A move that would consolidate the city’s efforts to combat violence, public safety and access to city services was advanced last night after the Long City Council voted to initiate a study to determine the feasibility of creating an official city department that deals with equity.
Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson headed the initiative in what he called the “logical next step” for a city that has already dedicated so many of its assets to fighting these very issues. Equity, Richardson wrote in a letter to council, means that disenfranchised communities are afforded the same opportunities to satisfy basic needs in a safe way en route to being able to realize their full potential.
The city has already enacted a language access plan to cater to non-English speaking residents and connect them to valuable city services, developed the Safe Long Beach Prevention Plan aimed at reducing all forms of violence and has taken up recent initiatives like the My Brother’s Keeper and PATH programs, aimed at youth intervention and job training. However, those programs mainly exist as autonomous entities and Richardson said the time has come to consolidate those assets to ensure they are better coordinated and work more efficiently.
“While Long Beach has had a commitment to preventing violence, creating better outcomes for our residents, the efforts are fragmented across departments,” Richardson said. “My proposal tonight is to demonstrate that Long Beach is serious about equity, violence prevention and diversity by taking the natural next step of providing these critical areas of focus a real home in our city.”
In a community meeting last week, Richardson and city leaders from Oakland and Seattle led a discussion on how the city could create a better level of equity. He broke down the disparities that exist not only in the socioeconomic realm, but showed how depending on which part of the city you live in, the equity that exists in your neighborhood could actually impact how long you live.
Statistics provided in his presentation illustrated a seven-year difference in life expectancy ranging from West Long Beach, which sits closest to the Port of Long Beach (POLB) and more industrialized parts of the city, and East Long Beach which is rich in park space and has a larger buffer from the pollution created by the 710 Freeway and the port.
“In one zip code, 106 people out of 10,000 are likely to be victims of violent crime while only 13 in another zip code are,” Richardson said. “In one zip code there are only .26 acres of open space per one thousand residents while there’s 8.77 per thousand in the other zip code.”
His initiative to “double down” on violence prevention, especially during the city’s current rise in violent incidents, gained wide support from his colleagues who applauded the idea of bringing these community programs to one central place—potentially under the umbrella of the health department—to better orchestrate their efforts.
“No matter where you are or no matter what you believe, everyone knows and understands that public health and the health of our communities is the top priority,” said Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo. “There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our communities.”
Richardson’s proposal even drew praise from the newest member of the council, Councilwoman Elect Jeannine Pearce, who will replace Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal as the Second District representative, who praised the work of her soon-to-be colleagues.
Pearce echoed the sentiment that the possibility of creating a department of equity, something she’s been involved in for the past few years, could help defragment the efforts of these entities and provide a single lens with similar definitions on the issues they’re trying to combat.
“I was at the table with the California Endowment when we started having this conversation in 2013 and we started looking ahead and said ‘do we think we could ever do this Long Beach? Could we ever have an office of equity in Long Beach and we thought, sure, it’s going to be a while,’” Pearce said. “You guys beat us to it and I’m definitely inspired by the work you guys are doing today.”
Some questions were raised about the initiative.
Housing Long Beach Executive Director Josh Butler questioned the council as to whether the proposed office would also tackle housing issues like some of its predecessors in other cities. Laura Merryfield of Building Healthy Communities Long Beach asked whether the office would take on the role that race plays in the disparities that exist in the city.
“We talk about the seven-year life expectancy gap between zip codes but we rarely talk about how race directly links to that gap,” Merryfield said. “We don’t talk about how that division of zip codes breaks down to a West Long Beach that’s predominantly people of color and an East Long Beach that’s predominately white that enjoys seven more years of life. We cannot ignore racial disparities as we strive for a more equitable city.”
Creating a department of equity would place Long Beach alongside cities like Portland, Austin, Salt Lake City, Oakland and Seattle, which have already implemented varying programs to deal with similar issues in their own communities.
A report is due back in the next few months with a determination as to if the city can afford to create such a department and which current department’s jurisdiction it might be placed under. Whether or not this is the correct route to better facilitate residents’ access to existing programs remains to be seen, but the overwhelming sentiment surrounding the topic during last night’s meeting was that a start to something is better than inaction.
“It may not always be the most ideal but it’s a start and I think it’s better than waiting and doing nothing,” said Rev. Leon Wood, Director at Claremont Graduate University and a member of the Long Beach Ministers Alliance. “If it doesn’t work then we just stop it and start over and do something else. That’s what this is all about, we keep trying until we finally get it right.”
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