Beyond Counting Policies: Measuring Progress in Racial Equity

Beyond Counting Policies: Measuring Progress in Racial Equity

We are lifting up lessons we’ve learned from our Racial Equity Here cohort, five cities working to operationalize racial equity in local governments. Check out our Racial Equity Here page for more about what we’ve learned from this work.


People of color in U.S. cities disproportionately and historically lack access to opportunities – from education to employment – and many of the issues tied to racial inequity are within the power of city government to change. This fact represents a tremendous opportunity that Living Cities seeks to harness through our work, given our long-term and deep relationships with local governments and our mission of closing racial income and wealth gaps.

Racial Equity Here was designed so we could work deeply with five local governments to understand the full potential of this opportunity. Teams from each of the local governments completed an analysis of the history of racism in their cities with a focus on how government contributed to and created inequities. They developed racial equity vision statements as a way to help the cities’ leadership arrive at a common understanding about their racial equity efforts and to sharpen their language in communicating their commitment to racial equity to the public. They assessed their core government operations through a racial equity lens. They trained thousands of local government staff to approach their work in an anti-racist way, mindful of their roles as gatekeepers. And, they created and began to implement racial equity action plans that engaged departments across the city as well as non-profit, philanthropic, corporate, and very importantly, community partners.

Racial Equity Here focused on changing systems and shifting the national dialogue around racial equity. We are thrilled and inspired by the work the cities did over two years. Some very tangible examples of shifts in policy and practice that resulted from these efforts include:

Albuquerque implemented a policy to no longer ask about criminal convictions on the initial application for employment and modified its W-9 form (which individuals have to complete when they register a business), asking if a business is local, minority owned, or woman owned, to collect information about the types of businesses with which the city government contracts.
Grand Rapids earmarked $1 million annually for the next five years to strengthen community and police relations.
Louisville integrated racial equity indicators into the LouieStat measurement and performance system and changed the bidding practices for small contracts by requiring that a bid be received from at least one certified vendor owned by a racial or ethnic minority, a female, or a person with a disability.
Austin co-created a racial equity assessment tool with community leaders. The tool has been applied by 12 departments in their decision-making processes, which represented more than half of the city’s departments, to date. Austin’s Office of Equity successfully encouraged the Austin Police Department to work with a panel of residents to complete the racial equity assessment tool. This approach, different from that taken by other departments, not only embodied the office’s value of community engagement, but it was also fitting for confronting tensions between law enforcement and residents.
Philadelphia partnered with the Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) to address equity in accessing high-quality service regardless of what community residents reside in. The department of L&I disaggregated data to examine whether response time to addressing complaints differed based on race, poverty, crime, and population density. The findings indicated disparities in response times to housing and abandoned building complaints that led to departmental policy recommendation.

Beyond shifts in policy and practice, perhaps one of the most important lessons that Living Cities learned from our local government partners in Racial Equity Here is that racial equity work is about changing the culture of institutions. We went into Racial Equity Here wanting to count the number of policies changed. But, we also saw colleagues in the five cities deepen their relationships with each other.

We went into Racial Equity Here wanting to count the number of policies changed. But, we also saw colleagues in the five cities deepen their relationships with each other.

We saw conversations about race normalized in city halls. We saw leaders in cities realize their own power as gatekeepers and begin to view their daily work through a different lens. We saw them deeply reflect on how every budget or policy decision they make impacts racial equity. We saw them interrogate whether they are creating advantages or disadvantages for particular groups of people as a result of their individual and institutional decisions. We saw them speaking and listening to communities of color and implementing their ideas. We saw a mayor address his staff after a hate crime was committed in their city, not with the speech of politics, but with poetry aimed at connecting to people’s hearts. We did not know that this ‘soft’ stuff of culture change would be the most important story we have to tell about these cities, but it was. We are grateful to our evaluation partner, Community Science who pushed us in our own thinking of how to evaluate racial equity work.

Living Cities was learning about racial equity alongside our local government partners in Racial Equity Here. We too were developing a racial equity vision. We were looking at all of our operations and programs with a racial equity lens. And, thanks in large part to the leaders we met in the five Racial Equity Here cities, Living Cities is changing our own culture. We have trained our entire staff on undoing racism. We have worked to normalize conversations about race, to lean into the heart space, and to build deeper relationships with our colleagues. We open many of our meetings with check-in questions that ask us to engage with poetry, music, and art. We see ourselves, individually and as an institution, as racial equity organizers. This has changed how we approach partnerships with organizations like GARE and Race Forward, who have long been working in racial equity. We started the Racial Equity Here work as a funder. By the end of the two years, we saw ourselves more as a friend, a partner, a learner.

If you have any questions or want to share your story on your racial equity journey, please email racialequity@livingcities.org

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