We spoke with Julie Nelson of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity about how local government can advance racial equity and eliminate racial disparities.

To disrupt inequality, we need a systems change approach that dismantles the structural causes of persistent racial disparities. A critical player in that transformation is local government. With its substantial authority and influence over significant policies and public funding, government plays a vital role in dramatically improving outcomes for low-income people and people of color. How can government be transformed from an institution that directly or indirectly perpetuates racial inequities into one that actively advances racial equity? How can the immense influence of government be leveraged to advance racially equitable results and transformed into a truly inclusive democracy?

An Interview with Julie Nelson (Part 1)

As Living Cities explores how to embed racial equity and inclusion across our work, we’re actively connecting with national leaders to learn about how they’re tackling the structural causes of racial inequality. To that end, we invited Julie Nelson, Director of The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (The Alliance), to speak with staff about how local government can support racial equity and inclusion. Julie is also the former Director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights where she provided vision and day-to-day management of the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI).

The Alliance is a national network of governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all. The Alliance uses a three-prong approach: (1) supporting a cohort of jurisdictions that are at the forefront of work to achieve racial equity; (2) offering pathways for new jurisdictions to begin doing racial equity work; and (3) supporting and building regional collaborations that prioritize community, and are broadly inclusive and focused on achieving racial equity.

Julie offered us a number of helpful insights about the history of racial inequity and the role of government in producing dramatically better results for people of color. In this, post we focus on the former – as Julie reflects on the systemic causes of racial inequities and the vision that led to the founding of The Alliance.

Q: How did you come to see government as a critical player in achieving equity?

Coming out of graduate school, working for government had not been my goal. At the time, I did not envision the incredible potential of government. I was motivated by progressive politics, and had primarily imagined working for a community based organization. After all, historically, change has happened in the United States by community advocating from the outside. Ironically enough, I spent the next 25 years working for government!

For the vast majority of our history, government at the local, regional, state and federal level has played a role in creating and maintaining racial inequity. Laws and policies were intentionally developed and implemented that explicitly created deep racial inequities, including who could become a citizen, who could vote, who could own property, who was property and where one could live. From slavery, to the seizing of Native American lands, to Japanese internment and Jim Crow, government has played a role in creating and perpetuating racial inequities through law and policy.

Clearly, focusing on individual acts of bigotry or discrimination is not sufficient.

While explicit acts of discrimination became illegal through the victories of the Civil Rights movement like the Fair Housing Act or Voting Rights Act, governmental policies and practices still included “race-neutral” approaches that perpetuated racial inequities, often without explicit intent. To this day, racial inequities continue to be deep, pervasive and persistent across the country. Clearly, focusing on individual acts of bigotry or discrimination is not sufficient.

My experience working in government demonstrated a new opportunity at-hand. Currently, a growing number of governmental jurisdictions have an increased understanding of the impact of institutional biases in perpetuating inequities. We have begun to see the potential for government to be a powerful proactive force for equity and inclusion.

In Seattle, instead of looking at the symptoms of racial inequity, RSJI honed in on the root causes. Instead of avoiding race, we recognized that the only way to develop effective strategies for racial equity was to normalize conversations about race. We recognized that funding programs to ameliorate the impacts was never going to be sufficient, and that to get to sustainable changes, we needed to change the policies, practices and procedures that were perpetuating inequities.

Q: What led you to establish the Alliance?

Establishing the Alliance was a natural outgrowth of my work on the Race and Social Justice Initiative when I was the Director of the City of Seattle Office for Civil Rights, a position I held for eight years. Focusing on institutional and structural racism within local government was inspiring and gave me hope for the transformation of government. Knowing what we were accomplishing in Seattle led me to see the possibility of transforming the very nature of government across the country.

Racial equity is not a zero sum game.

I was also fortunate that at a time of professional transition, john powell at the University of California Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society shared a vision of racial equity. Working with john and Haas has been a great platform for the project as his work on targeted universalism is critical for government. Racial equity is not a zero sum game. Our goals are beyond closing the “gaps”; government must establish appropriate benchmarks that lift up all populations while paying close attention to those faring the worst. The goal is not to just eliminate the gap between whites and people of color, but to increase our collective success. Systems that are failing communities of color, are actually failing all of us. Targeting disproportionalities while setting broad goals will increase our collective success and be cost effective.

Stay Tuned for the second installment of this interview that delves into the challenges and opportunities local governments face in doing racial equity and inclusion work. To find out more about the Alliance, please call or e-mail Julie at 206-816-5104 or julie.nelson@racialequityalliance.org. Image credit: Seattle City Hall, by Flickr user OZinOH. CC by 2.0.