Ten Questions for Darlene Flynn, Oakland’s Director of Race & Equity

In 2016, Oakland formed its Department of Race & Equity, and recruited Darlene Flynn as its Director. Last month, Carrie Crespo-Dixon, one of Make Oakland Better Now!’s board members, sat down with Ms. Flynn to talk about taking on the unprecedented role of leading this department.

Even upon a first meeting, she instantly engages, as if resuming a conversation that was started before a brief interruption. That conversation, of course, is one about racial equity and how cities like Seattle – where she previously worked – and Oakland are addressing institutionalized racism. Her only perceptible vulnerability was a bound knee and cane that she’d taken to walking with as a result of sciatica flare up. She does however, readily reveal that her interest in race matters stems from being the child of bi-racial parents, who were at the time outliers in their marital choice, and fostered a curiosity and awareness in her own identity. Years later, she is absolute in her belief that racism is founded and perpetuated by government and law.

1. What drew you to equity work?

As child of bi-racial parents, I didn’t grow up in a radicalized family but there was a natural curiosity within me to explore my position in society and what the multicultural experience meant since that was my experience growing up.

2. Where do you live and what are your personal impressions about Oakland?

When I first came to Oakland, I was living in the Dimond and now live on China Hill or what’s also known by its gentrified name, Cleveland Heights. There is definite attitude of solidarity among Oaklanders; it is a point of great pride; it matters if you’re an Oakland native here.

3. What are some similarities and differences do you see between Seattle and Oakland in terms of culture, demographics, the cities’ neighborhood layout/geography and evolution?

Oakland has a significant history with regards to the Civil Rights movement as the birthplace of the Black Panthers. While Seattle’s black population is much smaller than Oakland, it also experienced a high level of civil rights activity and Seattle had the first chapter of Black Panthers outside of Oakland. The cities continue to parallel with the ongoing changes in declining Black population. Seattle has an Office for Civil Rights, which is where their Race and Equity Initiative is located. I was one of the architects of that Initiative there and I’m using our work there as the model for the work here in Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity.

4. You were a Policy Lead in Seattle, what were/are some historical policies at the local level in Seattle and here that you see deterring progress? What are the most critical federal policies need to be changed?

There needs to be a shift to trauma-based approach to addressing the impacts of racism and the ways that black, brown and other communities of color have been marginalized by inequitable treatment. This country has not been unified in moving progressive change. We can and are leading locally to address the impacts of the “war on drugs” by decriminalizing low level drug related offenses, leading the way for cannabis legalization and most recently creating an equity program for cannabis business licensing.

5. Are you working with GARE (Government Alliance on Race and Equity) here in Oakland? If so in what capacity.

GARE is not only a collaborator but we share the same origins. Many of the tools that GARE is using stems out of race work completed in Seattle. GARE’s work will be informed by continuing to connect with the work that the Department of Race & Equity and other jurisdictions across the country are advancing.

6. How we talk about race is one of the main starting points for ending systemic racism. What other definitions are needed and misperceptions that persist?

We need to think about change differently. Affirmative action alone will not achieve social justice because while it provides opportunity to individuals it does not transform systems. When it was eliminated in California and Washington States, ground that had been gained was lost in employment and contracting with women and people of color in government sectors. We’re not done; we need to work on system change that produces just outcomes. There are half as many city employees in Oakland as there are in Seattle, so though capacity building and equity practice is a priority, it can be difficult for staff to imagine that they have time to participate. One of the ways we are addressing this is by offering trainings on addressing structural racism, broken down into four half day sessions spread over about eight weeks. This helps staff manage their workload around the time in class.

7. Oakland did not score well on the Racial Indicators Report. What are your observations of the biggest needs for change in Oakland in order to accelerate racial equity? How are the areas of need being addressed?

The report showed that Oakland has work to do in the areas of criminal justice, economic security and affordable housing. The County has control over probation and bail reform. Police reform is also needed, as the nation has learned that we cannot police our way out of these social challenges. Rather than keeping communities safe , over policing has effectively criminalized black and brown people of color at a disparate rate and fueled mass incarceration. The real solutions to crime are in addressing lack of opportunity in education, economic security, and upward mobility that have been historically withheld from these communities.

8. Can describe how to address structural racism in a city like Oakland?

We as a city need to change how we think about race and figure out what we can do differently to get better outcomes for our communities of color. Anything that’s difficult to achieve requires a change of mindset and change in behavior. Oakland is focusing on race dynamics and working to integrate equity practices into government processes. Our relationship with community has been oppositional so we need to begin by creating structures and approaches that foster collaboration and address the way racism has been institutionalized through policies.

9. Racial equity tools have been identified as part of the solution to help end systemic racism. Can you discuss what some of those are?

Leveraging data is extremely important to demonstrate the disparities in outcome for different racial groups. For example, data shows us that homelessness is highly racialized in that Black residents are greatly over represented in that population. Digging into data reveals the different services received by race when exiting homeless services ; where people are placed, to what extent of services they received and for how long. What became apparent through data analysis is that black people are more often placed with friends and family and they are returning to homelessness at a higher rate than whites. Understanding this more deeply provides the opportunity to address the current program design to make changes that will serve the Black population more effectively. Over time this could begin to close the racial disparities and produce more equitable outcomes.

10. What can we as MOBN! and as citizens to support and promote the goals of the department?

Every organization needs to begin by doing their race work. What that means is approaching racial inequities from a history informed place and taking a data driven, community informed approach to analyzing and addressing the gaps that exist in their own spaces and places.

The narrative needs to change. The daily trauma of being racialized that is projected onto young brown and black boys can produce real damage by the time they become adults and needs to stop. From being treated like a criminal, considered guilty until proven innocent to facing higher risks because of a lack of opportunity: the blame of a societal problem on the individual needs to stop for us to get to justice for all.

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

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