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Dallas City Council Passes Racial Equity Plan, But Some Question Its Efficacy

Dallas now has a Racial Equity Plan with what it calls "Big Audacious Goals." But some say it's lacking in analysis and policy.
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Jerry Hawkins, the Executive Director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, was one of several who expressed disappointment with Dallas' new Racial Equity Plan. Courtesy of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation

Before the Dallas City Council voted 14-1 on the city’s much-anticipated Racial Equity Plan last week, Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn King Arnold mused about how the city has operated historically after hearing from fellow council members and the community.

“As I listen to some of these comments today, I have to ask myself, ‘What would Jim Schutze say?’” she said, referencing his book, The Accommodation, which takes a deep dive into the historical inequities in how Dallas operated during Jim Crow. “It’s probably a good book for us to go back and go through … I believe it gives us good insight as to why we are where we are still today.” (Arnold might just get her wish: On Thursday, Big D Reads 2022 launches a city-wide examination of the newly-reprinted book.)

Councilwoman Jaynie Schultz, who chairs the Workforce, Education, and Equity committee, asked for her colleagues to support the plan, but also recommended modifying it to ensure departmental progress measures are reviewed annually by both city council committees and the community.

“This plan is about trust through change,” she said, asking everyone to “give this plan a chance.”

“Today we have an opportunity to take the first step to re-establish trust with communities of color,” Councilman Casey Thomas said.

The 769-page plan outlines several goals, some small and some termed “Big Audacious Goals,” or BAG. The city made in an action item after an 2019 equity report found Black and Hispanic residents had less access to affordable housing, good schools, and health care.

Each BAG has action targets and departmental targets to meet, city staff explained, and most have 3-to-5-year goals. The plan focuses on “equity priority areas” and historically disadvantaged communities. It’ll set goals, for instance, to increase air quality in city buildings, improve monitoring of illegal dumping sites, improve outreach for feedback on the city budget, and decrease arrests for low-level offenses. 

City Manager T.C. Broadnax has provided seed money for many of the goals in the proposed budget for next year, but many others will need the passage of a 2024 bond package to come to fruition. Some of the work is moving faster because federal dollars related to the American Rescue Plan and infrastructure bill have provided the opportunity to do so—such as shortening the timeline to improve water and wastewater infrastructure in underserved areas by more than half. 

“The way I’ve read it is that this is a living, breathing document that can adjust and change over time,” Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Omar Narveaz said. 

But not everyone around the council horseshoe agreed the plan should pass. “Most of the items that are talked about in this plan are actually basic city functions that we should be already providing. That we have these deficiencies is a deficiency of City Hall,”  said Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, who was the sole “no” vote. “The goals in the plan are very laudable, but things like eliminating the wealth gap are beyond city government. The pinnacle goal that’s discussed in the plan of becoming the most equitable city I think is wrongheaded. I don’t think that’s the goal for a city council. I think our goal is to be the most livable city, the best livable city.” 

For nearly everyone who spoke about the plan that day, there was one point of universal agreement: A commitment to racial equity by the city was to be applauded. Mollie Belt, publisher of the Dallas Examiner, recalled growing up in a Dallas where everything was segregated, where Black people could die before ambulances could arrive to take them to the hospital, and city services were not provided equally. 

“The city has come a long way—however, inequities still exist,” she said, adding that the city council “must be applauded for taking a bold step” in commissioning the Racial Equity Plan. “For Dallas to be a great city, all people—regardless of their race—must benefit equally from city services and opportunities.”

However, several speakers pointed out that it also had some shortcomings, starting with accessibility. A Spanish-language version of the draft plan wasn’t made available until two days before the city council meeting. Neither the English nor the Spanish versions are on the website weareonedallas.org, where much of the city’s outreach efforts have taken place. (Instead, you have to go to the city’s Equity Division webpage to find them.)

Although the plan brings the city “where we’ve never been before,” City of Dallas Environmental Commission chair Kathryn Bazan pointed out that the city fell short in its promises to community members to allow them time to review the plan before the council voted on it. The Spanish version, she said, is “incomplete” and “needs work.”

“The fact that it wasn’t posted at the same time and is not as complete as the English plan is itself an equity issue,” she said, asking the council to delay the vote so that the community could review it and ask questions. Convincing the community that the city will listen to them and live up to the plan will be a hard sell, she said, if they never even got a chance to read the completed plan.

Several West Dallas community members agreed. “We ask that you take every possible measure to ensure that communities that have experienced racial inequities over the past many decades have the most opportunity to provide feedback in the language that they prefer,” Esther Villareal said. “No plans with us, or for us, without us.”

Raul Reyes, who serves as the president of West Dallas 1, agreed. “Equity is a word that is thrown around, but at the end of the day, no one knows what it is because it’s not something that has been a practice,” he said, asking that the city tap the brakes and allow residents time to review the plan. The city announced that it will discuss the Racial Equity Plan with community members on September 8 and 10 in town halls conducted in both English and Spanish.

Assistant City Manager Liza Cedillo-Pereira said that the approved plan will be made available in the five main languages spoken in the city.

Evelyn Mayo, chair of Downwinders at Risk and fellow at Paul Quinn College, said that the plan lacked funding to address its goals. She also questioned the “lack of detail” around the goals for environmental justice, and whether those goals really took into account what the community had asked for in the meetings the city held about the Racial Equity Plan.

“The environmental justice piece is lacking in ambition and in detail,” she said, adding that despite the community asking that the plan include a goal of tackling inequities in industrial zoning and land use, the plan didn’t address it at all.

Last week, the Floral Farms Neighbors United/Vecinos Unidos association, the Joppa Environmental Health Project, and the Coalition for Neighborhood Self-Determination filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the complaint, they accuse the city of Dallas of zoning and land use inequities.

Jerry Hawkins, the Executive Director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, tweeted not long after the meeting about his disappointment with the plan the city passed.

“This is not a racial equity plan. It does not address any racist policy created by the city that burgeoned the need for a racial equity plan to exist. It does not even list any racist city policy,” he said in a Twitter thread outlining the plan’s deficiencies.

“First of all, I am someone who encourages the work fo racial equity,” he told D Magazine Friday. “I helped this come to be—I remember working on the Resilient Dallas plan, and my organization is actually in that plan, and the Resilient Dallas work became the equity office, which is now in charge of this plan. So I encourage the work and have supported the work.”

Hawkins said that the plan lacks analysis. “The city is either scared or unwilling to talk about its own history and its own culpability,” he said. “It puts out a plan that has history that has nothing to do with the plan.” For instance, he says, the plan doesn’t talk much at all (other than a brief acknowledgement that the land Dallas sits on was home to several indigenous people) about Native Americans and their history with the city. 

“It also just doesn’t include any policy points that they want to correct. They mention injustices, but they don’t list the injustices in the plan,” Hawkins said. “What injustices are they trying to fix? What inequities are they trying to fix? Where are these inequities coming from? None of this stuff is in here and that’s very strange to me because the list on the city website, actual policy points that are connected to the history of racism in the city of Dallas, like the 1907-to-1968 segregation, or like the 14-1 lawsuit that changed the way we elect our city council people. All that and more they could’ve added in that plan to address directly, they just didn’t address anything.”

But despite his dissatisfaction with the Racial Equity Plan approved by the council last week, Hawkins said his approach is wait-and-see. 

“Do you think there is an interest with the city to really move the needle, or is this window dressing?” D asked Hawkins.

“That’s to be determined,” he said. “If you qualify interest by actually creating an office and trying to do something, yes, you can consider that some type of progress, because something is getting addressed, and they have to hear from community members. But the willingness to actually do something unpopular? That is still to be determined, because none of them have dug into any policies and in order to change, that’s what it’s going to take.”

Stil, Hawkins said he’s hopeful that this plan provides more momentum to change things in Dallas. 

“You have to be hopeful when you’re doing this work, because if you’re not, you might as well do something else,” he said. “I’m definitely hopeful, but it’s gonna take a lot of poking, prodding, pushing, demanding, and agitating. Calling people in and calling people out. It’s going to take a lot of work.”

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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