A little more than a year after Albemarle County’s Office of Equity & Inclusion began, Director Siri Russell knows there is still more to do.
“There are a lot of things that we haven’t even touched that we’re really interested in,” she said.
The office was established in November 2018 to focus on strengthening community partnerships and on institutional equity within the county government.
“Our goal was not to build an ‘OEI kingdom,’” Russell said, referring to the Office of Equity & Inclusion. “It is to institutionalize and formalize that equity lens into the work that everyone is doing.”
Russell, along with other county staff members and interns and partners at other organizations, worked on a number of highly visible projects this past year, including the Community Remembrance Project with the traveling soil exhibition and the historic marker commemorating the murder of John Henry James; the Yancey School Community Center; and a new history exhibit at the County Office Building-McIntire.
“Those pieces have been really well received,” Russell said of the COB exhibit. “People have been really engaged, but that was also the point — you should be able to come in here and see your history reflected on this wall.”
The office also focused on building relationships not only with other organizations in the area working on equity, but also with county residents.
During the fall, county staff, interns and students went to various sites in Albemarle to survey residents on access to services and community assets, and to learn about their perspectives on equity in the county as part of a project with the University of Virginia’s Equity Center and School of Architecture, as well as the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.
The “equity roadshow,” as it became known, was not advertised as public town hall-type events. Instead, notices were posted at locations across the county and, in a desire to meet people where they are, they spoke with residents at country stores, a Laundromat, libraries and weekend events.
An equity work group made up of residents of different backgrounds from across the county help to steer the roadshow.
The residents only were asked to take a three- to five-minute questionnaire, but many stayed to elaborate on their concerns or discuss what they enjoy most about living in Albemarle.
At a stop at the Piedmont Store in White Hall, owner Dwayne Baber said he was “disgusted” by the way Albemarle taxes small businesses, but said he really enjoys the beauty of the area and wouldn’t have wanted his children to go to school in any other district.
“You know, I’ve been here for years running this business and it’s been very rewarding at times and at other times has been like, ‘I could go to McDonald’s and make more money than I’m making. What am I doing here?’ But any small business is like that,” he said.
Overall, Russell estimated that the office has talked to about 150 people as part of the roadshow and said parts of the information will be used to analyze residents’ descriptions of how they would define an equitable community.
“One thing that we’re really interested in learning for this office is, how are people in the county describing [an equitable community], so we’re working from a place of shared understanding,” she said.
Albemarle’s biannual survey also will have specific questions around inclusion and belonging and access and barriers to access. The roadshow information will supplement that data.
“We’re not conducting a scientific survey,” Russell said about the roadshow. “But I think what it does do is keep us better engaged, better informed, better connected and, hopefully, better able to understand what folks’ day-to-day, real priorities are.”
“Sometimes, I think you start assuming that you know what people care about, and a lot of times what you are actually getting is what people who typically engage with you care about,” she said.
The project originally was set to have a formal end, but Russell said they have decided to continue going out into the community to listen and learn.
“We are really gaining perspective and depth to our understanding of folks’ experiences in the community that we wouldn’t get if we weren’t going to these places and hearing these stories and being able to connect with people,” she said.
“We’ve been talking about [how] we capture some of [the stories] beyond just a survey,” said Irtefa Binte-Farid, who works in the Office of Equity & Inclusion.
The office also saw some physical changes in the last year, such as moving to the first floor of the County Office Building-McIntire into the former space of the Office of Economic Development, which has since moved to space at 110 Old Preston Ave. Binte-Farid was brought on as a part-time employee in October and then was made full-time in December.
In 2020, Russell said, in addition to continuing much of their work, office staff will expand on more internal initiatives, such as language accessibility in Albemarle, and other topics for which they don’t yet have specific plans.
On Jan. 8, Russell, Binte-Farid and others will present an update on the office’s work to the Board of Supervisors.