At a San Luis Obispo City Council meeting on Jan. 12, public commenter Marshall James recalled Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that a beloved community is where dignity, respect and equal opportunity are provided.
When the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force leaders urged the council to accept 12 recommendations, James said, “I’m glad to call you my neighbor.”
Soon after, City Council unanimously voted to move forward with those 12 initiatives meant to promote racial justice and equity through multiple long term avenues.
Since its formation on July 7, the DEI Task Force has utilized $109,800 for working with nine nonprofits to increase diversity, equity and inclusion. According to the task force, 95 organizations applied.
Cal Poly electrical engineering graduate student and DEI Chair Amman Asfaw said the task force collaborated with groups such as SLOPD, the LGBTQ+ community and Black, Latinx and Indigenous community members with more than 900 hours put into DEI efforts.
“Another statistic you won’t see is that many tears were also shed during this process,” Asfaw said at the virtual meeting. “This was a very unique effort and initiative by the city in that it required emotional toll by those that volunteered.”
The council approved all recommendations from the DEI Task Force, five of which were “essential” for securing long term change and seven that were deemed “high-impact,” according to the task force.
One such recommendation was to adopt a DEI Major City Goal for the 2021-23 Financial Plan, which would incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts into the city’s budget. According to a community survey presented at the meeting, 556 respondents ranked DEI efforts a top priority for the city’s financial plan, which was discussed further at a Jan. 14 Community Forum.
The city also voted to “amplify” community-based policing and restorative practices for San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD).
According to task force facilitator Beya Makekau, who works as Cal Poly’s director of diversity and inclusion, this means expanding programs for individuals with mental illness and unsheltered residents, while also hiring community service officers and pushing county officials to support restorative programs. To exemplify this idea in action, Makekau looked to Eugene, OR, which started a community-based policing program 31 years ago called CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets.
Makekau said BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color, are disproportionately at risk when it comes to law enforcement.
The council also voted to make DEI a priority for the City’s Human Relations Commission — which task force member and Councilwoman Erica Stewart said is in line with what the commission’s objective has always been and therefore helps fulfill their mission.
The three other recommendations deemed essential by the task force were to put at least $150,000 of annual funding toward DEI high-impact grants, implement a DEI strategic plan and establish a city office for DEI. The office would work with all departments to improve policies and procedures with a DEI lens, according to Makekau.
Aiming to support leadership development and participation in local government for the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, the council agreed to create city-sponsored programs, which Makekau said is “crucial in our ability to see diverse representation in our city leadership and processes.”
“We know that increased diversity in leadership means increased innovation and growth for any organization,” Makekau said. “San Luis Obispo hopes to be a national model for other cities like us; we must intentionally make efforts to ensure diverse voices are represented.”
Also geared toward the local economy was an initiative to “actively support and attract minority-owned businesses.” City documents for DEI 2020-21 funding show that 13.5% of firms are minority-owned compared to 78.6% nonminority-owned firms, according to 2012 data.
The city will also bolster support for the undocumented community, sponsor DEI community education, conduct a feasibility study for a multicultural center and work to increase cultural representation through city art projects – all of which Makekau said is “rooted in increasing structural and physical representation of value and belonging for our most marginalized populations within our city.”
In response to Councilwoman Jan Marx asking about the task force’s lack of recommendations for residents who are mentally ill, homeless, disabled or elderly, Makekau emphasized that the group was focused on the racial and ethnic marginalized communities, “given the lack of historical and systemic infrastructure really focused on those salient experiences and needs within the city.”
City Manager Derek Johnson added that there was an acknowledgment that the city had held forums and developed plans meant to serve those other disadvantaged communities of San Luis Obispo in the past.
The task force came into fruition after the death of George Floyd on May 24, 2020 in Minneapolis, MN and the protests against police brutality and racism that followed. Asfaw said that the task force is designed to not only help the Black community but to also “lift up the mirror and look at ourselves, San Luis Obispo, through a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
For public commenter Jordan Martinez, an Afro-Latina educator who has lived in San Luis Obispo for more than two decades, seeing the developments made by the task force hit close to home for her.
“To be honest, this is the first time I’ve really felt like San Luis Obispo has been a place to call home,” Martinez said.
Stewart said that people often say discrimination “doesn’t happen here.” However, since July, Stewart said she has talked with people who prove that it does — whether it be people from marginalized communities who’ve lived in San Luis Obispo “for generations” or people who were new to the community and “didn’t want to stay because of the way they were treated.”
“If I could tell you the many stories without … breaking someone’s privacy, I would share them all with you right now,” Stewart said. “So while we have a fantastic community … we have to recognize that not everyone has that great experience.”
Mayor Heidi Harmon encouraged people to remain committed and to keep pressuring her and the council.
“This is just the beginning of what will no doubt be a decade’s long conversation,” Harmon said. “We need to be in it for the long haul.”