Nearly five years later, the City of Oakland is embracing racial equity work to improve outcomes across housing, education, and healthcare.
Christopher Norman, Chief of Staff at Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development
By Daria Guzzo and Jerrell Gray
The Housing Solutions Lab spoke with Christopher Norman, Chief of Staff at Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development, to learn more about the city’s Department of Race and Equity. They shared how the city prioritizes racial equity in the development of its latest housing policies and what to expect from the city’s upcoming equity report scheduled to be released as soon as December.
Here is an edited conversation from our interview. You can read more about the City of Oakland’s work here.
What motivated the city to develop an Equity Indicators Report in 2018?
We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we are right now. We needed to know where we were in a measurable way so that as we do our work in the future, we can get closer to those goals.
There is a difference between population-level indicators and organization-level performance measures. We all need to be accountable and in charge of the performance measures that we oversee so that when everything works together, we can make an impact on those larger indicators.
How has your department internalized the findings from the Equity Indicators Report?
When we started to think about our actions plans for 2021-2023 and now, the current one for 2023-2027, we really wanted to ground them in these indicators. If the Department of Race and Equity is setting these citywide standards and goals, we have to make sure that the things that we highlight, lift up, and track internally align with those so that there’s a throughline of accountability and transparency between these different scales. That’s been a key way that we’ve been trying to implement them.
How does this equity-driven approach inform the Housing Community Development Department’s decision-making?
These equity indicators have given us a doorway so that we can really focus our resources. It’s another way to really use that data and figure out how we are going to align our resources to truly thoughtfully tackle those issues from organizational structure to policy to funding to research.
What was the initial reception, not just in the housing space, but citywide, to these new equity indicators?
There was an initial, ‘Whoa, what does this mean?,’ attention to it. And then there was quiet. You get over the shocking headlines, and then no one knows what to do. That is where the hard work of our Department of Race and Equity staff really came in.
What other cities might expect is that after the high attention on it, there’s going to be a few years of work that you’ll have to do to build understanding and to make your team familiar with what these things actually mean and how it relates to their work. That is a slow process – one that takes a lot of intentionality.
What would you say to other cities about dedicating resources and infrastructure to support this work?
Setting aside money for this technical assistance and capacity-building work – that’s the challenge. It is a decision that cities have to make, they have to invest into it, and it has to be something they’re bought into. The thought is that you can’t just do it for one or two years. You have to commit to it structurally to allow it the time to grow and really seed.
What is it like changing that culture of allocating resources in an equitable way?
Embedding equity in the action plan forces you to have to do your homework. It has you understand what your desired outcome is. It has you do the data analysis. It has you do the stakeholder engagement, so that by the time you reach your conclusion you have it all backed up. Once you go through everything, people may not 100 percent love it, but they get it, and they agree with it and they buy into it.
Our former director, Shola Olatoye, who previously led NYCHA, always talks about having a sword and a shield with this work, and your data is both. It allows you to understand where you’re going, but it also allows you to defend your decisions and your investments. So our data has clearly shown us that our immediate need is to address homelessness.
What advice would you offer a city trying to think through where to begin using their local data?
We need to build our confidence around data. We can’t be afraid of it. So many people don’t want to touch it. It’s complex and there are so many steps there. But you can’t know where you’re going or know if you’ve made it, if you don’t know where you are to start.
How do you think the city is being held accountable for the implementation of the equity indicators and preceding standards and goals?
We are still trying to educate a lot of our folks, and again, this is the hard part. 2024 is going to be the first year where every staff member has a racial equity part in their performance appraisals for their particular roles.
If the individuals are staying accountable and meeting their goals, if set up correctly, the department will be working towards meeting its goals, and so will the city at large. Again, people have to understand and comprehend what this is and what it means. We really have to build their comprehension so that we can also co-design what those milestones look like; otherwise, it’ll feel like an annoying task that’s added onto their plates.
How do you develop trust and garner buy-in amongst your department for this type of work?
Everybody wants to get an A on their work, but racial equity work is not about feeling good. I actually see it as my duty to do this work. Part of that duty requires transparency. It requires vulnerability. You need to be honest with where you are if you’re going to truthfully make an effort to change. It has to be about taking the ego out of what you’ve done or what your department has historically done.
The question that I asked myself is, ‘If I’m holding the torch right now, what am I going to do with it? And how do I make it important?’ It’s not so much about getting that A because the A might not be attainable in your lifetime. But I will not accept an F or a D or a C. So how do I make sure that we’re moving on the right track? That comes with vulnerability, that comes with letting go of the ego, and that comes with transparency and communication.