Briana Evans is all about fairness.
Having grown up among family members experiencing a range of socioeconomic opportunities, she has been attuned to inequities from a young age, dedicating her life to helping all people access the tools for a happy, healthy life.
In 2020, her work took on a new shape when she became Redwood City’s first equity and inclusion officer. According to Evans, City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz had been thinking about how to advance equity work in the city for some time. Then, when the pandemic hit, the need became even more urgent. Evans, who was hired in December of that year, has made it her mission to bring an equity lens to local governance.
Now, a year after her appointment, the Pulse spoke with Evans about Redwood City’s unique challenges and opportunities, and what her hopes are for the community.
Tell me just a little bit about your new role and how you came to it.
I was a medical anthropologist by training, looking at healthcare systems, particularly in West Africa, to understand how people understood health, and how they access health care. And from that work, I started wondering, ‘What does that look like in my own community?’
Coming from overseas back to the Bay Area, I started working for San Mateo County Health and working in community engagement and systems change in the health system. Over time, that brought me to asking bigger questions about: What in our communities is influencing our health? And what change can I help make at that level?
If you don't mind my taking us a little bit farther back, where did you grow up? And how did you grow up?
I grew up mostly in Seattle, Washington, and I had an interest in health and health care from a pretty young age. I spent a lot of time trying to get acquainted with health care systems because I wanted to be a doctor when I was younger. And that a lot of that experience of working around doctors offices and hospitals, volunteering in different kinds of positions, is what led me to medical anthropology. And those questions about, what do people mean, when they say they want to be healthy?
Another part of what led me to engagement work and to the work that I do now is really around listening. A big part of anthropology is about figuring out how to get in a room with someone or get near someone in their own space and listen to them, to really hear them and listen with the understanding that we each come with our filters. And we have to take those filters away, put them down for a second to really fully understand what another person is trying to say.
So when you talk about health, are you including wellness and opportunity?
If you think about social determinants of health, our concept is about the idea that it's not just our behaviors, our genetics, or our access to care that impacts our wellness, our longevity, all those pieces. It's also about our social conditions. So, housing, food access, education, all kinds of different factors impact how long we live and how healthy those years are.
At what point did equity become an important lens through which you were seeing your health care and wellness work?
I think equity is another name for something that is familiar to many of us from a long time in the past. It's about fairness. In a way, it's hard to say when I started thinking about equity because it's when I started thinking about people. Being aware of people outside of myself is as soon as I started thinking about, what's fair? And, are we all able to enjoy a good life?
I'm curious whether the position was pretty fully formed or how much of a role you've had in shaping it into what it is.
Because this is the first time creating a position like this, the initial description had kind of everything, everything under the sun. And I've been working with the city manager and with other staff to define an achievable scope. There is so much work to do here. We're balancing that urgency, the importance of the work and then also capacity. We've been fortunate to bring on a couple of other staff to support me as well in doing this.
Since you've gotten started, what have been the primary things that you've been working on?
One of the big things we worked on this year was the development of the 2021 City Equity Plan. That included department equity commitments for this fiscal year, which had been set earlier in the year.
The Equity and Social Justice subcommittee was created in March of this year, and I'm one of the staff for that committee. The Police Advisory Committee is another committee that I staff. That one, its creation, I would say, is an accomplishment in and of itself, and the committee has been doing some good work to set up this work plan for the coming years.
A lot of the other work I've been doing is around staff capacity building. There was a series of trainings provided to boards, commissions and committee members and council members earlier in the year. And now we're working on a training that can be provided to staff about cultural humility, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Can you explain what cultural humility means?
Cultural humility is a concept developed by two healthcare workers, Jann Murray-Garcia and Melanie Tervalon, who were working in the Oakland area, at Oakland Children's Hospital, I believe, in the late 90s. The hospital was having some challenging interactions both among staff and with its community, as folks were trying to have difficult conversations about race and really struggling. [Cultural humility] is really about, how do we keep learning about each other and engaging with each other in a respectful way that takes into account our roles and also what we're trying to accomplish together?
This concept has four pillars: Lifelong commitment to self-reflection and self-critique; recognizing power dynamics and redressing power imbalances; building mutually beneficial partnerships with people most impacted; and evincing a commitment to institutional accountability.
Where would like to see growth among our representatives?
I think a lot of representatives, a lot of staff, not only in Redwood City, but across the country, are grappling with, how do I turn my values into action that is sustainable? I think that is the question many, many people are struggling with right now. I believe that we should have opportunity for everyone in Redwood City to thrive, regardless of background or income. And folks are saying to themselves, ‘I'm not really sure what next step I take to make that happen.’
Can you talk about what that might look like, for our representatives to take their values and turn them into action and tangible steps?
I think the Equity Plan is a pathway for that. The three policy items in the Equity Plan: A commitment to include an equity lens in staff reports that come before council that are not on consent. So the staff report for each of those items that council reads beforehand, they should have an equity impact statement or some analysis related to equity.
The second is identification of a geographic equity index that helps the city have a shared conversation about need and opportunity—a set of metrics that we can all look at and say, ‘Okay, there's more here, and there's less here.’ Or ‘There's a need here that hasn't yet been fulfilled.’
The third policy item was a commitment to do an equity review of city policy. So that's another place where there are many different ways that can turn into action. But the step there, of actually looking and developing some shared understanding or a framework for assessing whether a policy has equitable outcomes or not, that's already a big deal. And the systematic review can lead to a big range of different changes.
Those last two points—the identification of geographic equity index and equity review of city policies—are kind of abstract. Could you be more specific about what they mean?
Thinking about the equity index, if you are looking at a city's ADA complaints, for example, there will be a big range of them and they'll be in different places across the city. How do you decide where to begin addressing them?
So one way that you might think initially is, well, which ones are most dangerous? Or, which ones are most urgent? For sure you want to address anything that's going to put anyone in danger immediately. And, then when you reach a place where you have a big number of things that all have about the same urgency, the next question is, how do I decide where to allocate the resources first? Which specific ADA complaint will I address first? So having some shared understanding of where there's need and where there's less need can help figure out, okay, where do I start when I have a big set of things to address that has approximately equal urgency?
And what does an equity review of policies look like?
The council hasn't yet decided what framework it's going to use for the equity policy review. So it can be a little challenging to give an accurate and totally useful example.
But in some other jurisdictions the way that has looked is that the jurisdiction has identified some particular outcomes that it's working towards, and then it will look at policies to determine, are the policies moving us towards that or are they not? Another way that that can look is a review of each policy to see, what are the outcomes of this policy?
To give an example that is not necessarily at play in Redwood City, if the policy was about, say, parking tickets, you could see who's receiving more parking tickets and who's receiving fewer parking tickets. Do the tickets have a fair impact on the people receiving them? Are there some people who are receiving many more, and it's having a much worse impact? Sort of like speeding tickets—a $200 speeding ticket is very meaningful to some people and not very meaningful to others. So, how do we level-set to make sure that there's a fair experience of the policy?
Could you talk a little bit about what you're working on now that you think people might be able to look forward to or expect to hear about in the coming months?
We're just in the process right now of designing our work plan for next year. So I think there'll be a lot more to say, and I could share some more concrete projects, when we have at least the draft of that work plan set up.
Aside from teasing, I can tell you straight out that the work with the Police Advisory Committee [is] getting ready to define their work plans. This is a great time for members of the public to be engaging with the Police Advisory Committee, sharing their comments either in meetings or in writing, to help the committee understand what range of perspectives exists within Redwood City around policing.
Other things that are of interest: The clerk's office is working on a project around diversifying recruitment for boards, commissions and committees. That's another place where members of the public can really get involved. That recruitment is going to start, I believe, in February. And I think it'll be hopefully engaging for people to see more ways that their voices can be heard.
That speaks to concerns I've heard, particularly from people in the Latinx community, who would like more representation in committees and other groups and organizations.
One of the things that, in many jurisdictions, is a barrier for Latinx communities is that a lot of recruitments happen in English. And then folks aren't totally sure, ‘If I get on the commission, will I be able to speak—whether it's Spanish or whichever other language is the most comfortable language for me—can I fully participate and be heard in that language?’ So Redwood City is actively thinking about that as well. How do we make sure that everyone in our city is able to be heard in our boards, commissions and committees?
How much are you working to change policies within city government? And how much are you working to change the experience of being a resident in Redwood City outside of government?
I am working both within the city as a workplace and also, in terms of city services and the experience of the community, to help the city achieve fair outcomes for employees and also for community members. It's everything. The way I think about it often is that it's about the workplace and the workforce, it's about city services and it's about our community more broadly, including the areas that Redwood City isn't providing services. Of course I'm interested and want to be of support around education, even though that's not something that the city directly provides.
Do you have a sense of what the major issues and concerns of the community are right now?
A lot of the direct communication that I tend to get from people about community needs is related to the Police Advisory Committee, so that skews the the comments that I receive towards policing. But obviously housing is a huge concern in our community. We know that housing, transportation, education, food access, all kinds of different basic needs and opportunity measures are on people's minds, particularly as we come out of the worst phase of the pandemic.
What would you say to someone who is unsure of why the city needs an equity and inclusion officer like yourself?
Often I would start with questions, just to understand what someone's concerns are about having an equity and inclusion officer in the city, what their values are and what their dreams are for the city. I think a lot of us share some values around what we hope it is like to live in Redwood City. We hope to live, work, play, study in Redwood City. We hope that it's a place where we can feel respected, where we can feel comfortable, where we have the opportunity to do the things and live the life that we'd like to. And we also hope that our neighbors and the people around us are having that same experience.
The reality is that that's not the case for everyone, in every respect, at the moment. As we look at data about the city, we see that we don't all have the same opportunities here, and we're not experiencing it the same way. So my focus is on fair outcomes, on fairness, and making sure we can all thrive here.
What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenges to achieving what you want to achieve?
This work is, of course, urgent. And I think in many people's minds, more urgent now than it has been before. There are many people who are awakening to the experience of others, or who didn't imagine that there was a different way that a community could operate.
There is always urgency in equity work, and I think there's especially urgency in this moment, as more people are leaning into it and ready to take action And there's, of course, the importance of it. Aside from aligning with the city's vision, there's a moral imperative to this work. The idea of fairness, I think, is visceral. And to make sure that everyone has a chance, that everyone's got a fair shot here. So balancing that urgency, importance with capacity, I think is the key challenge. How do we move forward quickly enough, but do it well, and make sure that we are doing it in a sustainable way that's going to last and stick around?
Do you have any reflections to share on your first year in the role?
There is significant clarity in Redwood City’s leadership about the value of equity work and the city's commitment to building a fair city where everyone can thrive. There are a lot of places where one could spend the first year just getting that clarity built. And I feel fortunate that it was not necessary to spend this year on that because the work had started long before I arrived.
You've lived in a couple of different places. I'm curious what your experience is now as a member of the Redwood City community.
I previously worked for San Mateo County. I’ve lived in this area for over 10 years. So I've been around Redwood City, for a long time, been into Redwood City many times and have worked with some of the community based organizations here.
And it's a different level of familiarity that I am looking to get to. I am still new here. And I feel that too—that I'm still not a familiar face yet. I’m looking forward to getting out to meet more folks and, whether it's virtually or in person, just build more community.
If you want to reach out to Briana Evans, you can reach her by email or phone: email@example.com // 650-780-7173
Leah Worthington is the lead reporter at the Redwood City Pulse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, and by phone at 650-888-3794. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.