Amid COVID-19, the need for governments to take on a racial equity lens is critical

May 20, 2020 /

Tension between Salinas City residents and Salinas City governing leaders was overwhelmingly high six years ago. It was in 2014 when the City experienced four officer-involved shootings within months of each other, all resulting in the deaths of Latino men from the farm working community. 

The series of events created a strong anti-police sentiment, and residents began protesting. That’s when local leaders took action. In response to the community, the local governing body took its first step toward governing for racial equity by partnering with Building Healthy Communities East Salinas to collaborate on a Governing for Racial Equity Initiative.

“Equity impacts everybody, no matter where you are on that spectrum, whether you’re super privileged or super marginalized,” said Jose Arreloa, the Community Safety Administrator for the City of Salinas. “When these extremes exist, we all suffer. Learning to operate more equitably allows us to be a stronger organization for serving the public, and it helps us do our job better.”

The Beginning of Governing for Racial Equity in Salinas

Race Forward, a nationwide organization that brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity, held a racial equity training for 50 management Salinas City staff and directors and 50 community leaders to discuss the true needs of the community regarding inequities.

The trainings proved to be impactful, and over the next year, more than 400 city employees partook in similar workshops, hosted by Race  Forward. 

“It wasn’t all great,” said Arreloa, who helped put together the trainings. “We had a lot of staff resistant to the trainings.”

However, City leaders and local residents knew the importance of implementing a policy and systems change approach. 

Then, Race Forward launched the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network of local governing bodies focusing on racial equity to achieve different outcomes and opportunities for all residents. And Salinas joined a GARE cohort. 

“For government to try to do things more racially equitable, but without having any significant input from communities of color, those initiatives are likely doomed to fail,” said Jesse Villalobos, the Senior Director of Place-Based Initiatives at Race Forward.  

To avoid such failures, GARE uses strategies like using a racial equity framework; building organizational capacity; implementing racial equity tools; using data as a driving force; partnering with other institutions and communities; and operating with urgency and accountability. 

“We work to support that work and to help bridge that and help prepare community leaders,” Villalobos said. “We bring the two entities together to build trust and promote a deeper partnership.”

The GARE program offers tools to its partners that can help bridge the relationship between the community and local governing bodies to obtain a better understanding of racial equity and structural racism. 

“All elements of structural racism, when you bind them all together, communities of color are going to experience those inequities much more severely,” said Villalobos.

COVID-19 and Inequities 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted more than ever the existence of inequities affecting minority groups across the state of California. 

“The poorer you are, the bigger the chance you have from suffering from this pandemic,” said Arreola. 

Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has listed a variety of factors that put people of color at greater risk for contracting the virus.

In Kern County, 66 percent of Kern’s cases have been identified as Hispanic. The percentage of Hispanic cases is disproportionately higher than the group’s population representation in Kern County. Data shows 54 percent of Kern’s population is Hispanic or Latino, according to 2019 data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

People of color are more likely to live in crowded conditions, to work in service jobs that don’t allow them to social distance to other workers, to have to go to work because they can’t afford to miss it, to take public transportation, and to lack access to protective gear at work, Krieger said in an article by the Harvard’s School of Public Health. 

People of color are also more likely to have pre-existing health conditions and to lack access to health care and health insurance. And they are more likely to live in areas with high levels of air pollution, which, according to a recent Harvard Chan School study, is linked with increased risk of death from COVID-19.

Armando Elenes, the secretary treasurer for the UFW said this is exactly what farmworkers are struggling with. Farmworkers are not able to practice social distancing on the job, and many are not provided with the proper PPE equipment, according to Elenas. This presents a great threat to their health and their family’s health. 

“Historically farm workers don’t have access to health care, and a lot of them are afraid of what can happen to them in terms of imigration and public charge,” said Elenes. “They are so used to dealing with their own healthcare issues and working through it.”

Villalobos said the impacts the pandemic is having on communities of color is due to the history of policies the government has made, whether they are local, state or federal policies; however, it’s not too late to take action

“There is an opportunity now to do something different, to create policies and practices that serve all of our residents and create thriving and healthy communities,” Villalobos said.

Villalobos referred to Sacramento as an example of a city that has used a racial equity lens when making decisions on how to use COVID-19 relief funding. 

The Donate 4 Sac Fund, created in partnership with the Sierra Health Foundation, calls for public, private, labor and nonprofit leaders throughout the Sacramento region to raise both awareness and funds for resources that are dedicated to help vulnerable populations and small businesses during the pandemic.

The City of Sacramento has donated $1.5 million, and the fund’s goal is to match that number in donations from private contributors. 

Donations to the fund will be distributed to support vulnerable families, small businesses, services for the unhoused population, nonprofit support and general support. 

The Success of Applying a Racial Equity Lens

Once the leaders are trained through GARE, they can begin properly implementing what they have learned in their decision and policy making, just as Salinas City began doing.

After the 2014 training, the City began collecting data and found many of the City employees did not live in the City of Salinas, according to Arreola. The analysts also found that there was not a high post-high school degree rate of  the residents of Salinas, but many jobs offered by the City required a college degree. 

“We are creating a barrier,” said Arreola.

And although the City of Salinas is 78 percent Latino, the police force management team was 92 percent white, according to Arreola. 

“The basic laws of statistics was being denied here,” said Arreola. “As you look at your data, governing for race equity is critical for data and asking the right questions.” 

But things began to change. City staff began working with the human resources department to eliminate the college degree requirement on job descriptions that didn’t necessarily need it. 

As a result, the majority of the hires since these changes have been people from Salinas, according to Arreola. 

“That has been remarkable, and I can credit the racial equity trainings,” said Arreola.

GARE is working with 184 local and regional government jurisdictions across the country, and the City of Salinas, which joined in 2017, is just one of dozens of partners across the State of California.

However, in the Central Valley between Stockton and Arvin, the Merced County Department of Public Health is the only jurisdiction that has partnered with Race Forward’s GARE network. However, some would argue Kern County could benefit from partaking in such a network.  

Governing for Racial Equity in Kern

Although government agencies in Kern County have not partnered with GARE, one local organization is working with Race Forward to address inequities in Kern County. 

 The Kern Education Justice Collaborative, an education equity collaborative made up of members from the Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, California Rural Legal Assistance, Faith in the Valley and the Dolores Huerta Foundation, have worked with Villalobos to learn and use tools to help build relationships with local governing bodies and school boards to address inequities taking place in Kern County.

“We want to really find ways to collaborate as a county together to allow organizations like KEJC and community members to figure out racial equity tools to then make decisions,” said Cecilia Castro, a member of KEJC and the education policy director for the Dolores Huerta Foundation.  

KEJC has been working for ten years to break the school-to-prison pipeline. It was KEJC that shed light in 2017 on minority students being disproportionately suspended and expelled at the Kern High School District. 

“This goes in line with KEJC’s vision, where we believe the education system can create a space where black and brown students are part of the decision making process,” said Castro. 

However, Castro says Kern’s racial equity needs go beyond education. She lists access to healthy drinking water, environmental injustices, exposure to pesticides and more as topics that need to be addressed in Kern. 

“We could say these are all the issues that exist, but we need to have the conversation of what is causing this,” Castro said. “The government needs to understand that they have a role in creating racial inequities.”

Castro said she would like to see local governing bodies and community leaders in Kern County come together to share a vision that makes decision making and policies equitable for all community members. 

“I think we have a long way to go (in Kern County),” said Castro. “There are a lot of people understanding we do need some change, but it’s going to take a lot of work to bring a lot of partners to the table.”

Elizabeth Sanchez

Elizabeth Sanchez is the program associate for South Kern Sol. She can be reached at