Color matters. When Alison Beason was creating the color scheme for the City of Tacoma’s Equity Index, she thought deeply about what it would mean for folks in her city to see yet another map of their communities overlaid with some form of data.
“When you’re talking about people’s communities, people feel a certain way,” Beason says. “From the past, the redlining maps, the color red meant it was hazardous, people of color live there, don’t go there, don’t give loans there.”
Even the shading of color matters — darker shades have long been connected with negative connotations. A few years ago, Dictionary.com even tweaked its definition of “black” to reduce “unconscious associations between this word of identity and a negative term.”
With all that in mind, Beason flipped the usual spectrum for Tacoma’s Equity Index. Areas of very high opportunity were shaded in the darkest, while areas of the very low opportunity where shaded in the lightest. But when she first started rolling out the equity index and interactive map to her colleagues at city hall earlier this year, people got confused as to why the “good” neighborhoods were red, and darker.
“As I tell them, ‘welcome to my life,’ I’ve been labeled red a lot of times in my life or a negative data point,” says Beason. “You’re labeled red because this is a big sign pointing out why do you have access to all these resources, why are you surrounded by all these things and others aren’t. We need to put a spotlight on that to know that there are these disparities.”
Beason has since added a few additional slides to her standard Equity Index presentation, providing the context and thinking behind why the color scheme is what she made it to be. And she’ll continue delivering that presentation around the city as various departments and community members seek to understand and utilize the new tool to shape or reshape their work. For city departments, starting in January 2020, the Equity Index will become part of the standard process for proposing and evaluating changes to policies and programs.
“Just like we say what’s the fiscal impact of this proposal, these are probing things you need to think about — equity and community engagement,” Beason says.
Tacoma created the Office of Equity and Human Rights in the implementation of its Equity & Empowerment policy, adopted by the city council in October 2014. Since its establishment, the office had done things such as creating a handbook for recruiting, hiring and retention; developing and conducting an equity training for more than 500 employees; and supporting community engagement around a ten-year citywide strategy called Tacoma 2025. But it had stalled on the goal of defining and measuring equity for the city, which would enable the city council and agencies to evaluate policies and programs for their impact on equity.
After coming home to the Tacoma area from the other Washington (D.C.), where she had carved out a career in federal grantmaking for scientific research, Beason came on board at the Office of Equity and Human Rights in December 2017 to take on the primary task of coming up with a way for Tacoma to measure equity.
“Long story short, it was kind of a perfect fit that I was into policy analysis but also knew the technical, mathematical methodology of how to create this,” Beason says.
Tacoma joins a few cities across the country that are starting to measure and map out equity. St. Louis released its equity indicators baseline report in January, establishing benchmarks for measures of social and economic disparity between white and black residents of that city. That report built upon the equality indicators framework, developed by the Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG) at the City University of New York. ISLG has been working with its home city on its annual equality indicators report starting in 2015. St. Louis was one of five cities — along with Dallas, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Tulsa — where ISLG expanded its work starting in 2017.
In Tacoma, Beason turned to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, enlisting their support in building out the GIS tool, and loading the data into a user-friendly interface.
Beason didn’t start entirely from scratch. She had the Tacoma 2025 plan as a starting point for what she might include in the equity index. But she also spent the summer of 2018 on a listening tour of various annual festivals around Tacoma, talking with festival-goers about what they wanted to see from their city. She brought along an artist to visually document the conversations.
“As an analyst, I was able to take those images and take people’s lay language and turn it into policy and big-government jargon,” Beason says. “Even if they didn’t know the jargon of equity, they would say we want access to what ‘they’ have [in other neighborhoods].”
Beason also started convening a monthly “data share group” of key colleagues across city agencies who were engaged in some kind of data gathering. It helped surface some data Beason didn’t expect that eventually made it into the Equity Index, such as a measure of urban tree canopy.
Beason eventually settled on 20 indicators — ten wasn’t enough, but any more than 20 started to seem like a runaway train of indicators. “Where would you stop?” Beason says. “Twenty was a good round number.”
The indicators were grouped under four categories that each got their own sub-index: accessibility, economy, education and livability.
Tacoma's equity indicators are grouped under four overarching categories. (Credit: City of Tacoma)
“I think of livability as your basic needs, just to get by,” Beason says. “Accessibility is what makes your life better.”
For transportation access, which falls under accessibility, the equity index measures the percentage of a census block group that lives within a quarter-mile of a bus stop, takes into account route options and assigns a higher score if multiple bus routes go to the same stop. (And yes, it also includes as includes light rail stops, as well as stops along regional rail service to and from Seattle.)
Urban tree canopy measures the percentage of a block group covered by urban tree canopy. Higher percentages indicate a healthier canopy, which is connected with additional positive environmental and health effects in the surrounding area.
Rather than weighting every job equally, the Tacoma Equity Index gives higher-paying jobs a higher score, capturing the difference between a census block with a ton of good-paying jobs and one with many low-paying jobs.
To roll data up into an index, Beason broke down the city by census block, calculating 20 indicator scores for each census block. A very high score means for that indicator, that census block is in the top 20 percent of census blocks, and so on down to a very low score indicating that census block is in the bottom 20 percent of census blocks for the city.
“We’re trying to understand what are the degrees of disparity,” Beason says.
She brings up voter participation to demonstrate. Tacoma has a 65 percent voter participation rate, which is very high by national standards. Even some of the census blocks with the lowest voter participation rates in Tacoma are very high by national standards, around 50 percent. But those get ranked low in Tacoma’s equity index because there are other census blocks that vote at rates upward of 90 percent. The city, Beason says, needs to see that those disparities exist in order to begin to understand why they exist.
With the whole city broken down by census block and by indicator, the equity index can produce maps of just one indicator or any of the four sub-index categories, or of course the overall index incorporating all 20 indicators. That level of granularity is already starting to appeal to Beason’s colleagues around the city, who are bringing her into discussions exploring topics like the potential for positive change, including how the city attorney makes bail recommendations — impact that might go beyond the individual to the neighborhood in which they live.
“Let’s say two people have a DUI, one that can post bail that night and walk away and go through the process of the criminal justice system surrounded by family and friends, and go back to work the next day to afford a lawyer, versus someone who got a DUI and can’t afford bail, you’re kind of stuck there during this whole process, not surrounded by family and friends, can’t go to work, can’t afford a lawyer,” Beason says. “Qualitatively we might already know the result, but quantitatively this is helping to reinforce theory with data.”
Starting in 2020, the Equity Index will become a standard feature for evaluating policy and program changes in the City of Tacoma. As Beason explains, as in most cities when an agency wants to change a program or policy, Tacoma has a standard procedure for notifying city council, explaining the change and requesting an approval if necessary. In Tacoma, the procedure includes a “City Council Action Memorandum,” a standard document detailing the background, issue, alternatives, recommendation and fiscal impact of the proposed change, if any.
Starting next year, Beason says, city council action memos must include the equity index score for the neighborhood if the memo concerns something specific to a neighborhood and an analysis of how the proposed change may improve the equity index for the neighborhood or the city.
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, there were 20 city council action memos on the agenda.
“If I find out there’s 20 million council action memos a year and people are asking me 20 million times about how the equity index applies, I might be a little screwed,” Beason says. “But we’ll see how it goes. It’s a small town. I feel like I worked in federal government, I could do small town.”
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.