City’s new equity officer kickstarts a conversation on race

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Jaqueline Tucker (Courtesy photo)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

Jaqueline Tucker started working for the city on Feb. 10 with little expectation that her first few months on the job would be upended by a global pandemic and nationwide protests.

As the city’s first race and social equity officer, Tucker’s already significant job immediately rose in prominence following the onslaught of COVID-19 and George Floyd’s killing.

“You have these two very large institutions in our country – healthcare and law enforcement – clashing and people of color being at the center of that for not having the full experience and expression of life in our country,” Tucker said. “People are seeing that it’s not just healthcare, it’s not just law enforcement. It’s all of these things that are determining peoples’ outcomes.”

Tucker’s overarching goal as race and social equity officer is to ensure that policy decisions and city programs are implemented in a way that furthers equity for all Alexandrians, including people of color and other historically marginalized groups. Tucker said she wants to serve as “a bridge to the community,” giving voice to those who are most impacted by policies and often left out of the decision-making process.

Getting jurisdictions and city departments to ask questions about race and social equity is a challenge under normal circumstances. For many people, openly talking about race can be uncomfortable, but initiating that conversation and normalizing it helps build a foundation for more open discussion about the inequitable impacts of city policy, Tucker said.

“For so long, government in general has made decisions based on who is in power, and historically,weknowwhohas been in power: mostly white men,” Tucker said. “That has been the norm in our society, and so I think … we’re really thinking now about asking the question: How does this policy impact people of color? How does this policy impact other marginalized groups?”

Tucker has been asking these questions since she worked with Teach for America in Houston, Texas. After graduating from Butler University in 2009, Tucker decided she wanted to give back just like her parents, both of whom are educators.

She ended up teaching reading in Houston’s third ward to students who were mostly young people of color. Tucker’s students were sixth and seventh graders but most of them were reading at a third or fourth grade level, Tucker said.

“I didn’t necessarily grow up in an environment where the education in the school system was poor because both of my parents had advanced degrees,” Tucker said. “So, the question started spinning in my head, ‘Why is this the case for the students that I was teaching?’ And I quickly realized this was more than just the classroom. This is a systemic and institutional problem that’s failing my students.”

Tucker went to law school at Howard University, determined to learn about the laws and policies that perpetuate these kinds of inequities and how to address them. In the years after she graduated from Howard, Tucker found herself in the legal world, far away from her initial dream of working to achieve equity.

Eventually, through her work for the Council of Chief State School Officers, Tucker assumed the role of east region project manager for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. GARE is a nationwide organization that works with local, state and regional government jurisdictions to advance racial and social equity.

Tucker’s work in GARE synched well with the city’s equity goals. The Alexandria race and social equity officer position was created to centralize the conversation around equity and address how embedded, unconscious inequities still impact city policy, City Manager Mark Jinks said.

“We need to institutionalize race and equity as a factor in our decision making and realize the biases we all have and make sure that we have more voices at the table, we have more diverse voices at the table, that help us make the right decisions,” Jinks said.

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Being placed in the city manager’s office has helped Tucker assert her goals as a priority with the city and locate her in the nexus of city decision-making, Tucker said.

“We wanted basically to send the message that this is a priority of the city government and, therefore, by being in the manager’s office, it sends the message that this is vitally important to all departments,” Jinks said.

It helped that about two years before Tucker took on the role, a dedicated group of 20 or so city employees established an equity work group to formalize the discussion around equity.

Alexandria turned to GARE in 2019 in order to normalize the conversation and turn it into practical, operational steps for achieving equitable policies. Out of the trainings and discussions with GARE, Alexandria and other regional jurisdictions in the DMV formed a regional cohort to discuss racial and social equity.

Tucker was the key GARE facilitator for the regional cohort, which was where Jinks first recognized what she could bring to the role: the ability to clearly communicate her overarching goals without ever losing sight of how to practically implement those goals, Jinks said.

So far, Tucker said she feels people have been willing to have the tough conversations about inequities both within the city government and the broader Alexandria community.

Those conversations became even more urgent in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the nationwide protests and calls for justice it inspired.

Between COVID-19 and Floyd’s killing, the timeline on Tucker’s work has been expedited, she said. Within the past few months, Tucker started implementing the first steps of a racial equity tool for specific departments in the city.

“The use of a racial equity tool is probably something I would not have predicted we use until year two or three of my work, simply because it takes a lot of normalizing and a lot of mutual understanding across the board for people to actually make decisions that have community input,” Tucker said. “… But we knew that because of COVID-19 we had to capitalize on the opportunity to at least initiate the process of using a tool and elevating those concerns on people’s radars.”

In April, Tucker helped establish a COVID-19 community response committee, which aims to identify and establish communication with organizations and individuals in vulnerable communities across Alexandria.

With Virginia in the process of reopening, Tucker is also helping institute an internal preliminary racial equity tool to aid the city government in its recovery efforts.

“It’s focused on: How do we center and elevate communities of color but also marginalized communities, the disabled community, aging community?” Tucker said. “How do we center those communities when we think about what we want the city to look like in our recovery and response to COVID-19? And how do we set the city up to be more resilient?”

Ordinarily, there would be time to normalize the conversation around race and equity. Instead, training sessions that would normally take between eight and 16 hours were rolled out in 30-minute chunks for emergency command staff, Tucker said. The pace of the conversation has been expedited, but city employees have been open to confronting those tough questions.

“[Without these events] you would still be explaining to people … ‘why do we need this?’ Now, people understand the ‘why,’” Deputy City Manager Debra Collins said. “The fast forward of the ‘why’ has created an opportunity for her. She’s not having to normalize the conversation as long. Now she can actually start to [operationalize] the conversation around race and social equity in this community.”

Tucker’s work in recent months has become even more community-focused, as members of local organizations have reached out to learn more about how they can fight racism and mitigate racial and social inequities.

“I think that that is, to me, very encouraging and exciting because it leads people to think, ‘How do I interrupt this system? Or what’ll I do to dismantle the system and transform, not just reform, but actually transform and focus on outcomes and community?” Tucker said.

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