As Albemarle County takes another step forward on its quest for a more equitable community, it will need to find someone new to help lead the way.
Earlier this month, the county and community partners announced the publication of an equity profile for Albemarle, just as Siri Russell, director of the county’s Office of Equity & Inclusion, decided to take a position at the University of Virginia School of Data Science.
Russell, who had been the director since the county office was established in late 2018, said there are a lot of opportunities in her new position as the school’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion.
“The School of Data Science is a new school, and I don’t know exactly what the role will look like yet, but I’m excited to find out,” she said.
One of her final efforts as a county employee was to work to provide an Albemarle equity profile, a first for the county.
Russell said the county’s work begins with its mission, which is to enhance the wellbeing and quality of life of all community members.
“This profile provides an opportunity for us to have a quantitative grounding in what outcomes related to quality of life and wellbeing in our community look like, and how those are distributed across the county, especially in the ways in which those experiences may differ,” she said.
The profile analyzes various conditions across demographic groups and geographic areas — including differences in life expectancy, access to key services such as grocery stores and medical care, educational attainment and cost of living — that contribute to wellbeing.
This is not the only way to measure wellbeing and quality of life, Russell noted, and it’s just one piece of the puzzle as the county works to tie its processes, services, programs and policies to those outcomes.
“This is a tool in what is really a concerted effort to start reordering and reorienting ourselves and continuing the work that the Board of Supervisors has laid out for us over the past couple of years,” she said, pointing to things such as the memorandum of understanding for equity and inclusion between Charlottesville, UVa and Albemarle.
An equity work group made up of residents of different backgrounds from across the county provided feedback that helped lead to which data sets to use in the profile. The county worked in partnership with The Equity Center at UVa to create the profile.
The profile uses the American Human Development Index, which assesses the distribution of wellbeing and equity along three axes: health, access to knowledge and living standards.
Barbara Brown Wilson, faculty director of The Equity Center, said that Albemarle’s doing well overall when compared with peer localities and the state.
“But it’s when you then disaggregate the data to look for patterns, you say, ‘Oh, wow,’” she said. “It is a very situated experience of upper-income, white people that makes that, and so we have inequities that we have to take stock of and then make better decisions with that in mind.”
The AHDI scores health, access to knowledge and living standards on a 0 to 10 scale, and averages those components to produce a single composite score for each geography. Albemarle census tracts vary greatly — from an AHDI score below 5 for the Oak Hill/Old Lynchburg Road area tract, to scores above 9 for the tracts containing North Garden and Ivy.
“The discrepancies in scores between neighborhoods suggest distinct differences in residents’ connections to resources that expand choices, opportunities and access across the county,” the document notes.
The profile goes into detail about life expectancy, food security, educational attainment, median household income and cost of living by census tracts in the county.
Wilson and Russell said the profile is meant to be a decision support tool, and the county already is using it to help make sure staff is informed.
“It’s based on the alignment between our mission and our work, and the grounding of that in understanding outcomes in this community,” Russell said. “It’s this question of what does it look like not just to be public servants, but what does it look like to work for wellbeing, to work specifically to enhance the wellbeing and quality of life of our community members? This sort of information then is foundational to understanding our community from that perspective, and then to being able to orient our work in a way that answers this, that’s responsive to it.”
Staff members with The Equity Center are working collaboratively on what it looks like to share the profile and data with other community groups.
“We would like to be a part of building onto a culture of accountability, because one exists, but it is not yet data informed and community driven,” Wilson said. “I see this equity profile as a really great room in that house of accountability, where it’s not just the county’s burden, but every part of this region — governments and residents alike — can participate.”
The county is working on an equity impact assessment, which will serve as a guide to aid staff in examining proposed actions or decisions, as well as an equity atlas to visualize indicators related to wellbeing and existing conditions.
At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, County Executive Jeff Richardson called Russell “the epitome of public service.”
“She plants trees in this community every day, and they’re the community’s trees because the community will enjoy the shade, not Siri,” he said. “She’s a team builder. She makes everybody around her better than they otherwise would be.”
Russell, along with other county staff members and interns and partners at other organizations, have worked on the Community Remembrance Project and a historic marker commemorating the murder of John Henry James; the Yancey School Community Center; a history exhibit at the County Office Building-McIntire; the equity and inclusion MOU; COVID-19 response; and community engagement around the removal of the county’s Confederate statue.
The office also offered 69 hours of educational opportunities to county staff in 2020, and helped with 147 hours of interpretation and translation services, according to OEI’s annual report.
Wilson said the work the county has done falls under best practices and that the county should be proud.
“Siri was more than instrumental,” she said. “I think there’s a lack of language to describe the roles that she played as a catalyst in that work. But she did it alongside a bunch of supervisors … and she did it alongside a bunch of county staff.”
There were few models for offices of equity and inclusion when Russell came into the role, said Emily Kilroy, Albemarle’s spokesperson, but she did “amazing work” to create the office. As the county recruits the next OEI director, Kilroy said Russell has left it in good hands.
“Siri has put us at a place where I feel really confident that we’re going to be able to articulate what OEI is about here and where we would like to go,” Kilroy said. “Siri talks a lot about the journey and the work. We’ve done some work, there’s a lot of work ahead. But we’re able to articulate that at a much higher level than we were three years ago.”
Kilroy said there is now a body of programs, initiatives and tools that the county can share with a candidate pool.
“It’s a huge loss, and I won’t pretend like it’s not, but it’s also a good opportunity,” she said.
Russell said the county has staff who have been developing competencies and confidence around their ability to affect meaningful change in their roles.
“I’m not saying that we’ve gotten to where we need to go, but I do think that whoever picks up this ball, they’re not picking it up from the same starting point,” she said. “I think this is a place that’s hungry to keep going … I know that we haven’t always had a reputation as an organization as being the most inclusive space, but I think that folks who were to enter this place now would find it a different place than it was in the past.”
When Russell became the director of OEI, she said she began meeting with community leaders, including Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, who told her, “I don’t want to hear about what y’all are going to do — just what are you going to build?”
Russell said she let that be her guide.
“I think that over the last almost three years we’ve had this office, we’ve built relationships — relationships that we didn’t have before that I think have made us so much better for it,” she said. “We’ve built trust in some places where we didn’t have it before. But we’ve also started to build capacity here to engage in the conversations and to engage in the work. We’ve also started to build infrastructure, not as much as we would like, but it’s getting there.”
“This place is 275 years old, and we’ve got all of this history behind us that’s pushing us forward. But we’re rebuilding into that. To me, that’s really exciting and encouraging, because it’s the build that carries forward, and that part, that’s still going.”