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The City of New Orleans Unveils Equity Initiative

by Anitra D. Brown

“This is equity: just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all.”

—”Equity” as defined by PolicyLink

On stage as one of four panelists discussing the city of New Orleans’ new equity strategy, Julie Nelson, director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, made perhaps the strongest and most convincing statement regarding why government ought to be in the business of instituting equity.

“Racial inequities are not random,” Nelson said. “Specifically, years of laws and policies create racial inequities. We can celebrate milestones; yet, we still have to recognize that when it comes to the condition of the community, some of our inequities are worse than they were at the time of the Civil Rights movement. We have to look at the routine decision making, decisions that get made on a day by day basis across the breadth and depth of government.”

To put it more bluntly, longstanding racial and socio-economic inequities are the direct result of racist practices and the unjust government policies and laws that supported them. The laws and systems that shut African Americans out of quality education, jobs, and housing opportunities are an example. And even when the practices, policies, and laws no longer exist, their consequences continue to impact the lives of the individuals historically marginalized by them. So the government must take an active role—through the implementation of policy—to ensure that all citizens have what they need to live their best lives.

The city of New Orleans appears poised to do just that as it launched its new initiative Equity New Orleans in mid-April. The initiative was officially unveiled to a large crowd that gathered at the Hyatt Regency, where the strategy of the initiative was detailed along with examples of efforts currently underway to establish a more equitable New Orleans.

The goal of the initiative is to help city government understand and address inequities in a data-driven, strategic manner.

To be sure, the city of New Orleans has some equity issues that need to be addressed. About 67 percent of the city’s population is people of color, according to a snapshot shared at the Equity New Orleans launch. According to that same data, while the unemployment rate for White New Orleanians is 5.5 percent, it is more than two and half times higher for Black New Orleanians at 14 percent. And the unemployment rate among working-age Black men is even higher. Also, 27 percent of African-Americans live in areas across the city with high poverty rates. That number is only eight percent for White New Orleanians.

The inequity that engulfs New Orleans is visible to the naked eye. While huge swaths of the Lower Ninth Ward look as desolate and forgotten today as they did just after Hurricane Katrina, areas of downtown and the warehouse district are buzzing with new, posh developments leased at tony price tags far out of the range of the poorest New Orleanians, a challenge exacerbated by the reduction of low-income housing stock that resulted from the redevelopment of the city’s traditional public housing into less-dense mixed-income communities.

“Now is the time to mend that divide,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a printed statement. “That is the aim of our ambitious Equity New Orleans initiative. Actively pursuing racial equity involves addressing structural racism and its consequences – not only in our communities, but also in government, businesses, schools, and institutions. It involves the tough steady work of reflection, reconciliation, and revitalization. It involves us all.”

The city has established an Equity Office, that will be the “anchor for this work,” says Judy Reese Morse, deputy mayor for citywide initiatives. This office will be responsible for ensuring that issues of equity are addressed across the board in city government—from executive and legislative action to the budget process to departmental plans and procedures.

The Equity Office will provide guidance, education and technical assistance to city department as they establish their respective equity programs to ensure consistency and quality in services and outcomes.

“Most department heads have expressed excitement at receiving these plans,” Morse said at the initiative launch in April. “We look forward to working with all of you as we work toward an increased focus on equity in city government. The development of the city’s equity strategy also includes the implementation of an equity assessment tool. Morse describes this as vital to ensuring “consistency in measuring program performance.”

Other elements of the framework of the strategy include:

The establishment of city of New Orleans Equity Teams:

  • Engage leadership and staff to become advisors, champions, and users of racial equity tools to advance equitable outcomes. Equity teams would increase awareness of and attention to racial equity in policy and practice.
  • The establishment of a racial equity community roundtable:
  • This roundtable will forward the work of equity in City government. It will include leaders from all sectors that will both inform the City’s work to advance equity and increase the use of an equity lens within the community and their own organizations.

Equity training:

  • Racial Equity Training for all employees and members of boards and commissions, including the implementation of a “Train the Trainer” model, focused on building internal capacity. The training will provide increased understanding of institutional barriers and the role, responsibilities, and opportunities for government to advance racial equity both internally and in partnership with other institutions and the community.
    Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Training for employees to effectively plan and implement inclusive engagement strategies to help ensure that participation in public engagement efforts more fully reflects the demographics of the New Orleans community.

The promotion of workforce equity:

  • Create a city workforce demographics dashboard.
    Analyze hiring processes for racial disparities
    Develop specialized HR racial equity and tools training.

The promotion of the strategy through an Equity New Orleans public awareness campaign:

  • Create a visual campaign to increase awareness about why equity matters and city government’s role in advancing equity.
    Sarah Treuhaft, senior director of PolicyLink, an organization that encourages economic and social equity through policy change, also served on the panel during the unveiling of Equity New Orleans. Treuhaft appeared impressed by the equity initiative.
    “This is really meaningful for us to see you institutionalize equity in government,” Treuhaft said.

Equity in Action

Although Equity New Orleans was officially unveiled in April, the city of New Orleans has actually been busy for several years now putting in place programs, policies, and activities designed to improve opportunities and quality of life for all New Orleanians.

To city leaders, much of what has taken place since 2010 falls under the umbrella of the newly launched Equity New Orleans.

For example, the city points to the Network for Economic Opportunity, partnership between institutions, employers and community-based organization to support hiring local residents, particular those who have been historically unemployed or underemployed. Among successes of this program, the city counts a drop in the unemployment rate of working-age Black males from 52 percent to 44 percent and the summer youth employment programs that have created jobs for nearly 17,000 young people since 2010.

Other economic successes include the city’s living wage ordinance passed in May 2016 as well as focus on strengthening the city’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program.

The city cites progress in the areas of criminal justice reform and housing policy as other ways it has already started to make ensuring equity a part of the way it does business. In 2016, the office of Community Development completed announced a five-year plan to create or preserve 7,500 affordable housing opportunities for residents.

The city also points to Welcome New Orleans as an early effort that bolsters the equity strategy. Funded by a grant from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, hundreds of residents from across the city and from all backgrounds took part in Welcome Table New Orleans to start conversations surrounding racial reconciliation from 2014 to 2016.

For more information on the city of New Orleans’ equity strategy, visit equityneworleans.org.

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