As communities everywhere strive to be more equitable, one Santa Clara University alum teamed up with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to help the city of Santa Clara try something completely new.
The project? Have historically marginalized communities share their experiences and see the wrongs they’ve faced corrected in policy. The city created a seven-member task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion to accomplish this rather hefty goal. The task force is made up of Santa Clara city residents and has city staff to support—essentially an investment of time and money into the effort.
“The commitment to just learn what’s going on is extraordinary,” says Joan Harrington, the director of social sector ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Harrington, and others at the Ethics Center, is working with Neil Datar ’17, vice-chair of the task force, and Darius Brown, the task force chairperson, to connect with the many different communities throughout the city—a challenge in a place where no one racial or ethnic group makes up the majority and the majority of county residents speak one of 77 different languages other than English at home.
The task force is reaching out to nonprofits, church leaders, and others who work with communities that don’t regularly participate in government. They plan a listening session at 7 p.m. May 10.
Building this foundation is vital, says Harrington. Without good information, the policies suggested by the task force will help no one.
“If we don’t get this right, by really listening and hearing the different points of view, the task force will be of limited help to the City,” she says.
Already they are hearing from the community.
Letters to the task force include an invitation from local teachers’ unions to meet students from underserved communities, a request that the term “low-skilled” be removed from city job descriptions, and a suggestion that a community safety patrol be developed for the city’s Koreatown neighborhood as a response to acts of violence targeting Asian Americans throughout the country.
“A lot of people don’t want to be involved in politics,” says Brown. “We want to build a space where people can come to have serious conversations with the city council about the things that are happening in their lives.”
It took a combination of high-profile racist violence and a global pandemic to bring to the forefront the issues the task force hopes to address. As people throughout the country stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were inundated with reports and videos of Black men and women being killed by law enforcement. It was not a new story in America. But, the numbness of seeing such violence seemed to disappear in the bright light of quarantine, says Brown.
“It created space for attention to be paid to this trauma,” says Brown. “It got to the boiling point where other people wanted to step up as well.”
Protesters against police violence filled the streets of American cities over the summer of 2020—including the city of Santa Clara. Many community leaders agreed change was overdue. Santa Clara city leaders signed on to a plan from the Obama Foundation called Commit to Action.
That commitment includes a pledge to review police use-of-force policies, engage the community, and find ways to create reform. All of which the task force is charged with managing, as well as examining other was the city can be more from reconsidering the Columbus Day holiday to giving residents a place to voice concerns about housing discrimination.
While Brown is a public servant in his professional life, he decided to volunteer for the task force after his wife wrote to the city about her concerns for him and their family.
“That letter tapped into something inside me,” Brown says. “I had to step up.” The couple has a new baby. “We are going to raise our child here. We want to make sure the city embraces and accepts our kids.”
Datar, a lawyer in his professional life, was also one of the task force’s founding members, tapped for the position because he had worked with the community as the chair of the Student Senate of Santa Clara University’s student government and currently serves on the SCU Alumni Board of Directors.
“I get to have a role with both the city and University and to be a bridge-builder between the two,” he said, as part of that he introduced the Ethics Center to the committee’s mission. The Center accepted the call to action even before the task force was officially formed, and since then has served as the official ethics advisor to the task force.
“I think that my experience at Santa Clara is the reason why I am doing this. As a student leader at the University, I was encouraged to build bridges between our campus and the greater community, including with the city government,” says Datar. “The opportunities SCU provided inside and outside the classroom gave us a sense of responsibility and empowered student leaders to be voices for the University.”
The timing of the introduction was perfect. The thinkers at the Center also made a pledge in the summer of 2020.“We made a commitment that would actually try to do something,” says Harrington, “something more than just making statements.” Going forward, the Ethics Center will play a key role in helping the task force succeed in its mission, by advising on the listening sessions and by providing high-level strategic and ethical guidance on approaches the task force should take in evaluating community feedback and recommending reforms.
The trio hopes that the task force, and what it learns from the community, can make a safer and more welcoming city from the ground up.