Integrating equity into government systems can be slow and sometimes frustrating, but partnerships can make a big difference.

Governing for Racial Equity website homepage outstretched hands joinedThat was a main takeaway from a Monday Annual Meeting session featuring representatives from the Public Health Institute’s Capitol Collaborative on Race & Equity, a community of California government entities working together since 2018 to learn about, plan for and implement activities that embed racial equity approaches into state government. Speakers offered lessons learned from their efforts to embed equity as a guiding principle in state-driven work.

“We envision a state in which race is no longer a predictor of one’s health outcome and where everyone can achieve their highest level of health and well-being,” said Lazaro Cardenas, a racial equity specialist with the California Department of Public Health. “But meeting the monumental challenges we face today requires a critical understanding of history, the role of power in institutions and a bold vision for solutions.”

The California health department has been working to strategically advance racial equity in its programs, policies and procedures since 2016. Cardenas also highlighted the collaborative’s work with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, or GARE. The national network helped his and other state agencies create racial equity action plans that attempt to increase equity through organizational commitments, stakeholder engagement practices, workforce development, program planning and more.

Speaker Deldi Reyes, with the California Environmental Protection Agency, has spent her career working toward environmental justice, which she now sees as a manifestation of racial inequity thanks to GARE’s racial equity model of change. “It has deepened my understanding and my drive to change my organization so that we are actually getting to the root of the problem,” she said.

Not everyone sees structural racism as a problem, though. In 2019, Rhiannah Gordon was the only person hired full time to work on racial equity at the California Department of Transportation, an organization of 20,000 employees. As one of the largest agencies navigating this work, progress has moved slowly, Gordon noted.

An action plan for racial equity took two years to approve and refine so that it was feasible to implement “to begin chipping away at the inequities caused by a legacy of transportation decisions,” she told attendees. Then came 2020.

“The murder of George Floyd lit a fire under our organization,” she said. “With the work we’d been doing to get people comfortable with these hard conversations, we were able to meet the movement and be part of the solution.”

Gordon said that, for a long time, it was difficult to get buy-in.

“Some people just don’t see disparities,” she said. “We need to educate them, connect the dots.”

She also advised that organizations just beginning their racial equity work should “spend less time focusing on those who are adverse to change. We spent a lot of time trying to convince those who weren’t ready or willing. Go with the support you have.”

Like Gordon, Reyes said her organization also experienced a shift this past May.

“With the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color — all of this created such a degree of urgency,” she told session attendees. “We are trying to learn from this horrible phase in our nation’s history and use the momentum to make the changes we need to actually be an anti-racist organization.”