I’m making my way through this week feeling heartbroken, angry, and committed to doubling down on the change we need to see in our country. Images of rage and pain across our country—burning buildings and exploding anger— show Americans brought to the edge by pervasive and persistent systemic racism in our society.
Add George Floyd to the long—and ongoing— list of black Americans who have lost their lives from police brutality. Add Christian Cooper—the peaceful birder who had the 911-system weaponized against him in Central Park—to the list of countless black Americans who are endangered in their everyday lives: relaxing in their living rooms; jogging in their neighborhoods; or simply walking home from the convenience store.
We also continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic, which highlights unequal access to health care and safe outdoor space, and increased vulnerabilities in communities of color.
We have a role to play within the Natural Resources Agency to make things better. We have to be part of the solution, so we are not inadvertently perpetuating the problem. Simply put, we need to bring the change that we want to see in this country into our own institution.
We have been mobilizing Governor Newsom’s “California for All” vision by creating more opportunities for Californians to benefit from the natural, cultural and historic richness of our state that our agency is charged with stewarding. This is an important start, but more is needed to confront inequality and drive change across our agency’s 26-plus departments, boards and commissions.
What do we need to do? Here are my thoughts to advance this conversation within our agency.
Listen: Connect with marginalized communities to hear how decisions made across the Natural Resources Agency impact them. This means leaving our offices and meeting communities where they are at—literally— to learn from them about problems and solutions they have identified. We also need to improve public meetings and hearings across our agency to make them better venues for learning all perspectives. We can build off small steps already underway on this front, like our recent online engagement workshop.
We need to give more voice and power to different perspectives across our state, even if these views challenge us. For example, we know that Californians’ access to parks and the outdoors, as well as museums and other cultural institutions, is fundamentally unequal. This inequity exists on many levels, not only physical access to these places, but in the distribution of funds and resources for local projects, as well as people feeling comfortable and safe once they are in these places. Finding solutions to transcend these barriers requires us to partner—and listen and learn from—those that experience these barriers.
Commit: Clearly and explicitly commit to eradicate racism and inequity. And do so in all venues, both internal and external. Dedicate time, personnel, and funding to transform programs and policies within our agency to prioritize equity and inclusion. This includes broadening participation in programs that focus intensely on this activity—including the Capitol Collaborative on Race and Equity (CCORE)— where we can learn about, plan for, and implement activities that embed racial equity in our organizations.
All of our leaders—including and especially me—must address our own unconscious bias and minimize its impacts on the decisions we make. For white leaders, this means recognizing that our country’s current challenges mean very different things based on our race.
Act: Develop a clear agenda to confront racism, inequity and unconscious bias within our agency and hold ourselves accountable for implementing this agenda. We are in the beginning stages of establishing an environmental justice, equity and inclusion program across our agency, to be led by an executive-level Assistant Secretary. This initiative cannot be compartmentalized. It needs to impact decision-making across our agency at all levels. We need to partner with those most impacted from current inequities to make sure this program is transformational.
Acting on these priorities also means recruiting, empowering and promoting diverse leaders that reflect California. We need to elevate the CNRA taskforce we created earlier this year on this priority and bring into state service many more talented diverse leaders from across the state.
Governor Newsom summarized our responsibility as public servants earlier this week: “If we’re going to rise to this moment with the attention and action that it fully deserves, we better start listening. We better own up to our responsibility that led to this moment. And we better start inviting change.”
I look forward to working together to advance this essential work. As the great Civil Rights icon and long-time national leader John Lewis said “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”