In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Christina Brooks, chief equity officer and director of the Diversity & Inclusion department with the city of Fort Worth, spoke with government reporter Rachel Behrndt about how far the city has come to address issues of equity, and how far it has to go.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Rachel Behrndt: Can you start off by explaining the overall purpose and the goals of Fort Worth’s diversity and inclusion department?
Christina Brooks: We were created to bring equity, not just to the delivery of municipal services, but also workforce development and to ensure that all residents in Fort Worth can thrive. So that’s kind of it in a nutshell.
It was born out of community conversations, where people got together after a couple of very public national events here in Fort Worth.
The race and culture task force was convened with four co-chairs and about 22 residents here who developed a set of recommendations around seven key areas: criminal justice, economic development, education, governance, health, housing, and transportation. Two of those recommendations under the governance area were the creation of my position and the creation of our department. We have been working since those recommendations were submitted to the council.
I came on board halfway through December of 2019, right before COVID hit, and ever since then, we’ve been working to try to deliver on those expectations of people in the community to focus and be intentional around those areas.
Behrndt: When you joined the city because the race and culture task force outlined issues that community members felt would make a positive impact on the city, what were your first impressions about the status of equity and inclusion and diversity within Fort Worth?
Brooks: The one thing that really stood out to me was the continuity of the desire to make sure that Fort Worth, as it was growing, as it was kind of leading economically and attracting new residents, 25,000 new residents a year — they wanted to make sure that Fort Worth was growing equitably, and that everybody had a chance to enjoy the best part of being a Fort Worthian that they could. And importantly, listening to people and making sure that some of the ideas that we come up with – No. 1 people are included in those decisions and how the policy is developed – but that the impact is what we intended, and not necessarily what we hope but, what is actually happening based on the policy that we’re developing? So again, we’ve been working to make sure that we do that.
Rachel Behrndt: It’s been about two years now running up on two and a half since you joined the city. What are your biggest accomplishments thus far?
Christina Brooks: Two stand out. When we concluded the 2020 Minority and Women Business Enterprise Disparity Study, out of those findings and recommendations, we made a wholesale change to our business equity ordinance, and that hadn’t happened since 2011. Some of the major changes in that piece of legislation were removing what was for all intents and purposes, a cap on minority business owners or business equity firms being primed for city contracts over $100,000. We removed that and made sure that regardless of your race if you have a desire and you bring the quality of service or goods to the table, you should definitely be allowed to compete as a prime. So that has to be one of the things that I’m really, really proud of that we were able to do. Since that change was made we’re really about making sure people understand that that change has taken place and that Fort Worth is really open for business for all.
The other thing that I’m really really proud of is CDFI Friendly Fort Worth, and we just had the kickoff for that Jan. 26. We’ve been in conversation about this since last year, but it addresses some of the root causes for disparities that we see here in Fort Worth across a number of different areas. We believe that this tool, where we’re leveraging a nationwide network of CDFIs or Community Development Financial Institutions to No. 1, be aware of how wonderful the landscape is here in Fort Worth and how many opportunities there are for lenders to come in. Everything from financing an individual business or a company or organization to financing development in areas, to helping out the individual consumer lender that may want to get a mortgage for the first time. We are seeing really good, strong early success with that program. It hasn’t been in existence that long, but we’ve already seen over 190 loan requests for over $120 million when the starting point was zero. And so we’re working with some of our existing CDFIs. We had about two that were operating here in Fort Worth prior to this initiative. And now we’ve gained the attention of about 17 CDFIs from all over the country. That is looking at Fort Worth and seeing the potential to be a part of our inclusive economic growth.
Rachel Behrndt: So it sounds like business development and getting diversity into you know, the Fort Worth business scene was a big priority for you. Was that identified early on and why do you feel like that was maybe a good starting place or a good first thing to tackle?
Christina Brooks: Because it is a win-win situation. When everyone has an opportunity to share in the economic development of a community regardless of your gender, regardless of your racial background, cultural background, socio-economic status, your education level, it doesn’t matter. Everybody wants a part of the American dream. They want to be able to build a business, buy a home and pass something down to their children. That’s kind of been the American way that we do things that’s what sets America apart from other countries around the world. So it was kind of a no-brainer to start there because that’s something that everybody can agree on. There are a number of things that people are like, well, I want to do it a different way. But who is against making sure that everybody has the ability to thrive economically? So that is why that was a priority for our department coming in, making sure that we were addressing those economic concerns first. Because we know that that’s really at the root of really all of the other areas that are mentioned in the race and culture initiative.
At the root of that is access to opportunity and when people have a level playing field where they have that access, then you start to see that impact in criminal justice. You start to see that impact in education and the quality of education, access to education. You start to see that in health outcomes. You start to see that and housing and you certainly see that in transportation, how people are moving around the city, getting from residential centers to job and retail centers.
So thinking about redesigning the layout of the city, so that all of those things can be accomplished, really starts with economics. It starts with making sure that people have access to capital, that they have access to opportunity, whether that’s jobs or health care. And so that’s why it was a priority for us.
Rachel Behrndt: Right. At our Black History Month event, Mayor Mattie Parker mentioned the impact you’ve had on the city’s efforts in diversity and inclusion. This isn’t a direct quote, but she said something along the lines of that she’s seen you change the hearts and minds of people in the city who are skeptical of the efforts of your department. I’m wondering what are the points of pushback that you’ve run into and how you’ve tried to sort of resolve that conflict of people who maybe don’t necessarily understand the goals or the aims of your department.
Christina Brooks: I think the starting point is really, people coming to the conversation in good faith. They’re coming to the conversation really trying to understand, they’re listening to understand not to respond. That’s kind of a natural default, where you want to have a quick, pithy response. A quick comeback, but when people really come to the table in good faith, and they’re really trying to understand perspective, that’s how great conversations can happen.
But if those stories aren’t backed up by the data, they’re not as beneficial as they could be. So that’s one of the things that our department really tries to do is, when listening to communities and different identity groups around the city, we want to also look at the data. If the data is telling us what they said is actually what’s happening or it’s better or it’s worse than what their personal perception is, that’s when you can begin to kind of change policy. That’s when you can understand, and target specifically, language that needs to change because of the impact that it’s having, good or bad.
Rachel Behrndt: Looking forward, what do you see as the most pressing issues in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, that you hope to address in the coming year or two?
Christina Brooks: I think it’s critical for us to make sure that we are sharing accurate information and data. Right now, there’s a lot of misinformation floating out there and and, you know, it’s easy to listen to or read 160 character tweets, or you know, a sound bite that sounds really catchy. But our main focus is making sure that people are armed with good, accurate, verified information. So that they can make informed decisions.
I don’t think it benefits anybody to tell anybody what they should think. What benefits all of us is when people have a chance to think critically about these issues that are complex. Some of these there’s, you know, maybe some low-hanging fruit that’s simple and easy and just one or two things need to change, but for the most part, we’ve done all of the easy work.
Now, what’s left is complex. And in that complexity, it requires critical thought, it requires people to read and listen and think for themselves. And so our department is really focused on making sure that both our community and our elected officials and our city leadership have good information to work on and create decisions that will create a more inclusive Fort Worth.
Rachel Behrndt: And if people want to engage people who are listening to this want to engage in creating a more inclusive Fort Worth, how would you suggest that they get involved or or engage in their community to work towards that goal?
Christina Brooks: I’m actually updating our volunteer page right now. Of course, there are opportunities to volunteer in different departments across the city. We have boards and commissions that are always looking for residents that want to be on the frontlines of change here in the city, and understand how things work. So I encourage everyone to take a look at that volunteer link on the city website and see what opportunities are there. We actually have some open seats on the mayor’s committee for persons with disabilities right now. So we encourage anyone who’s interested in that opportunity to login, fill out that little application and get involved.
Rachel Behrndt: Is there anything else that you want to add or that I didn’t touch on that you think is important?
Christina Brooks: Fort Worth is formidable. We have some of the most brilliant, intelligent, forward-thinking people here in Fort Worth. The one thing that we all share is that we want what’s best for Fort Worth. We want to make sure that Fort Worth has an amazing future ahead of us. And I think if we keep that at the center of the table, we’re going to be something to be reckoned with.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.