What San Jose’s new racial equity chief aims to achieve
Zulma Maciel was recently appointed as the director of the new Office of Racial Equity. Photo courtesy of Zulma Maciel.

Zulma Maciel says she envisions a world where race no longer determines a person’s socioeconomic, education and health outcomes.

Maciel, who this month was appointed as the first director of the newly-created Office of Racial Equity in San Jose, aims to advance this vision by embedding a culture of equity in city departments through incremental and bold changes.

“Those of us in the city organization having this dual role in racial equity work and advancing racial equity within departments recognize that there’s still a lot of work to do within the (city) organization,” Maciel told San José Spotlight.

City officials have been calling for the creation of the office in hopes of addressing racial inequities in government and achieving equity for all in San Jose. In June, the City Council approved creating the office.

“I’ve been fighting for this office for almost two years and I’m excited that the office is now finally up and running,” Councilmember Raul Peralez said.

Maciel, a daughter of immigrants from Mexico, has more than 20 years of experience in public administration, establishing violence and intervention strategies and managing a grant portfolio of $15 million for community programs, such as early care education and senior nutrition, according to the city. In 2015, Maciel was appointed as the assistant to San Jose’s city manager and established the Office of Immigrant Affairs.

“Zulma is a fierce champion for San Jose’s immigrant and refugee community and she will continue to be a powerful voice in the fight for institutional change,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said.

One of the most important roles of the Office of Racial Equity in the next year will be normalizing conversations about race in city departments, Maciel said, educating others about the history of racial inequalities and how to implement the framework of equity.

The office will then train city staff to weigh the benefits and harms of proposed policies, collect and analyze relevant data and gather insight from the community through the lens of equity.

“The city organization can’t undo hundreds of years of harmful policies over the next year or two,” Maciel said, “but what we can do over the next five years is to make measurable advances so that we begin to see that we’re headed in the right direction, that the organization has fully embraced and embedded this as a common practice because that truly would be good public administration.”

The office could take on initiatives similar to racial equity offices in San Francisco and Seattle, though some activists have accused San Jose lawmakers of creating the office to appease protesters instead of defunding police.

In the next six to nine months, Maciel said she and her team are hoping to test different ways to engage the community amid the coronavirus pandemic, which may range from surveys and focus groups to texting platforms, as part of the broader goal to create a community engagement process with other city staff that is more accessible to the public.

It will also partner with grassroots organizations and advocates to seek diverse perspectives on local policies, including community safety.

Gabriela Chavez-Lopez, president of the board of Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley where Maciel volunteers on the advisory board, said she hopes the office will empower local communities, enabling people to voice their struggles especially during such times of adversity.

“I’m super excited not only about the office but also about Zulma’s leadership, and the impact I know she’s going to have on our community,” Chavez-Lopez said. “She’s proven that she can work and advocate for vulnerable communities and immigrant communities, which make up a large portion of our population in Silicon Valley.”

While serving as director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, Maciel led various strategies to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees. For instance, the office trained more than 1,000 city employees to improve access to information and services for people with none or limited English proficiency. It also partnered with the Office of Economic Development to prevent small businesses, including those owned by people of color, from being displaced.

The team of three staff at the Office of Immigrant Affairs is now under the Office of Racial Equity where there are three new positions. Maciel said she and her team can now expand their work to advance equity.

“Zulma understands both worlds: The world that was created for and by people who have privilege and the world of people who have not been part of that process,” said Veronica Goei, executive director of Grail Family Services, a nonprofit organization promoting children’s wellbeing, where Maciel serves as the vice president of the board.

“She will be a bridge between these two worlds, and she will do it with grace, compassion and intelligence. In the process, she will shine the light on communities that have been left behind,” Goei said.

Contact Nicholas Chan at [email protected] or follow @nicholaschanhk on Twitter

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