NAACP advocates and members of Berkeley City Council called for the creation of a city department at an Aug. 29 Berkeley NAACP chapter meeting.
The new department, which would focus on addressing issues related to race-based institutional bias, is still in the preliminary stages of planning. At the chapter meeting, City Councilmember Max Anderson recommended establishing a group to discuss how such a department would work within the city.
“A department of race and equity would be absolutely germane to everything else we’re trying to achieve here,” Anderson said at the meeting, which was held at the South Berkeley Senior Center.
In order to create the department, City Council must approve it and allocate necessary funding for staff and resources. Similar departments and initiatives have already been approved in other cities, including Seattle, Portland and Oakland.
“We’re looking at what Oakland and other cities are doing,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates in an email. “I certainly agree that race and equity are paramount concerns in the delivery of city services, but at this time I don’t know if what works in Oakland would necessarily be the best approach for Berkeley.”
According to Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks — who spoke at the NAACP meeting about her experience creating a race and equity department in Oakland — garnering support can be difficult.
“(Institutional bias and inequity) is a subject that people aren’t comfortable dealing with,” Brooks said. “But as momentum grows and the public speaks out, I think people see that it’s the right thing to do.”
She also cited funding as a reason why council members might be hesitant to approve the new department.
In order to sway her fellow council members, Brooks and other supporters organized learning seminars focused on institutional bias in Oakland, hosted meetings to discuss strategy and arranged for artists to attend council meetings to perform. While these efforts helped, she said, it was community engagement and support from organizations that ultimately proved instrumental in securing unanimous council approval.
Brooks also said NAACP and City Council members “have a tremendous amount of power, and if they believe in it, it can and will be done.”
Some members of the Berkeley community, however, remain skeptical that such a department would be effective.
“My initial thought is that (City Council) developments are positive, and it’s a progressive thing that they’re trying to do,” said Benjamin Lynch, a UC Berkeley assistant researcher and an organizer with advocacy group BAMN. “However, for this to be effective at addressing the real racial inequalities in Berkeley, it’ll be up to the movement and protest of the people directly affected by it.”