To better address long-standing issues of institutional social inequality through the annual budgeting process, Contra Costa County leaders have started discussions about creating an Office of Racial Justice and Social Equity.

The concept was described by several speakers who on Tuesday told the supervisors that an Office of Racial Justice and Social Equity would help ensure a stronger public voice for promoting racial and economic equality and addressing police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Contra Costa’s low-income residents and communities of color.

“We’ve been talking about … putting those ideals — which are part of the founding of this country but have not been realized — into action at the level of the budget and beyond,” Dan Geiger, coordinator of the Contra Costa Budget Justice Coalition, told the supervisors.

“Diversity is a strength, but you need real inclusion to really maximize that strength.”

Sarah Treuhaft, PolicyLink

Part of that fight, Geiger said, should include shifting some funding from law enforcement to social services.

County Supervisor John Gioia said he and Supervisor Federal Glover have been talking with community groups for a while about this, and that these groups, as well as county departments, have already been laying the groundwork for better advancing these social equity concerns. An Office of Racial Justice and Social Equity, Gioia said, would institutionalize the process.

Gioia said a more in-depth discussion of an Office of Racial Justice and Social Equity will be on the supervisors’ July 14 meeting agenda. The time, he said, is ripe to get the public more involved.

“I do believe there will be a lot more community interest and participation in our budget process this year,” Gioia said. “We’ve already begun to see this in our public comments.”

The first municipal Office of Racial Justice and Social Equity was founded in Seattle in 2015, and other cities and counties have since followed suit. Oakland established its Department of Race and Equity in 2016, and San Francisco its Office of Racial Equity in July 2019.

Roxanne Carrillo Garza, senior director of Healthy Richmond, a local advocacy group, said the time is now for a governmental agency to give this fight a louder voice in Contra Costa.

“There needs to be a more uniform community engagement that fully democratizes the budgeting process,” Carrillo Garza told the supervisors.

Sarah Treuhaft told the supervisors that the coronavirus pandemic has eroded progress made in recent years in dismantling the “structural racism and systematic barriers” that have helped keep disadvantaged residents from receiving the services and the voice she and others contended they should rightfully have.

“Diversity is a strength, but you need real inclusion to really maximize that strength,” said Treuhaft, managing director of PolicyLink, a national institute advocating for racial and economic equity.

Before the pandemic, PolicyLink had helped with a study of Contra Costa’s societal inequities, which showed there had been progress in addressing those problems over the past decade, Treuhaft told the supervisors.

But that progress has since stalled, she said. Further, the virus has served to lay bare those underlying inequities. Before the pandemic struck, 57 percent of Latino households and 45 percent of Black households in Contra Costa County already were financially insecure, and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Latinos, Blacks and immigrants hold down many of the jobs — retail, health care, public transit, child care and domestic work, among others — that put them at significant risk of contracting COVID-19, she said.

Vic Baker, a PG&E executive and board president with the East Bay Leadership Council, told the supervisors he understands the 2020-21 budget process has been made all the more “grueling” by the coronavirus, and its unexpected and substantial costs. But despite this challenge, he said, a socially responsible budget must be crafted.

Glover concurred, and said the public in Contra Costa and beyond has made it plain that equity issues should be better built into the county budget.

“Your voices have been heard,” Glover said.