Boulder passed its first racial equity plan. Will it work?


The City of Boulder’s racial equity plan is no panacea, according to its critics and supporters alike. Passed unanimously by City Council on Feb. 16, it’s meant to guide the City in eliminating institutional and systemic racism in its policies and practices. And it generally comes with widespread community support, with speakers at the public hearing urging Council to adopt the plan, but not without the caveat that the City needs to do more. The City admits the formal plan is just the first step in a long, and perhaps arduous, process, while critics say it’s insufficient — created with good intentions but lacking the power to actually change the way society functions. 

For some, the skepticism comes not from what’s in the plan, but from what it leaves out. The NAACP of Boulder County was involved in developing the plan, and president Annett James does believe the organization’s concerns were considered and even included to some extent. Still, she remains wary of what will actually come of it. 

“This is just a good general plan,” James says. “It’s general and the NAACP works more on specifics and tangibles.”

But passing a racial equity plan is just the start, says Robert Montoya, west regional manager for Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network of which Boulder is a member. It’s an attempt to respond to the gravity of the situation, but within the context of government bureaucracy, which is often difficult to navigate and slow to change.  

It’s “the planting of the seed of racial justice,” he says. “Now we have to water it. Now we have to weed it. Now we have to shade it, and so many times, many folks just want that bloom.” 

The framework

Boulder is by no means the first city to adopt a racial equity plan. Although the City has been working on equity and inclusion initiatives for years, the racial equity plan is a result of a 2019 resolution (no. 1275) adopted by City Council and committing the City “to promote racial equity in City relationships, programs, services, and policies.” 

As a member of GARE, the City, along with a racial equity engagement working group and community feedback partners, built its plan on the organization’s four guiding principles, the first three of which are: normalize conversations about race and racial justice, organize people who are doing that work, and operationalize the work “like what we’re seeing in Boulder,” Montoya says. In comparison, he says, some jurisdictions still won’t even acknowledge race, let alone racial inequity. No plan is going to be perfect, he adds, but that’s not necessarily the point. 

“Racial Equity Plans are both a process and a product,” according to the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, which, together with the nonprofit Race Forward, launched GARE in 2016. “The goal we seek is not a plan. The goal is institutional and structural change.” 

In creating a template racial equity plan, GARE surveyed equity initiatives from across the country, drawing on their success to guide other jurisdictions in implementing their own changes. 

“We definitely looked at other plans across the country and everybody does them differently based on their individual community,” says Aimee Kane, Boulder’s equity program manager. “There are elements of the Portland plan that were really successful. There are elements of Seattle, very successful. There are elements of Minneapolis. And we also know what happened in Minneapolis and Portland and Seattle.”

Minneapolis has been officially engaged in equity work since 2017, when the City established a steering committee and community advisory committee, adopting a racial equity action plan in 2019. In January 2020, the City adopted what many consider an “ambitious” plan to address inequity, overhauling its land use policies and eliminating single family zoning — the first U.S. city to do so. But less than six months later, the city was overcome by racial justice protests as the death of George Floyd in police custody drew international attention. At the time, NPR reported the Twin Cities area “has some of the most abysmal numbers on racial inequality in the nation.” 

That’s not all that surprising to Montoya, however. 

“That’s the nature of institutional white supremacy, right? That it is so embedded in the systems that it shows up even in the jurisdictions that are doing the work to dismantle it. That doesn’t mean we should give up though,” he says. “This work is full of tension and it’s rife with contradictions. We need as many people working on it as possible and our solutions and our analysis need to be as complex as the topic itself.” 

Making a public commitment through a racial equity plan is only the first step, Montoya says. What comes next is key in showing the efficacy of the work, as jurisdictions often go through an endless process of trial and error as they implement changes. 

“There’s great value in learning from what didn’t work sometimes,” he says. For example, a jurisdiction in Washington state he works with didn’t include “the right people early on,” relying on interest to form its racial equity core teams, which excluded essential departments like human resources and legal. 

But there is also plenty of evidence demonstrating that a concentrated racial equity effort can produce effective results. 

In San Antonio, Montoya says, the City has applied an equity lens to its entire budgeting process. Other cities in GARE’s network, like Denver and Albuquerque, have “re-imagined police response” by sending social workers to emergency calls instead of police in certain instances. 

In Asheville, North Carolina, an equity action plan using the GARE model and assessment process has been used in the City’s affordable housing policy and noise ordinance revisions. It also led the City to adopt a new business inclusion policy, that “moves the City from race- and gender-neutral orientation to a race- and gender-conscious one when making contracting and procurement decisions, which means being intentional about the use of BIPOC businesses,” according to the City’s website. 

Asheville, Montoya adds, is the first city in the nation to pass reparations legislation, acknowledging systemic racism and paving the way for the City to boost the generational wealth, economic mobility and opportunity for the black community. But how that plays out is yet to be seen. 

“There’s never a finish line with this work. It is a constant cycle where we have to be willing to put ourselves out there and learn and grow and make mistakes, celebrate mistakes, and then learn from that and do it better the next time,” says Ana Silvia Avendaño-Curiel, grants specialist for the City of Boulder and cofacilitator of a group of community connectors. Adopting a racial equity plan isn’t just about checking a box, she adds. “If we really think about racial equity that way, we’re never going to be successful.”

Revisiting history

A key component of racial equity plans in the GARE model is a thorough history section that acknowledges past policies and how those have contributed to inequality within a jurisdiction. 

“We got to this place of injustice in very measured, calculating ways. This didn’t happen by accident. And that’s why those history sections are so important,” Montoya says. “If we are going to undo the policies and practices and procedures that have gotten us to this place, we have to be as intentional in undoing them. And it’s hard to do that if you don’t understand [the] history of how these things were done in the first place.”  

While that’s the goal, racial equity plans can often lack nuance in revisiting an area’s past, Montoya adds, and many “could be more forthright.”

The history section of Boulder’s racial equity plan covers a lot of ground. It acknowledges the city sits on indigenous land, settled by “white occupiers” who participated in the Sand Creek Massacre. It documents the rise of the KKK in the 1920s, which terrorized minority communities, especially targeting “Latino individuals.” It also chronicles the work of the first, and only, black mayor of the city, Penfield Tate II, who advocated for LGBTQ rights in the 1970s. But overall, James says, it minimizes the presence of the black community, and its interactions with the City, since the early 20th century. 

“I really thought that the plan missed the mark on giving the community the opportunity to know that black folks didn’t just arrive two weeks ago,” she says. 

There’s nothing in the plan that mentions Goss Grove, a historically black neighborhood running from 19th to 23rd streets west to east and Goss Street to what is now Canyon Boulevard north to south. “The Little Rectangle” was an area where black residents congregated when it was difficult to find housing elsewhere in the city, although there were no official regulations as to where they could or couldn’t live, according to historian Carol Taylor. Most of the buildings from Boulder’s early black community, including the AME church, have been demolished, and Goss Grove is not recognized as an historic district by the City, although two homes, owned by prominent black residents, have been landmarked. 

There’s also no mention in the racial equity plan of the Second Baptist Church, founded in 1908 in Goss Grove and a centerpiece of Boulder’s black community ever since, adds Tim Thomas, a long-time Boulder resident and outspoken critic of the City’s racial equity work. He also questions why some of the stronger language around land use policies was taken out of the plan between the draft, introduced to Council in December, and the final document adopted in February. 

Certain land use policies, like construction height limits, the open space program, which limits outward expansion, and predominately single-family zoning throughout the city, are mentioned in the history section as “indirectly” causing high housing costs, however, the first draft listed these policies as examples of how “the City government has strengthened and increased racial inequity.” And that difference is problematic for Thomas. 

“So the first draft says that the City is responsible. The second draft says, ‘Oh, this is what happens and it happens in other places.’ So yeah, I had an issue with that because the first draft I thought was stronger,” Thomas says. “I want to see acknowledgement of things that have been done in the past.” 

Liz Marasco, an activist with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), adds, “I think that there is a lack of accountability. One of the things with white supremacy culture is that it’s always someone else’s fault.”

There’s also no mention in the history section of communities of color interacting with police, a huge oversight in James’ opinion. “I think not including law enforcement is a big gap, because those inequities are a matter of life and death,” she says. (More on this later.) 

Kane says the plan does accept responsibility for a history of creating inequity within the community, at least some of it. She admits, “there’s probably a lot of history that we haven’t uncovered.” And just because something isn’t explicitly mentioned in the plan, doesn’t mean it won’t be addressed through the City’s racial equity work, Kane says, despite the fact that the final plan concludes with the highlighted statement, “To be clear, this plan does not advocate for reversing past policy decisions.” 

“I think that we will be looking at policies retroactively. It’s just not been identified as to which ones,” Kane explains. “When it comes to land use policy specifically, there’s a lot of people in our community who aren’t ready to have that conversation. … This is like teeing it up, greasing the wheels.”

Thomas would argue that the City’s focus on the environment over the decades has come at the expense of equity. As he wrote in an email to Council before they voted to approve the plan: “Environmentalism alone or as the primary driver of local public policy is not the answer to making this city either just or sustainable.”

The question of accountability

The fourth principle, under the GARE model, is “to visualize a more just, multiracial democracy,” Montoya says.  

“That’s where the accountability piece comes in though,” he adds. “It’s not only one thing to have a plan, it’s how do we hold ourselves accountable to this plan.”

Boulder’s plan acknowledges that while the plan on paper is a good start, accountability and evaluation of its implementation will measure its success. And it’s this piece that critics of the plan will look to in the coming months and years to assess its effectiveness. 

Using the assessment model (called a racial equity instrument) in the plan, the City hopes to provide measurable outcomes over the next three years “to identify and begin to remove bias and any unintended resulting inequities.” It will be used in staff trainings, department reviews and the budgeting process as policies and programs are evaluated and implemented. 

These types of instruments are used by a variety of jurisdictions in their equity work. In Chicago recently, a similar assessment revealed that a tax credit program to build affordable housing has perpetuated segregation in the city, as the revenues from the program have been predominately used to build in majority black areas disproportionate to wealthier, white areas. Now the City is adjusting the tax credit program to create “more housing choices and opportunities throughout the city,” according to WBEZ Chicago, including in gentrifying neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly unaffordable. 

City of Boulder/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

James remains skeptical of Boulder’s racial equity instrument, however, as the City admits it doesn’t have accurate baseline data to measure progress against. For now, she’s waiting to see what comes from using the measurement tool and how the information that comes from it measures up to anecdotal community feedback, which the NAACP hears a lot of. 

“I believe that the proof is going to be in how the data shakes out,” she says. “And we definitely plan to hold them accountable, not because we want to agitate; we want to collaborate, but it is our mission to do everything we can to create equality.”

Kane, too, is focused on the data — both quantitative and qualitative — that will come as the City applies the racial equity instrument in more and more of its departments and procedures. 

And she’s reticent to be too prescriptive about how she thinks the plan will play out because that would minimize community input and feedback in guiding the implementation. 

That’s where the City’s community connectors program comes in. Although the Community and Engagement office has been using community connectors to strengthen the relationship between City government and certain neighborhoods, circles or groups since 2018, the role became essential in the City’s pandemic response. 

The Recovery Community Connectors program was launched in June as an effort to ensure the communities historically excluded from City decision-making and disproportionately impacted by the pandemic were given a voice in addressing the public health crisis and recovery. Although that program lapsed in December, the City launched its Community Connectors in-residence in January, using the same model to further its racial equity work.  

Last year, connectors helped shape City policy when it comes to pandemic relief, says Avendaño-Curiel, who cofacilitates the group. For example, she shares a story of the Boulder Public Library wanting to create City-run learning pods for students struggling with home learning, modeled off of private learning pods being developed by wealthy, mainly white, parents. But when the equity connectors discussed the idea, it became apparent that the program would actually be more burdensome on the families and parents it was trying to help. So, Avendaño-Curiel says, the Library scrapped the idea and, using the feedback from the group, created other programing. 

As the City continues its pandemic recovery and expands the program to address equity across City government, the community connectors will be key in ensuring accountability, Avendaño-Curiel says. 

“The equity plan could be in place, but that won’t work if there’s no accountability and that can look very different,” she says. “Accountability for white people looks very different than what it means for brown people and sometimes it’s not necessarily how do we combine both [but] how do we actually hear from people of color, their way of holding a government and a whole system accountable.”

There are currently nine community connectors representing a variety of groups, including Latinx, Nepali, black and LGBTQ communities, as well as those representing people with disabilities, manufactured homeowners and both youth and older adults. Paid $320 a month for their work (like any other consultant to the City would be, Avendaño-Curiel says) they meet with City staff once a week, and also spend time talking within their communities to get feedback on City initiatives. 

And the group has already recommended the City start its racial equity work with looking at how it staffs public boards and commissions, its police oversight model and its housing strategy, including addressing homelessness, Kane says. 

“So there’s work that’s going to be implemented based on their feedback,” she says. 

But for Thomas, Marasco and others, the true test of the City’s racial equity work is in how it does or doesn’t change the City’s policies and budget. 

“The racial equity plan is almost completely performative,” Marasco says. “There’s really nothing in it that gives it any kind of teeth to actually have some kind of application in the community. What SURJ sees as an actual way to achieve racial equity is reallocating some of the City’s resources into our communities of color directly.”

For example, she adds, the City’s police annual budget is $36.8 million compared to Housing and Human Services at $20 million. And while the City did just appoint a Police Oversight Taskforce and is currently undergoing a police master planning process, some still question how different groups are or aren’t being represented in those discussions. When it comes to the police master plan in particular, the NAACP is not yet officially involved, although James says she’s met with City officials to discuss the possibility. 

There already is a Latinx Leadership Team involved. Currently, however, Kane says the City has only been in conversation with several organizations and hopes to put together a leadership team representing the black/African American community in the next couple of weeks. 

“It is what it looks like — an afterthought — and it’s a very unfair one because the data says that we should have been first to the table,” James says, citing a 2016 Hillard Heintze report commissioned by the City that showed a disproportionate number of African Americans are stopped by police in Boulder. “We really believe that there needs to be a complete change in structure. We have a lot of ideas that we would like to bring to the table. But I’m still waiting for an invitation to the table.” 

So what does success look like?

In helping cities develop racial equity plans, GARE doesn’t offer set measurements of success across the board. It could and probably will look different for each community; there’s not a prescriptive one-size-fits-all solution, Montoya says. 

“Success is in the perpetuality of doing this work,” Montoya says. “We want to undo those areas of marginalization that continue to show up. And we want to see it in every area, from wealth to health, to education, to home ownership, to affordable housing, environmental justice. In all of these areas, we want there to be a reduction in harm to folks in very measurable, specific ways [but] how each jurisdiction gets there, that’s the differentiation that is very important.”  

James hopes the City’s racial equity work results in more visibility for people of color in Boulder. But it’s not just about being seen, as that often leads to awkward interactions and even microaggressions where people feel the need to comment in some way about the black person’s presence, she adds. Success would mean “there is a greater appreciation to the history of blacks in Boulder,” she says. “That more people of color are in decision-making positions, that the visibility translates into power.” 

It’s what Thomas calls procedural equity: “That’s how you change everything else — who makes the rules.”

With a three-year timeline, Kane says the racial equity plan is adaptable, giving the City the ability to pivot easily and rework it. But there are some major benchmarks she’s looking for to determine success: demographic changes in recruitment and retention of City staff and using the racial equity assessment in program, policy and budget decisions. 

Ultimately, for Kane, success “is really when we hear from community members of color, that they do feel safe, welcome and included within the City of Boulder.” 

“We have a long way to go and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the plan is the plan,” she adds. “Now the real work begins.”    

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