As an ambitious and high-performing professional, “wait your turn”, “keep your head down and do your work” were the normative phrases. I sometimes had to “code switch” just to fit in.
My vociferous nature and ambitions, I believe, have prevented me from progressing and succeeding in my career. Seeing how my black peers have had difficult experiences navigating the “system”, I have set out on my own journey to figure out why. I just may have the answer.
This coronavirus pandemic and increased racial tensions have brought to the light the racial, social and economic gaps that have been discussed, but never taken seriously. The longstanding inequities include health disparities, lack of high quality education and violence. The highest amount of COVID deaths are from people of colour in cities. As Helene Gayle, the CEO of Chicago Community Trust stated in a recent webinar, “if the general population catches a cold, communities of colour catch pneumonia”.
Navigating the public sector for the majority of my career has been challenging. From academic interests in regional governance and affordable housing to spatial mismatch and reverse commuting in transit, my career has spanned years in multiple jurisdictions in planning and policy but never really focused on my true love of applying social equity to those areas. There has been a nervousness that has led to policy inaction and/or status quo decision making that must end. I set out to make the case for a disruption.
Disrupt or Interrupt?
In the public sector space, where change is rather slow and methodical, I am in agreement with Dr. Amante-Jackson in that there needs to be a disruption. The housing and transit industries have already seen it with AirBnb (although pretty much dead in the water now), and with micromobility. With health and social inequities being exacerbated due to the Coronavirus pandemic, a disruption is literally inevitable.
Should policy makers and public sector managers disrupt inequity or should they want to interrupt it? That was the question Dr. Damisa Amante-Jackson posed in a recent Hello Monday podcast.
Interrupting, as Dr. Amante-Jackson states, is about advocacy to consider policies and practices, naming things, but not necessarily going to shift the policies to create and industry standard and to hold people accountable. For disruption to be successful, the required mindset change is for people to be successful in giving feedback and being able to have those difficult conversations. It is naming the elephants in the room. Disruption is an end to inequity.
Nervousness in Government
In order to disrupt the public sector, the elephant in the room is nervousness that Susan T. Gooden spoke of in her book Race and Social Equity, A Nervous Area of Government. From those aforementioned policies and procedures to delivering on diversity and inclusion by not just “checking the boxes”, public servants and managers, need to have those deep uncomfortable conversations. This does not mean being reactionary but by doing the deep work, asking the questions and acting on it.
Gooden explained this nervousness in government as it pertains to the conceptualization of racial and social equity is grounded in the application of organizational justice. The issues involving organizational justice involve some person or group benefitting or harmed in a manner that is unfair.
My experiences from a human resources context have concentrated on equality, not equity. Such as recruitment, onboarding, compensation, and attrition. Gooden suggests that understanding the nervousness of government involves an approach that is more systemic instead of that of organizational justice. It prioritizes lived experiences of the public it serves, which is a theme I’ve mentioned in my previous blog posts time and again. She referred to this as public justice and is defined as the larger organizational value where social equity resides. Where public justice is value oriented, social equity is more concerned with the delivery of public services.
Throughout Gooden’s book, she provides examples related to the American experience of structural and institutional racism to the nervousness in government, our Canadian experiences, although more muted, are just as relatable.
Conquering Nervousness in Government
Gooden sets out by listing ten principles in conquering nervousness in government. They are:
- Public Administrators have a responsibility to operate in the nervousness of government.
Examining issues of racial equity, which is one such area in the nervousness of government, public service delivery is fundamental in understanding how public sector institutions systematically provides services in structural ways that influence important outcomes.
- The legal history of racial discrimination is an important context that cannot be minimized, but rather offers instructive guidance.
Zoning regulations and planning policies that are general in nature are perfect examples where practices that may appear race neutral would have important implications.
- Initial motivators to begin navigation of nervousness typically include some combination of political, moral, legal, and/or economic triggers.
Gordon referred to the Seattle Race and Social Justice Network which was politically motivated. I touched upon the need to include social equity within transit service standards which included a mention of King County Metro in a earlier blog post. Legal areas include laws, regulation and court decisions. Economic triggers that would advance racial equity could include cost-benefit analyses or improved organizational dimensions that Dr. Amante-Jackson referred to in disrupting the status quo or. With recent societal shifts triggered by both the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter, they will definitely wield pressure on organizational structures.
- Senior leadership is a critical important factor in realized sustained progress.
This reminded me of the book Leaders in the Shadows, a book by David Siegel about the diverse leadership styles of several Canadian city managers and Chief Administrative Officers. While the leaders in the book deserve credit, they weren’t innovative. They were emblematic of the systems they led, each had opportunities to promote racial and social equity within their municipal organizations. The model of a new leader should be at the forefront of significant organizational change, define its culture, and “establishes clear norms and expectations of racial equity performance and accountability”.
- At the individual level, public servants must recognize and eliminate behaviours that impede racial equity progress.
As Gordon notes, the individual baseline level of nervousness should provide an indicator of how likely or unlikely a public administrator is to independently promote racial equity in the provision of government services at work. Currently the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s Principal of Values nor the Canadian Institute of Planners Code of Professional Conduct do not mention anything to the lines of racial and social equity, which cover public and private sector services. The American Society of Public Administration includes a statement in their Code of Ethics on social equity.
4. Strengthen social equity. Treat all persons with fairness, justice, and equality and respect individual differences, rights, and freedoms. Promote affirmative action and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice, and inequality in society.
Racial equity progress should not only be from overarching professional bodies, but also the municipalities they represent. Also, there should be strategies in place to place increased emphasis on the role that social identities play in the delivering and administration of public services.
- At the organizational level, government agencies should evaluate their socialization boundaries and extend them to accommodate a wider range of racial equity work.
Employees should have the freedom to venture into the “nervous” area whereby there are cultural redefinition of acceptable boundaries that can easily accommodate racial equity work through a reduction of fear.
- There are no perfect solutions; however, solutions that embody a race-conscious approach most directly facilitate structural equity solutions.
The engagement of solutions designed to facilitate racial equity must directly confront the issue of race. As John Powell mentioned in his 2012 book, and quoted in Gordon’s book, “In our effort to get beyond race, we have paid too little attention to how it is constructed and to the work of the structures of the unconscious do in creating racial conditions and meaning. Race is not just an idea that we can choose to engage or not”. In essence, policy inaction that does not include racial equity is unacceptable.
- Racial equity needs to operate in a context of accountability. Performance goals should be linked to the organization’s mission statement, values, organizational structure, and its strategic planning. Government agencies should be invested in analyzing racial-equity dimension, which should include procedural fairness, access, quality and outcomes.
- If legal barriers to racial discrimination have been largely eliminated, agency leadership, policies, practices, and innovations form the foundation of essential front line racial equity work.
There must be an examination of the structural inequities with municipal agencies and concerted efforts to achieve racial equity.
- Significant racial equity progress in government can be achieved.
Through the important work of administrators, it can be a less nervous and more equitable one.
One such example was a post on “Budgeting for Equitable Outcomes” from earlier this week Adam Slade from Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council.
Slade mentions that significant outcomes must occur to ensure equity is addressed within the budget.
- Inclusive community engagement
- Forecasting expected revenues from all levels of government that ensures intergenerational equity
- Allocated revenues to priorities
- Development of performance measures.
I would like to thank Carlton Eley who suggested that I read this book. It will be the backbone for my ongoing research during the remainder of the MPA Local Government program. It will focus on race and social equity as it relates to housing, community development and governance.