The Olympia City Council began talks of forming a Social Justice and Equity Advisory Commission shortly after the death of George Floyd in May.
Once the council decided to form a second initiative in late September — an ad hoc committee to focus entirely on improving equity in public safety — it became necessary to further define the role of both entities, according to Olivia Salazar de Breaux, the city’s Equity and Inclusion Coordinator. She was appointed in June.
The Social Justice and Equity Advisory Commission (originally called the Human Rights Commission) will analyze city policy and practices and suggest changes that benefit people in marginalized communities. For the past two months, in collaboration with Stacey Ray, manager of Strategic Planning and Performance, de Breaux has been learning about the needs of marginalized groups.
“I’m connecting with folks in the community, different organizations so that the city can be better public servants,” said de Breaux.
The ad hoc public safety committee, which consists of Mayor Cheryl Selby and council members Jim Cooper and Clark Gilman, will be identifying “low-hanging fruit” policy that can be implemented right away. Long-term, its goal is to improve a public safety system that disproportionately imprisons people of color. The longer a person spends in the justice system, the harder it is to integrate back into society, experts increasingly agree — a notion that goes against a tough-on-crime philosophy of decades past.
“We have better research. For instance we know … for every day you have someone in jail, you increase the recidivism rate,” said Nancy Campbell, a facilitator with four decades of justice reform experience who is working with the council.
De Breaux said the council shifting its focus to public safety and the formation of the new committee has slowed progress on the Social Justice and Equity Advisory Commission.
The City Council plans to appoint the Social Justice and Equity Advisory Commission next June. People of color and indigenous people will run the commission. Officials had originally planned to hire an outside consultation team to lead the efforts, but citizens objected. To lead to substantive change, they said the commission should be headed by people who understand marginalization first-hand.
How will the commission will be given the ability to influence substantive, positive change in local equity? De Breaux told this reporter that the first piece is appointing the right people and putting them in a position of influence. That’s the ultimate role of any advisory commission, she said.
“I know we have a lot of staff that are chomping at the bit for this commission to be put together. Because they really want to have an entity to come to” for equity issues, she said.
De Breaux said her office plans to launch a website in the next few weeks, to keep the community up-to-date on their efforts. They also plan to produce a newsletter soon.