We sat down with DeVon Douglass, Chief Resilience Officer of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to learn more about the city’s Racial Equity Advisory Group. Tasked with integrating racial equity into Tulsa’s Resilience Strategy, the committee is comprised of community leaders as diverse as LGBT youth, Tulsans with Native American heritage, immigrants and refugees from around the globe, North Tulsa’s African American community, and other important voices that have been historically marginalized.
100RC: How did the 100RC CRO network inspire you to establish the Racial Equity Advisory Group? How has this changed the course of your resilience work?
DeVon Douglass: I originally reached out to the network to see how some of the CROs with smaller staff were working through their Strategy development process. In my conversation with Mike Gillooly from Christchurch, I found myself really impressed with how his team incorporated the Maori language and perspective throughout the Strategy. He told me about how a special advisory group was convened precisely to emphasize Maori voices during the Strategy’s development – this was a light bulb moment for me.
After speaking to Mike, I began thinking about the composition of a similar group in Tulsa, and reached out to stakeholders across the city that I could include. While the Maori and their history have a very specific place in Christchurch and New Zealand society and how it has evolved, I thought it was a great starting point for how we can conceive of incorporating voices that are integral to our resilience but have often been marginalized.
100RC: Is racial equity and the plight of marginalized groups a resilience challenge for Tulsa?
DD: Racial Equity and Opportunities is actually its own central theme in our preliminary resilience assessment of the city, which will translate into a pillar of our Resilience Strategy.
Sewn into the fabric of daily life in Tulsa is a city divided by race and socioeconomic status. Input from over 1,200 stakeholders demonstrates that this most affects them in terms of economic development, city identity, and the education system, all key tenets of a city’s resilience. It was obvious we had to highlight racial equity as a core part of Tulsa’s resilience-building process. Less obvious was how to do so.
The disparity that exists between different communities is appalling – a 2006 study known as the Lewin report found a 14-year life expectancy gap between the poorest zip code in North Tulsa and the wealthiest zip code in South Tulsa. That gap currently stands at 10.7 years, with a median household income differential of over $17,700. On top of that, 34.4% of African American, 26% of Hispanic, and 18.6% of Native American Tulsans live below the federal poverty line. Unless these challenges are addressed, we cannot achieve the other goals we have set for Tulsa’s resilience.
100RC: What are some of the main objectives of the Advisory Group?
DD: The main objective is to provide guidance on proposals for concrete actions and initiatives for building Tulsa’s resilience. We want to make sure we are being inclusive and engaging a wide variety of stakeholders in our decision-making and designing a Strategy that is responsive to the nuanced needs of the different communities in Tulsa. Apart from this being good policy, without it, we cannot develop the kind of resilience we need. If we don’t account for the myriad voices that have often been on the periphery, we cannot build the kind of holistic strength that will benefit all Tulsans and best prepare us for the challenges of the 21st Century.
We also expect the Advisory Group to hold us accountable to the values we are pushing in the Resilience Office, as well as to help us spread the word about our work to stakeholders and Tulsans in their respective communities. We want people to know the Resilience Strategy is for all Tulsans. Communicating that through our Advisory Group is paramount to the success of our Strategy – to its design and to its implementation.
100RC: How will the Advisory Group’s members support your work as CRO?
DD: The Advisory Group has so far been quite helpful in emphasizing youth as an area to focus our research, especially in terms of transforming Tulsa’s education system into a catalyst for social mobility and of enhancing the economic opportunities of marginalized populations. In the future, the Group’s members will review major outputs of the strategy process to make sure each stage of it is inclusive, integrated, and multifaceted. They are taking on this challenge at a key moment, addressing the structural racism and racial inequity that plague Tulsa.
100RC: What successes have you had so far with the Advisory Group?
DD: Our inaugural meeting was very exciting and a major success. Every person who was invited attended! Not only that, they were all thoughtful and engaged for over 2 hours – we all know how hard it is to get talented people in the room. These are representatives of communities that are often excluded from government decision making, but who continue working with a high level of passion for Tulsa. I am glad and continually inspired that I get the opportunity to work with such brilliant and dedicated folks.
100RC: Can you think of other cities in the 100RC network that would benefit from your experience and expertise?
DD: I would love to share with others in the network! Unfortunately, racial and economic inequity have had a long and insidious presence not only in American cities, but in many other parts of the world. While each city has its own specific conditions, the beauty of the network, and for those cities in my region especially, is that they can benefit from the lessons I am learning and adapt them to meet their challenges.
Another universal lesson is that community engagement is a fundamental part of building resilience. Without ensuring that previously marginalized voices are included, and their needs reflected, a city risks any goals it sets for building resilience.