Desley Brooks Faces Uphill Battle for Race and Equity Department

Famously irascible council member Desley Brooks wants a new Department of Race and Equity. But can she win over her colleagues?


Photo by Chris Duffey


At a recent Oakland City Council committee meeting, Councilwoman Desley Brooks noted that African Americans in Oakland have a life expectancy almost 15 years shorter than their white counterparts.

“Why is that acceptable to us?” the councilwoman asked.

Brooks believes city government needs a greater awareness of how its decisions affect Oakland’s most vulnerable residents. So she proposed creating a city Department of Race and Equity. The main principle behind her proposal is to understand how every sector of city government is handling the problem of inequity and to thread a new way of thinking through each.

But despite wide support for Brooks’ over-arching goals and some praise for similar efforts in other cities, other council members questioned the merits of her proposal. It’s an open question whether the famously irascible councilwoman is capable of making her legislation a reality.

Elected officials agree that the issue of inequity persists. Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods are primarily populated by minority groups that struggle to gain a bigger piece of the city’s economic pie and suffer higher rates of incarceration and unemployment.

But whether adding a layer of bureaucracy is the way to alleviate the problem is up for debate, especially in light of the $18 million budget shortfall forecast in Mayor Libby Schaaf’s budget over each of the next two fiscal years. Notably, the roughly $500,000 annual expenditure estimated for Brooks’ new department was absent from Schaaf’s budget. Instead, the mayor allocated $150,000 to fund some aspects of it as envisioned by Brooks, launching a citywide Race and Equity Initiative in particular. Schaaf’s budget memo, however, credited the compromise to Councilmember Abel Guillen, who had reacted tepidly to Brooks’ proposal.

It is questionable whether Brooks, who often favors blunt-force rhetoric to make her point, has the political mettle to push her proposal through. It didn’t take long for her to lash out against the mayor’s budget, which not only sidesteps funding Brooks’ new department but also proposes the creation of a Department of Transportation.

“Why couldn’t she have done that with a Department of Race and Equity?” Brooks asked. “It was not a proposal for a department and then to receive $150,000.”

With the large crowd assembled that night backing her words, Brooks then drew a line in the sand that might highlight coming Oakland budget battles when she asked for a line-by-line breakdown of how Schaaf’s office closed the $18 million budget gap. “I think it’s important to understand where the money is,” Brooks said.

Later, Schaaf called the proposed $150,000 expenditure to deal with racial and social inequity a “sweet spot.” Added Schaaf, “There were different views on the council for how to perform this work.”

There have been other indications of Brooks’ inability to form a council coalition. At a late March discussion of her proposal before the Oakland City Council Life Enrichment Committee, she showered the large, receptive audience with soaring oratory that few in Oakland politics can match. Brooks owned the room, but not the dais. Noting she did not have the votes to move the proposal out of the committee, Brooks successfully motioned that the item be heard within the context of the May budget hearings. Before that, however, she proceeded to alienate committee members.

“It’s amazing that I can sit on a panel with other people of color and they just don’t get it,” Brooks said of Councilmen Noel Gallo and Abel Guillen, both Latino. She asserted that if curing social inequities in Oakland were indeed a past priority of elected officials, the city council, now consisting of three African Americans and two Latinos—a minority majority—would have acted sooner.

“There was nothing that was ever keeping us from working together,” Gallo shot back. “We do have a minority council. We’ve had it for years. You can’t blame the white man for that one.”

Gallo said up to five current government bodies in Oakland already provide the same basic function as Brooks’ proposed department. “I can give you a department,” Gallo said. “I can give you a department on top of another department. Creating another bureaucracy—creating another department—is not the answer.”

Initial estimates compiled by the city administrator’s office, which also supports the proposal, called for the department to be staffed by an executive director and three staff members. Including funding for operations, the tab was initially estimated at $819,000 a year. In subsequent reports, a staff position was cut, lowering the estimated costs in the first year to $670,000 and $520,000 in subsequent years.

Brooks has worked the populist angle with her proposal, which is gathering support with social justice and labor groups. “The fact that it is cross-sector is very important, because so much of what we do, we do in silos—department by department or by service category,” said Rashida Grinage, staff director for the activist group People United for a Better Life in Oakland.

A press conference in front of City Hall in April attracted a vocal throng of support from the African-American community. And the May 5 council meeting again featured significant public support. In addition, the tenor of civil disobedience in Oakland following the growing list of police brutality cases across the country may be reaching another level. Many of the same people who registered vocal support for Brooks on May 5 also eventually shut down the city council meeting in opposition to the sale of the East 12th Street remainder parcel for market-rate condos near Lake Merritt.

Brooks’ proposal mirrors the establishment of an Office of Equity and Social Justice in King County, Washington. That plan, approved in 2013, created a new layer of government dedicated to fostering collaboration between every department so it can collectively understand and eliminate policies that may cause racial and economic inequities and conversely create a roadmap toward improving the divide. A similar department exists in Portland, Ore., and for decades, San Francisco has convened a Human Rights Commission.

As in King County, the department Brooks proposed would report directly to the City Administrator’s office. The department would first establish an “Oakland Equity Initiative Plan” and offer training for city employees and outreach to community groups, and at the end of each year, the department would publish an annual report on the state of Oakland’s progress.

Alameda County and King County are similar. In each, its largest city is booming economically but at the same time stretching the divide between haves and have-nots. Oakland and Seattle also have been the flashpoint of civil protests rooted in economic disparities and police injustice. Both cities recently moved to alleviate some pressure on their workers by raising the minimum wage.

Matias Valenzuela, director of the King County Office of Equity and Social Justice, said their inspiration came from a groundbreaking 2006 report on the social and economic plight of young African-American men created by a commission led by former congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. King County has also relied recently on Alameda County’s early success implementing the Affordable Care Act, including the crucial step of encouraging residents to actually sign up for the program.

Valenzuela said place and race are prime predictors of inequity. Based on data his office compiles, King County can reasonably estimate the future of its youth, he said, and in some parts of the county, poverty is predictably increasing along with high school dropout rates and the incarceration of minorities.

“We wanted to establish a system of accountability,” said Valenzuela, “and not just a checking of the box.” Through this new prism, King County has improved public transit routes through underserved and low-income areas and added a low fare program. King County’s focus on preventative health care led to more than 200,000 residents signing up for medical insurance, he said. “There’s political will to do this,” said Valenzuela. “I think people realize this helps everyone.”

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