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Profile: Brion Oaks

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

Responses by Brion Oaks
September 30, 2022

Brion Oaks

What brought you to DEI work? And, talk about how your position came to be and how your office fits within the larger city government framework.

I got into this field because I am a public health advocate at heart. I lost my dad to congestive heart failure when he was only 49 years old, which started my interest in chronic disease and led to my nearly 15 years with the American Heart Association. A lot of my work centered on analyzing the social determinants of health—who had access to health care?—and health disparities. The deeper you dive into that field, the more you understand that someone’s social and physical environment is probably the most influential predictor of their health outcomes. Go a step further and look at cities’ histories and the role that institutional racism plays in their growth and development. It is no longer a surprise to see life expectancy differences. In my role, I can be committed to the thing I am most passionate about: Making sure people live healthy lives.

In 2016, Austin began its journey with establishing an equity office, shortly after a report from the Martin Prosperity Institute listed it as the most economically segregated city in the United States. That same year, we were listed as one of the best places to live in America and won an award for being the most family friendly city. But, our poverty rates showed Latino and Black children were five and seven times more likely to live in poverty. Our communities of color began to ask: Are we truly the best place to live when we have such alarming racial disparities? They convinced the mayor and city council to pass a resolution that established our office. Our charge is to bring leadership and guidance around racial equity and question how we disrupt the systems that have not traditionally served or met the needs of our communities of color.

What are the greatest challenges that you and your office have faced recently?

The pandemic exposed how severe racial inequity was in Austin, which was manifested in almost every way. At the beginning of the COVID-19 response, our equity office wedged its way into our city’s emergency operations center because we knew racial equity was going to play a part in every facet of how we were trying to respond. We looked at every angle, even down to setting up our testing centers and our concerns that all of our centers were drive-through. We had conversations about zero-car households and populations that were more dependent on public transportation to get to the centers. Geographically, our city is racially divided, east vs. west: Neighborhoods on the east side of Austin are predominately communities of color and those on the west side are predominately white. Most of our medical infrastructure is on the west side; we did not even have a lot of access to private providers on the east side. So, how do we account for that related to testing? The same question applied to vaccine access.

Related to the economic recovery, most people considered essential workers and required to continue to go into work were people of color; they also would bear the most risk for COVID. It was a constant challenge to look at everything we had to do to stand up as a city. Our office often works to position ourselves around getting in front of issues, instead of always having to respond. Given that nothing like COVID-19 had happened before, we were trying to respond, course-correct and deal with equity issues after the fact. As we have gone through it, it has helped our staff, especially those responding to crises and emergencies, to see the intersection of racial equity and response design. It has been a tough year, but I think it has made us better as a city overall.

Has your office engaged in truth and (re)conciliation work to acknowledge historical racial injustices in your communities? If so, what has your experience with those initiatives been like?

Recently, our council passed a resolution to begin research in this area. We are working with two universities to analyze city land use policy as an entry point to understand the cost of the impact to our black community. One important area we are examining is some of the United Nations’ models; for true reconciliation to happen, you not only have to look at compensating for the loss but also to ensure the abuse stops. As cities get into this area, all adverse impacts to communities of color have to cease and desist, and that is a big body of work. True healing cannot happen until we stop harming.

To what extent are your city’s diversity and inclusion approaches relevant to surrounding counties? Do you coordinate with your county government/community, especially if your city is the county seat?

It depends on the issue. During COVID-19, we have coordinated with the county because our emergency operations center is a city-county joint effort. But, there are other things we do as a city for which we are not aligned with the county. We want to promote and export our equity work to other institutions, including our school district, which has an equity officer, and some of our universities. We try to collaborate and connect locally but there is not a formal way to work with the county.

How do you deal with structural inequalities? What types of initiatives are underway to address them?

This is the foundation of our office. We use a racial equity assessment tool at the department level; it is part of a continuous improvement process. Our city’s departments perform an assessment and we perform a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. From there, the departments develop action plans and come back two years later to assess again. It is a journey. It is ongoing work to dig continuously into our policies, practices, procedures and personnel around how we can improve, and then disrupt some of the things we do and imagine new ways to do them.

We also are working to shift our thinking from “fixing people” to “fixing systems.” Our city’s history is rooted in responding to racial inequities in our communities with a program. We now are pushing back and asking: Out of existing resources, opportunities and bodies of work, how can they be utilized better—rather than trying to stand up a new service or program? We want to dissect what has been designed and built and learn why it is falling short. What about us has produced this inequity over the years and in a particular area? Some of these new efforts come from introducing tools that can help us do this, but we also spend a lot of time training and developing staff to provide them with the skills to do this work. This is a culture change for our city. In partnership with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, we host a monthly “undoing racism” workshop for our city staff and community members to better see and understand the complexities of racism. How does it manifest itself in systems? What is the history around the design of institutions in this nation? Who were the systems built to serve, who were they built not to serve and who they were built to punish?

Some—even many—people will revert to their standard attitudes toward these efforts eventually. What are some things you have done to respond to this reality?

We have a lot of hard conversations on a daily basis. Austin is interesting because it is seen as a very progressive and liberal city, which you would think would make this work easier. But, it is counterintuitive. We work with a lot of people who have the language around this body of work; when it comes to putting it into action, however, there often is a gap to the goal.

As a result, we feel like we are on autopilot. We have a conversation around why it is important to lead with racial equity on a daily basis. In a “liberal” city, where people are passionate about a lot of identities and social circumstances, there is a desire to take other -isms over racism. We have to have this conversation around what the data tell us continuously and constantly provide examples for why it is important to center race in this work around equity. Otherwise, we are never going to have the impact that we want to have as a city. That is our biggest daily challenge.

We also talk a lot about our history and encourage people to sit with that history and the city’s decisions and policies, understanding the context for why we see what we see today. Often, you will see that a policy was rooted in some racialized decisions. We talk about Austin’s 1928 master plan, as well, which segregated our city and encouraged very racist decisions from that moment onward: Who has what and how was land used? Those decisions predict so much of what we see today.

The work you do is absolutely critical, but also extraordinarily difficult. How do find the energy and will to keep this work going and inspire others to join you?

We love laughter. I have an amazing, wonderful team. We have a lot of tough meetings and conversations. But, at the end of the day, we jump on Zoom and laugh and tell jokes. It is a form of therapy for how to deal with the stress and trauma around the job and role. We spend a lot of time supporting each other.

Brion Oaks, Austin’s first chief equity officer, is responsible for working with city leadership and local communities to create an equity framework and facilitate dialogue and organizational practices to support the development and adoption of equity as a shared value. He is the technical expert in addressing equity as it is applied to citywide policies, programs, practices and budget decisions with an overall vision to make Austin the most livable city for ALL. He previously served as vice president of health equity for the American Heart Association’s southwest affiliate, where he oversaw its department dedicated to improving cardiovascular health for vulnerable populations and reducing disparities in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Oaks received his BS from the University of Houston and MPA from Texas State University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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One Response to Profile: Brion Oaks

  1. Pat Shields Reply

    October 3, 2022 at 9:44 am

    Just a fabulous interview. I was impressed with Mr. Oaks passion for his mission and his ability to bring data and history to the conversation. In addition, there are just so many concrete details that show a dedication understanding the current situation. He brings the lenses of equity to view Austin’s situation with honesty, compassion, vision and lots of data driven ideas.

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