Structural racism is the root cause of starkly different life outcomes among Chicago’s neighborhoods. To achieve equity, we’ve got work as a whole city to do—and tools and ideas from other cities to guide us
Imagine a Chicago where life expectancy on the north and south sides are both equally high, instead of 30 years apart between Englewood and Streeterville. Where a mother doesn’t need to spend 1.5 hours on her commute to work due to inadequate transportation infrastructure. Where black and Latinx high school students graduate at the same rate as their peers. Where all families can afford a home in the neighborhood of their choice, and communities of color don’t bear the brunt of evictions and unjust displacement.
Simply put: imagine a region where race no longer predicts life outcomes.
Imagine a region where race no longer predicts life outcomes.
This is the racial equity future that many organizations and institutions are working towards. Fortunately, after an election that prioritized racial and social justice, the City of Chicago is taking concrete steps to adopt a racial equity framework for the City’s work. Case in point: Mayor Lori Lightfoot created Chicago’s first ever Chief Equity Officer, charged with creating and advancing new policies and practices an equity lens, and appointed civil rights lawyer Candace Moore to helm the post. This is on top of efforts already underway in government agencies across the region, including at Chicago Department of Public Health, Cook County, Evanston, Oak Park, and others.
As history has shown, government decisions have both created and exacerbated racial inequality. To name a few: the practice of redlining systematically blocked neighborhoods of color from access to mortgages, while occupations historically held by Black workers in the 1930’s (like agricultural or domestic workers) were excluded from Social Security benefits in the New Deal. And these are just a tip of the iceberg. Given this history of past harm, it’s clear why government today has a responsibility to tackle racial inequality.
At MPC, we’re excited and hopeful for this sea change momentum at the city – and also ready to hold Mayor Lightfoot accountable to her vision. After spending years studying the costs of our region’s deeply embedded racial and economic segregation, we landed on a core recommendation for what it will take to build a more equitable region: dismantle the institutional barriers that create disparities and inequities by race and income, both within government and without. Our new Mayor’s prioritization of equity is an exciting step.
So what happens next for Chicago? Rome wasn’t built in a day, and structural racism won’t be eliminated with an appointment. The work of dismantling these institutional barriers is long and multi-faceted.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and structural racism won’t be eliminated with an appointment. The work of dismantling these institutional barriers is long and multi-faceted.
Fortunately, Chicago can learn from dozens of other U.S. cities who have embarked on similar work. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. As a leading organization in this space, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) identified the following best practices for how city government can implement a racial equity framework: by normalizing racial equity as a key value and goal of government, by operationalizing considerations of equity in the use of data and in decision-making, and by organizing internal infrastructure and external partnerships to ensure accountability. As Mayor Lightfoot’s administration deepens their commitment to advancing equity in city government, we will need to advance steadily across each of the above fronts.
Normalizing. A key barrier to implementing a racial equity framework is the lack of a common understanding or shared language about race, structural racism, and racial equity. Another is the lack of a public vision for racial equity. Steps to normalize include making a formal declaration, such as an executive order or resolution, of racial equity as a government priority, including a clear definition and specific goals. Another step is to train leadership and key staff in racial equity concepts
In Tacoma, WA, City Council passed an “Equity and Empowerment” framework in 2014, which defined equity and offered a 5-goal framework for the city’s work. Similarly, Boston Mayor Walsh issued an Executive Order requiring city departments to engage in a training program and to develop individual plans and goals for racial equity. In our own region, Evanston recently passed a resolution recognizing the city’s history of racially discriminatory policies, declaring a stance against white supremacy, and committing to training all staff in racial equity.
Organizing. Institutional capacity also needs to grow and be supported by an internal infrastructure that facilitates organization-wide change.
One common strategy to build internal capacity is to establish an Equity Office (or a Chief Equity Officer) charged with developing a city-wide racial equity plan, supporting departments in implementing racial equity impact assessments, and coordinating related efforts across the city.
Examples of Equity Offices exist across the country, from Seattle’s longstanding Racial & Social Justice Initiative to Austin’s Equity Office to Boston’s Office of Resilience & Racial Equity. Chicago can learn from these various efforts about how to adequately and appropriately resource a new Office of Equity and Social Justice to set it up for success. A Chief Equity Officer is a welcome step, and still one person can’t dismantle institutional racism on her own.
Another organizing strategy is to create racial equity core teams within and across departments tasked with steering the internal change process. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Met Council created 3 levels of internal structures to support racial equity: an implementation team, an equity unit, and separate change teams in each department. Departmental change teams identify specific equity issues and implement changes, while the equity implementation team oversees and monitors the Council’s specific equity goals.
Operationalizing. Institutional behavior also needs to adapt to intentionally incorporate racial equity considerations. All people carry implicit biases, regardless of intentions, which are then internalized in beliefs and behaviors that inform policy decisions.
Core strategies for operationalizing equity include systematically considering racially disparate impacts in all decision-making processes (through a Racial Equity Impact Assessment). Many cities within the GARE network have worked to institutionalize the use of racial equity impact assessments within their decision-making processes. The City of Madison, WI, for example, created two racial equity analysis tools for internal use: a comprehensive version for significant decisions and a fast track version for decisions on short timelines. Chicago United for Equity (CUE) has also started initiating community-driven REIAs since 2017, building a local community of practice around the tool.
Another operationalizing strategy is to develop government- and department-wide racial equity plans for accountability. In Washington, King County convened a deep engagement process with over 700 county employees and 100 community groups to develop its first Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan. The City of Philadelphia similarly created a Racial Equity Action Plan for 2016-2020.
We have the power to make change in Chicagoland.
The work can start on many fronts... and it requires everyone to step up in new ways.
For a person’s life expectancy to vary by 30 years between Englewood and Streeterville – the largest gap in any U.S. city – we’ve failed that person in many structural ways. There may be no single culprit, but rather persistent injustice within every sector: health care, education, transportation, housing – you name it. Untangling the racism within our city’s systems is the only way to ensure that all Chicago residents live long, joyful lives. Whether you’re an advocate, elected official, government worker, funder, or something else, now’s the time to implement the practices other cities have road-tested. The work can start on many fronts – through racial equity impact assessments, through deeper city partnerships with communities of color, through citywide recognition of our racist history – and it requires everyone to step up in new ways. And the work must start today.