Implementing an equity mindset and evaluating programs and policies can be incredibly challenging. Creating more equitable and inclusive communities requires a strong commitment, strategic plan, and community engagement. Regional leaders within Virginia’s Albemarle County recognized the complexity of the task at hand and realized that no single organization can succeed alone. As a result, the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the University of Virginia collaborated on a memorandum of understanding for collaboration regarding equity and inclusion.
Siri Russell, Albemarle County’s director of equity and inclusion, shares how the formal commitment and partnership leverage the region’s talents, resources, and connections in a powerful way to engage all of their strengths in addressing an extraordinarily complex set of problems.
The idea of a memorandum of understanding for collaboration
We are fortunate to have elected leaders who take our mission very seriously. Albemarle’s board and Charlottesville’s city council have mission statements that explicitly state a commitment to a high quality of life for all of their residents, and the University of Virginia’s most recent strategic plan elevates its commitment to being an ethical and inclusive partner with the community.
Despite having separate mission statements and strategic plans, one thing that each organization shares is a commitment to the well-being of its community members. As core institutions, we understand our roles as stewards of the community experience have broad influence on multiple systems. Enhancing quality of life is central to our missions. For us to fully meet that mission, we must extend our consideration to all of our community. A big part of that is recognizing that well-being is not being experienced equitably and we have a responsibility to remedy that.
Each body recently individually reaffirmed its commitment to the promotion of an equitable and inclusive community through resolutions, priority setting, and public statements. The Charlottesville-Albemarle region has long embodied the “two jurisdictions, one community” concept and has had a rich history of collaboration. This MOU presented an opportunity to acknowledge the benefits and necessity of collaboration in forwarding those priorities.
Benefits of the strategic and collaborative partnership
We understand collaboration to be vital to forming connection, forging community, and driving positive outcomes. While we are still new to this work and continue to grow our capacity around equity and inclusion every day, our collaboration around equity is a demonstration of a commitment to shared community and of our understanding that no single organization can succeed alone.
We hope that formalizing our commitment to partnering around equity and inclusion will allow us to draw on each other’s strengths, increase our capacity, and provide opportunity for more robust and larger scale action than what we would accomplish alone. We believe that leveraging the talent, resources, and connections of multiple organizations is a powerful way to engage all of our strengths in addressing an extraordinarily complex set of problems.
Virginia is an interconnected web of overlapping systems, many of which perpetuate inequities in our community. There is a recognition that as a local government institution with a 275-year history, we have contributed to this current state and so we have a responsibility to disrupt, reorient, and ultimately transform those systems toward promoting equitable outcomes for all of our residents. We foresee opportunities to consider equity more intentionally across multiple shared platforms, including regional transportation, housing, and development.
Monitoring progress and sharing outcomes
There is still work underway to fully develop the mechanisms for monitoring progress and benchmarking through shared metrics. Currently, those efforts are still being worked through at each organization and plans are still being developed. What is clear, however, is that there is significant overlap in our strategic priorities (i.e., climate, affordable housing, transportation) and that there is opportunity for us to establish specific outcome-based metrics within each of those categories.
Nonetheless, one of the benefits of sharing resources is the collaborative effort that has gone into devising a meaningful platform to share data related to equity. The University of Virginia’s Equity Center and Library System led an effort to co-create the regional Equity Atlas with the intent to increase accessibility of community data and information.
The Equity Center partnered with local governments in the development of the platform, which is also being shaped as a “decision-support” tool to aid staff in understanding the equity impacts of policy decisions. Albemarle County supplied the project with data on real estate and neighborhood infrastructure and is intending to share more as we continue development. The Equity Center also engaged several local nonprofits and community organizers in the development of the tool, ensuring that there is broad exposure and buy-in from community stakeholders.
The information in the Equity Atlas is open and accessible to the community, which allows for increased transparency: community residents can utilize the same tool for evaluation that local government is using. As we take our commitment to be responsive to our community seriously, we have hope that the Equity Atlas is also embraced as an opportunity to allow for both mutual accountability and understanding between the three entities and the broader community.
Community Engagement and Outreach
The Albemarle-Charlottesville community benefits from a strong community service and organizing presence. We have several individuals and organizations that have been mobilizing and collaborating for action on equity in our community for a long time, longer than the university or local governments. We have learned, and continue to learn, from their advocacy and efforts to educate the community broadly. We see our work on equity as collaboration between the localities and the University of Virginia, but also with the broader network of community leaders. We intend to continue to engage directly with established networks and also to do the work of expanding our connections more broadly.
An initial effort that Albemarle County undertook to engage the community in a conversation around equity was our “equity roadshow.” In summer of 2019, Albemarle County staff, with support from the university’s School of Architecture, spent weeks having pop up conversations with Albemarle residents. We used the “Little Mermaid method” and went where the people are; we visited laundromats, gas stations, country stores, office plazas, libraries, post offices, and coffee shops all over the 730-square-mile county. While on the road, we talked to residents about their experiences living in Albemarle, and got their insights into several aspects of quality of life, including barriers to access, feelings of inclusion, what they loved about their community, and whether or not Albemarle met their expectations of an equitable community. The outreach effort was crafted in collaboration with a broadly representative committee of residents and the responses have fed into Albemarle’s most recently drafted housing policy and informed the work of the Office of Equity and Inclusion.
Advice for those interested in a multi-jurisdiction and regional approach to equity and inclusion
Find your touch points. It is extremely likely that you already have at least one, if not several, opportunities to engage with partners on equity and inclusion. It only takes one to get started. You do not have to have all the answers at once; you do need to have the conviction to make change.
Siri Russell, director, Equity and Inclusion, Albemarle County, Charlottesville, Virginia, email@example.com.
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