with others in their community, such as the Chamber of Commerce, faith groups, the school district, and other local government agencies. Together, they are building relationships in new ways through collaborative equity work.
The early lessons that Temecula learned can be applied to all cities embarking on their equity journey. With leadership buy-in and upfront investment, this work can quickly become a new way of doing business differently: All decisions and actions by local governments can prioritize equity, ensuring that all Californians have equal access and opportunity that result in a more fair and just society for all.
Finally, Johl emphasized that strategic planning for equity is “not a cut and paste from another community.” The work should be highly tailored and is about co-creation with communities and elected leaders.
This suggestion was validated by fellow panelist Rosemary Soto from the county of Monterey, who noted that the county “really wanted to center community voices and encourage meaningful dialogue among a wide range of stakeholders, including our regional partners in local government.”
The county is advancing regionwide equity action by working closely with the leaders of three historically black and brown cities within the county that have experienced extensive racial inequities: Salinas, Seaside, and Gonzalez.
Monterey county launched a racial equity learning series across the region to build a shared understanding of racial equity with city and county staff. They also developed partnerships with community-based organizations, grassroots advocacy groups, and affinity groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of United Latin American Citizens, Building Healthy Communities, and Padres Unidos.
In 2022, ILG plans to support local governments in strategizing and implementing an equity approach that works for their agency and their community. ILG is working to fill the gaps and create broader access to written resources and implementation tools for local governments of all capacities, and at all points in their equity journey.
Collaboration with philanthropic and community-based organizations collectively advances equity and supports local governments by engaging their communities in this work. As the nonprofit affiliate of Cal Cities, the California State Association of Counties, and the California Special Districts Association, ILG is uniquely positioned to build cross-agency cohorts that develop awareness and expand impact across regions and demographics.
“ILG is excited to collaborate with our local government association partners to share best practices so that all California local governments can better navigate the nuances of designing and implementing equity thinking in their cities, their agencies, and their communities,” Manuel said.
For more information about the Institute for Local Government and its programs, visit the ILG website.