Austin named an equity officer after the metro was named one of the most economically segregated in the country. Matt Slocum/AP

Austin’s first chief equity officer on improving equal access to housing, zoning, and economic benefit.

American cities are unequal because of intentional policy. That’s not just a chapter of history we’ve turned over; decisions are still being made at the city level that either maintain the status quo or perpetuate urban disparities.

Recognizing this, a crop of U.S. cities have created equity offices to help make the right kind of decisions going forward—decisions that not only correct the mistakes of the past but also prevent new ones occurring at the cost of communities of color.

In Austin, that development came in 2015, after the metro topped the Martin Prosperity Institute’s list of most economically segregated ones in the country. A year later, Brion Oakes was hired as the city’s first chief equity officer. I caught up with Oakes at CityLab 2017 in Paris, for a discussion about his role.

Oakes touched on his city’s plan to do a racial equity assessment of its land use plan, so they can revise it to be more inclusive. He stressed the need for an intentional, data-driven approach to solving issues of affordability and the ways the pricing is contributing to displacement of low-income individuals.

“For me is almost like a process of prevention,” he said. ”For so many years, most cities have been in a reactionary mode where we see we've seen trends happen and then we're sort of trying to play catch-up to see what went wrong.” Watch the video below:

In the spirit of looking forward, I asked him (after this video ends) how he was thinking about the city’s potential future as the site for Amazon’s second headquarters. How can the city view that decision through the equity lens, and learn from the effect—both good and bad—Amazon had on Seattle?

“One of the things that we've observed is that while that industry is really thriving with more sort of higher-end paying positions, the gap that we have in our workforce is the really good quality, paying middle-income positions,” Oakes said, referring to potential jobs at Amazon. “And [we’re] really trying to figure out how do we bring those opportunities to this city? How do we develop the skilled workforce to actually be able to fit [in] and compete for those positions?”

Oakes described a city program targeted at one demographic in particular need:

One of the sort of unique programs that we're launching through our Equity Office is that we have an intervention for young men and boys of color, who represent the highest unemployed segment of our city. At the same time, as a city, 28 percent of our workforce is eligible for retirement over the next five years. So, we're really thinking: how do we build a strong pipeline with these young men to be the next civil servants of Austin?… Overall, it really sort of requires us to try to focus on both ends of the strategy: How do we prepare the workforce for the job? And also, are there opportunities for us as a city to help eliminate the barriers for people to get to that employment?

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