Breaking down institutional racism from inside City Hall
Name: Brion Oaks
Title: Chief Equity Officer
Brion Oaks was tackling health disparities long before COVID-19 put the issue so clearly into focus. That was his job at the American Heart Association for 14 years prior to becoming Austin’s first chief equity officer in 2016.
So when the pandemic hit and the city and county mobilized their emergency operations center, Oaks embedded into multiple teams to make sure equity was baked into the response. In addition, his team produced a short guide to equity considerations around COVID-19, including eight questions for city leaders to ask themselves while quickly standing up recovery programs.
One win was the creation of a $2-million financial aid program that gives cash directly to families experiencing COVID-related hardships. “The innovation was to say, ‘You know what? We trust families to make smart decisions about what their family needs to spend money on,” Oaks said. “In 72 hours, we were able to help 1,000 families.”
That bold stroke built on Oaks’ ongoing work with city agencies to break down institutional racism and advance racial equity. His team uses an equity-assessment tool to help agencies understand their strengths and weaknesses, and then works with them to develop and implement an action plan before coming back for another assessment. It’s what Oaks calls a “continuous improvement process” so that agencies can “continue to build muscle around equity and get better and better at it.”
A critical part of this process is training of agency staff. “If we’re going to ask our staff to adopt this equity lens, we have to give them the training and resources and help to build the competencies and skill set,” Oaks said, adding that many of these trainings are events attended by community members. “We think it’s important to have this discussion around race and racism collectively — with our staff and community, and not just us,” Oaks said. “Because we want our staff to be able to hear about some of those life experiences from the community perspective.”
Pro tip: “A good equity office is one that senior executives don’t always agree with. If they always agree with me, I’m not doing my job.”