When Tiffany Ward was confirmed as Montgomery County’s first chief equity officer on Feb. 25, 2020, she knew the county would not solve longstanding racial inequities and social injustices overnight.

Weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic began. The pandemic, Ward said, was the “fuel to the fire” regarding inequalities for minorities across Montgomery County, exacerbating problems such as food insecurity and affording rent.

She led an effort, with council members and other county officials, to address those issues structurally, including in the capital and operating budgets.

Since March 2021, Ward said, the county has done more than 50 racial equity assessments on the budget, roughly 75% of which were related to issues worsened by the coronavirus. 

Ward, who is Black, knows there is more work ahead, despite the progress her office has made.

“Closing those gaps isn’t going to take the 18 months that my office has been up. It took us literally 400 years to get to that place …,” Ward said. “But we are creating an infrastructure and methodology where we know where our gaps are in the county.”

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That also comes through data collection and better connections to minority and low-income communities, she said.

In November 2019, the County Council passed a bill, spearheaded by Council Member Nancy Navarro, requiring all legislation and budget measures to go through a racial equity and social justice analysis. 

Navarro said in an interview that those areas have become a “mainstay” in legislative and budget conversations. She said the law has helped county officials target food distribution, rental assistance, and service delivery hubs to communities of high need, which are often majority-minority populations.

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Navarro, who is Latina, pointed to the impact a racial equity and social justice analysis had on a bill in 2021, providing property-tax credits to energy-efficient buildings and energy-conservation devices.

The analysis of the bill’s impact on low-income communities and populations of color led Navarro to introduce an amendment for up to a 10% tax credit on buildings in “equity emphasis areas.”

Equity emphasis areas are defined by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments as census tracts with high percentages of minority and low-income populations.

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Council Member Will Jawando, one of two County Council members who are Black, said that bill was a great start to consider historical inequities that marginalize certain communities, particularly African Americans. 

The county’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) drafts racial equity and social justice statements after reviewing bills, when it gets advance notice.

“I do think that the more work that goes in on the front end, the better products you’re going to have, particularly when you’re talking about systemic inequity,” Jawando said. “And so, to the extent that there’s consultation with the community, impacted parties … and also the racial equity side of it, I think that would benefit all of us.”

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Navarro said there needs to be money to sufficiently staff Ward’s office, the Office of Legislative Oversight and the council central staff office to meet the goals of her 2019 bill.

Council Member Craig Rice, who also is Black, said the 2019 racial equity and social justice law was “refreshing” because it created an expectation that council members consider those issues when crafting and debating policies and legislation.

He cited his healthy meals for children bill, which he said is meant to address racial equity. He said OLO’s statement helped him in the legislative process.

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The statement on the bill says healthier meal options could help lower obesity rates among minority populations, but the gains could be offset by rising costs to small minority-owned businesses.

Rice also said he supported the fact that Thrive Montgomery 2050 — the county’s proposed update to its general master plan — underwent a racial equity and social justice report.

That report asks the council to convene more groups of communities of color and low-income residents to comment on the latest draft of Thrive, along with collecting and including more data about inequities and adding a new chapter that includes the “historical and current drivers of racial and social inequities in land use, housing and transportation,” along with other changes.

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Laura Wallace, the county’s director for Jews United for Justice, an advocacy organization, commended OLO’s work on racial equity and social justice statements for bills. But the council has not always implemented those recommendations, she said.

A recent bill allocated 10% of the county’s energy use tax, or roughly $18 million this year, toward the county’s Green Bank. That nonprofit would use the money on building improvement projects to switch to clean energy sources and reduce energy use. 

Wallace cited the racial equity and social justice analysis that stated that most economic benefits would go to white residents. She and others who worked on the legislation in 2019 want more provisions and accountability measures, making sure elected officials used the OLO analysis.

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“If the legislators just start to ignore them as a matter of course … then what is the purpose? Are we just doing this for show?” Wallace said. 

Ana Martinez and Zola Shaw, co-founders of the Montgomery County Racial Equity Network, said in an interview that the network was heavily involved in the 2019 bill.

They said the network successfully pushed to change the composition of a racial equity and social justice board to include more community members than elected officials — the opposite of the original proposal.

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Martinez and Shaw are pleased with the racial equity and social justice focus on bills and the requirement for more data collection on inequities in various policy areas countywide.

But they agree with Wallace on the need for more accountability measures to ensure council members follow the goals of the original bill. 

One example was a bill on the Silver Spring Business Improvement District (BID). An OLO analysis showed that the tax district, which passed last year, would help white business owners in downtown Silver Spring more.

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County Council Member Hans Riemer, a lead sponsor, said in an interview that a BID will help support small businesses in downtown Silver Spring, but there are other possibilities.

“At the end of the day, I still believe in having a vibrant, thriving small business community in Silver Spring that serves and supports Black-owned business, and I think you can do it with a BID or without a BID. … There’s no one answer to that,” Riemer said.

He said the composition of the BID’s Board of Directors was amended to include more small-business owners than those owning larger properties or businesses.

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Whether through legislation, budget items or overall policies, Ward said, it’s important to consider racial inequity and social justice more broadly, not just for food distribution, housing or similar social issues.

“I think we have to look at it structurally. It’s not just a programmatic answer,” Ward said. “I think programs are great. They definitely are needed. We should not let people go hungry. We should not let people be homeless. We should be providing all of those safety net services.

“But we also need to figure out and get to the root cause of why they are there, and how can we prevent that from happening?”

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Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com