Austin plans next steps after first racial equity report finds gaps

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- City leaders are working on plans to expand practices that are helping promote racial equity and change those that aren't after the first round of equity assessments for eight city departments found both strengths and weaknesses for all of them.

The final report, released last month, is the culmination of several years of buildup. In 2015, in light of studies highlighting Austin's economic and occupational segregation, City Council passed a resolution requiring the city manager's office to look at the impact of city practices and policies on equity.

The Equity Office was established the next year, and one of its first major projects was developing the equity assessment tool in conjunction with the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Place-Based Initiatives.

Last summer the first eight departments, dubbed the "courageous eight," volunteered to examine their cultures and policies.

Wednesday, Juanita Posas went to a clinic set up by one those departments, Austin Public Health. Posas has been taking her daughter to the immunization clinics APH runs for years.

"We don't have any medical insurance of any kind," she said, "so it's $10."

Even though she lives in Buda, Posas has never had trouble setting up an appointment with the Far South Clinic on Stassney Lane. "They're real good about getting you in," she said. "Like I said, I live in Hays County, and here I am in Travis County getting immunizations."

She has nothing but good things to say about the clinic, but the equity report found APH needs to do more to find out how its clients feel about the care they get. 

The city's chief equity officer, Brion Oaks, said APH is doing a lot of things right, including the use of diverse hiring panels to seek out racial equity within its ranks. But APH doesn't collect enough demographic data about its clients, the report found, a gap that exists among many of the departments. 

"That really concerns us," Oaks said. "It's hard for us to say whether or not we're reaching certain communities in the efforts that we're doing as a city."

Oaks stressed that the report serves as a "baseline;" it's meant to both praise what departments are doing right and identify what they're doing wrong and need to fix. 

The Austin Transportation Department, for instance, is good at finding minority job applicants, the report found, by advertising openings nationwide on minority-focused websites. But the department is not so good at tracking the demographics of its contractors.

Austin Water communicates well about its projects, Oaks said, but needs to work on doing so in other languages.

"One of the questions I think that we asked that really stumped everyone was, 'How do you measure the effectiveness of the community engagement that you're doing?'" Oaks said. 

Fixes for the problem will need to be included in what the city is calling "equity action plans" that the eight departments will implement starting in October. They'll have a year to show progress on addressing the problems the report found.

Oaks said his office is also working on developing training for all departments to address implicit bias and racism, because the report found not enough departments provide that training for employees.

The next 14 departments, including the police department, are now working through the assessment tool and will develop their own action plans once the city gets the results.

The equity office hopes to have all city departments complete the assessment by 2020.

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