Lots of cities take pride in their rankings: the best place to live, the best place to work, the best place for single people, and so on.
But what constitutes a “best place” for some may be misery for others. This was the case in Austin, Texas, in 2015 when it was named the best place for families — and the most economically segregated city in the U.S.
“When we started to break down data, we learned that Latino and Black kids are five and seven times more likely to live in poverty,” said Brion Oaks, Austin’s chief equity officer. “So you ask yourself, is a community that has that level of disparity and extremes of poverty for certain populations truly family-friendly?”
Oaks and other local officials across the U.S. say the problem lies in how cities — and city rankings — look at data in aggregate. They have been encouraging their municipalities to dig deep and break information apart in order to get a truer picture. FUSE Corps, a nonprofit that partners with cities and counties, has identified some examples of the strategy being used to create racial equity within communities.
Funding for Business Owners
In California, San Jose’s Office of Economic Development wanted to better understand the business needs of the city’s east side, which includes a large population of people of color. The data the city collected and analyzed confirmed that large businesses were able to access the Paycheck Protection Program, a Small Business Administration-backed loan that helps businesses keep their workforce employed during the Covid-19 crisis; however, small and micro businesses — ones with two to five employees — had been largely excluded. Drilling down even further, the city discovered that the problem was particularly acute in an economically struggling neighborhood known as Alum Rock, which is primarily Latino and Vietnamese.
“Sometimes it was a language barrier and digital divide,” said Hyma Menath, an executive fellow at FUSE who works across city operations and helped establish San Jose’s nascent Office of Racial Equity. “There are also businesses owners who are undocumented in that area, and so they don’t trust government enough to even apply. They don’t want to give their information. Sometimes they just didn’t know about the program. And sometimes the banks were prioritizing their own customers and people who had bank accounts.”
To understand the needs of these businesses, the city is working with targeted community organizations such as the Latino Business Foundation. “We’re doing a survey to understand what some of their needs are, so that once we understand those needs we can offer solutions, like maybe create a virtual accelerator or incubator for businesses,” said Menath, who works across city operations and helped establish the city’s nascent Office of Racial Equity.
“Who are the most vulnerable people in this district?” Menath said. “If they are basically the Black and brown folks, let’s look at what’s happening with that particular sector of people. Let’s not just say, as long as this program is working for most people, that it’s successful. It’s thinking differently about how you even measure success.”
Better Outcomes for Youth
Fairfax County, Virginia, offers another example of disaggregating data. Numbers for recidivism in the juvenile court system appeared to be low, but a closer examination revealed a different reality for youth of color.
“Once you disaggregated the data, you could see that youth of color were having a different experience,” said Karla Bruce, chief equity officer for the county. “If white children entered into the system, many times they were diverted. But it was youth of color, primarily African-Americans and Latinos, that were staying in the system.”
Fairfax County had been examining the disparity since the late 1990s, but when a comprehensive review was done in 2012, the data indicated that little had changed. Bruce, whose position was created in 2018 following the establishment of ‘One Fairfax,’ a policy requiring the Board of Supervisors and School Board to consider equity in the development and delivery of all future policies, said that the county was seeing similar trends in its child welfare system and educational achievement outcomes.
“Different systems have different names for these things. Education calls it the achievement gap. Human Services calls it disproportionality. But it was all the same thing,” Bruce said. “Once you disaggregated data, you got a better understanding of who was being negatively impacted by systems.”
The data was foundational in establishing the need for the county to more broadly understand what was driving those disparities, said Bruce. “We shifted our focus from programs and interventions to the family,” she said. “When we disaggregated, we started looking at things that were more systemic and structural in nature for the reasons why we were seeing these disproportionate trends.”
The county then adjusted practices to help families overcome barriers. With the juvenile justice system, Bruce cites hours of operation and parental requirements to show up for meetings as examples.
“You had to be there by 5 p.m., and if you didn’t arrive by 5 p.m., your child was held overnight. It didn’t take into consideration transportation challenges,” she said. “It didn’t take into consideration job situations. It was those sort of things that we started to look at and make practice changes.”
Oaks, the chief equity officer in Austin, identifies another essential piece of accurate data analysis: looking at history. Knowing how government policies, programs and systems have intentionally benefitted one group over another provides context and ideally, support, for systemic change.
One vivid example relates to the city’s Vision Zero program, which aims to eliminate pedestrian-involved accidents in the city. “I think the most shocking and surprising racial disparities that we’ve seen are related to this program,” Oaks said.
Data from the Vision Zero program showed that Latinx pedestrians are most likely to be hit by a car, and Black pedestrians are most likely to be involved in fatal accidents. “It blew my mind,” Oaks said. “I was thinking, ‘How do racial disparities live in who gets hit by a car in our city?’”
But the history helps explain it: In 1928, Austin civic leaders developed a master plan that, in effect, barred African Americans from receiving city services unless they moved to a designated zone. Although not explicitly stated, Mexican Americans also understood that in order to receive city services they needed to move to the east side of town. “So as we wake up today in 2020, and we want to understand why 70% of our people of color are all on the eastern side of the city, you can understand why,” he said.
The more staff talked about the history of the city, the more context and perspective they gained. “It started to make sense,” he said. Underinvestment in the eastern part of the city means that some corridors don’t have sidewalks and other traffic infrastructure designed to keep pedestrians safe.”
“Now, if you go into a room with city staff and you talk about the 1928 master plan, there’s a high level of recognition of that plan and what it did, and people acknowledge how it plays out to what we see today,” Oaks said. “But going into it, I just never would have thought that even something like crossing the street is a greater hazard for people of color in our city,” Oaks said. “I feel that as a community, we’re growing and learning together.”