A look inside San Jose’s Office of Racial Equity
San Jose created the Office of Racial Equity this year even though the idea was rejected two years ago. Photo by Carly Wipf.

Five months ago at the height of Black Lives Matter protests, San Jose leaders created a racial equity office, a proposal that was shot down just two years earlier.

Some critics, including civil rights leaders from Silicon Valley De-Bug, said lawmakers created the office to pacify protesters demanding the city defund the police. They said the office represented more City Hall bureaucracy and wouldn’t lead to meaningful change.

What has the office accomplished in the nearly six months it’s been around?

According to city administrators, the office has trained 50 city employees on embedding racial equity work in local government and is using those city workers to help build an equity culture. 

Zulma Maciel was appointed by City Manager Dave Sykes as the director of the Office of Racial Equity on Oct. 2, with an annual salary of $215,000. Since July 2015, Maciel led the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs as director.

In her new role, Maciel, a public employee for more than 20 years, is tasked with educating the workforce in racial equity and supporting an equity conscious framework throughout city government.

Maciel is building her team and seeking consultants to work on training and development — experts in the field of diversity, equity, inclusion and implicit bias — to help the city make informed decisions about policies, programs and practices, she said.

‘Window dressing’ for protesters

In an interview with San José Spotlight, Sykes rebuked criticism that the office won’t enact changes to address racism.

“I certainly recognize there’s skepticism out there,” Sykes said. “There are people who are skeptical about equity work. There are people passionate about equity work but skeptical that we, the city, are committed to it.”

Sykes said the city committed to addressing racial inequity before the police killing of George Floyd sparked national outrage and led to thousands of protesters spilling into downtown San Jose.

“Is this window dressing to appease the protesters? That’s not remotely true,” Sykes said. “We are extremely committed to the work. We were on the equity journey well before the George Floyd tragedy. No doubt the George Floyd tragedy re-energized the conversation… but we were on this equity journey before that.”

Investing in equity work

In June, the San Jose City Council approved creating the office with a budget of $1.5 million. But getting there wasn’t easy.

Councilmember Raul Peralez two years ago strongly advocated for an Office of Racial Equity during the budget process, but was turned down. He said the Black Lives Matter protests helped get the mayor and councilmembers onboard.

“Two years ago, five councilmembers, including me, voted no on the budget because the mayor and our colleagues were unwilling to accept any real language or investment in equity,” Peralez said. 

Peralez said protests and civil unrest shifted the tide right before budget discussions, convincing the mayor to invest in equity work and create the Office of Racial Equity.

“It means we’re invested for the long run,” Peralez said, “We’re saying this is important work. It was a tremendous win.”

Other major cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, also created similar racial equity offices.

Zulma Maciel was recently appointed as the director of the new Office of Racial Equity. Photo courtesy of Zulma Maciel.

The hiring process

In addition to criticism about what the new office will do, questions have swirled in City Hall circles about the hiring process for the director. Some have hinted favoritism was involved.

Sykes said the search for a director was nationwide and involved extensive community involvement. A group of panelists, including officials from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and other local nonprofits, reviewed 24 job applicants.

“We had an extremely strong candidate pool and Zulma hit it out of the park,” Sykes said.

Most of the candidates were local, Sykes said, and a few worked within city government. The position was advertised on the city website, as well as other government associations.

Sykes said choosing a candidate was a competitive process involving 15 panelists. Some of them included Sacred Heart Community Service, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Health Trust, San Jose Downtown Association and Destination: Home.

“Ultimately, it’s my responsibility to appoint these positions,” Sykes said, “but that’s why we had such a strong community-based process. From the beginning, engaged community leaders joined in the conversation about what we were looking for.”

Sykes said he appreciated Maciel’s sense of urgency and understanding of local context with leadership and management skills.

But will the new office survive as the city grapples with unprecedented budget deficits sparked by COVID-19?

Elected leaders approved funding for the office for just one year. Assistant City Manager Jennifer Maguire said city administration is looking for ongoing funding to make the office permanent, subject to the City Council’s approval in mid-June.

Sykes said it all depends on how things shake out in next year’s budget.

“We’re going to be integrating this work in all departments and establishing performance measures to track its progress,” he said. “Integration is the key… in the budget process and service delivery.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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