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Cities Are Hiring a New Kind of CEO

Chicago's new mayor is the latest to carve out a position for a chief equity officer who focuses on racial and economic diversity and discrimination.

CEO nameplate with desk and chair
(Shutterstock)
Lori Lightfoot’s victory in the Chicago mayor’s race made history. She is the first African-American and first open lesbian to lead the Windy City. She didn't wait long to make history again.

Before her inauguration on May 20, she announced the creation of a new position in local government: chief equity officer.

Filling that role will be Candace Moore, a former attorney for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Moore will lead the city’s efforts to address the racial and class disparities in employment, income, housing and economic development.

According to data compiled by Governing, the Chicago metro area is the third most segregated in the country. White households earn 70 percent more than Latino households and more than twice as much as black households.

Chicago isn't the only city redefining what a CEO does.

From Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia to Nashville, Tenn., and San Antonio, local governments have created offices dedicated to closing racial and economic gaps. In Chicago, Lightfoot got some inspiration from the public school district, which hired a chief equity officer in September to help close the achievement gap between white and minority students, to recruit a more diverse education workforce and to contract with more minority and women-owned businesses.

Chief equity, or in some case diversity, officers fall into two camps. They either aim to increase diversity within the ranks of city hall, hiring people who can craft and drive policy through a broader political and cultural lens -- or they examine systemic problems and provide policy solutions. Chicago's will fall into the second camp.

"Local government leaders really have to begin to be comfortable with the topic of race because government has historically been the creator of institutional racial barriers," says Carla Kimbrough, former program director for racial equity at the National Civic League and the author of a 2017 report on chief equity officers.

While Chicago isn't the first to name a chief equity officer, it's one of the first to make the position a cabinet-level post, which some say is key to its effectiveness. Large organizations are often resistant to change, and equity officers need the backing of the mayor to make progress, says Kimbrough. 

"The best and most successful efforts will have direct lines to the mayor or city manager," she says, pointing to Boston as an example.

Like Chicago, Boston has long simmering racial tension. School busing fights gained the city an ugly reputation, which was more recently reinforced by comments from visiting entertainers and athletes. New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia said Fenway Park is the only baseball stadium where he heard such racist language used during his career. The Boston Globe published a series in 2017 detailing the city’s deep racial disparities. In 2018, Mayor Marty Walsh hired Lori Nelson to be his chief of resilience and racial equity. Walsh placed Nelson in his cabinet, giving her a front-row seat to policymaking. 

Other cities have tried to embed chief equity officers in departments, such as human resources, but Kimbrough says that hasn't worked out well: "When the position is placed within a department, I have seen instances where there was hostility toward the post and the person." 

The rise of chief equity officers comes as cities are beginning to address inequality along lines of race and class. But it often takes a push from the public to make cities become proactive.

That’s what happened in Buffalo.

A broad coalition of business leaders, community advocates and residents pushed for the mayor to view overcoming inequality as critical to the economic future of the city, which was battered by the industrial decline. In 2017, Mayor Byron Brown launched the Buffalo Opportunity Agenda, which committed to more diversity in the public workforce and resulted in the hiring of a chief diversity officer. 

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