Select Board logo, 2019Chart from equity report.

Black Lives Matter flags drape from the occasional window in Arlington, where three-quarters of residents are white, according to 2020 census data.

But despite banners, flags and recent town efforts, Arlington continues to fall short of equity, according to an equity audit presented Feb. 13. 

The 51-page report — the result of a six-month study conducted by Opportunity Consulting — summarized 10 findings and offered 12 recommendations for increasing equity in Arlington. It includes a suggested plan of action.

Select Board logo, 2019

Ultimately, whether the town implements the recommendations will be determined by the democratic process, said Town Manager Sandy Pooler at the Select Board meeting at which the audit was presented.

Yasamin Gordon, Opportunity Consulting's director of diversity, inclusion & culture, explained at the Select Board meeting Feb. 13 that the audit was an opportunity to hear from people who are not typically heard.

"These findings truly are the amplification of the voices — and tell the story — of the most marginalized folks," said Gordon. "What's [their] experience, and how is it different from [that of] the people who always have the opportunity to come and talk?"

Arlington is no exception

Inequities exist across the United States — "in every jurisdiction," according to the audit — and recent events in Arlington have proven that the town is no exception.

In 2018, racist comments published by Lt. Rick Pedrini led then-town manager Adam Chapdelaine to put him on leave and pursue restorative justice. However, members of the group Arlington Fights Racism expressed sharp doubt about the process.

In 2021, Stephen Conroy, an Arlington Police officer, handcuffed, frisked and seized the possessions of 20-year-old Donovan Johnson on his way home from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he works as a grants administrator. Police — who had been called to apprehend a white man — held Johnson, who is black, at gunpoint. Johnson filed a civil rights complaint.

How town equity effort emergedSome key dates in recent Arlington history that led to assessing the role of race in Town Hall.

Oct. 30, 2018: Police lieutenant placed on leave after harsh comments
Lt. Richard Pedrini, MPA photo 

Feb. 21, 2019: Town seeks restorative justice with Lt. Pedrini

May 2, 2019: Rights group withdrew from restorative justice for Pedrini after protest 

Aug. 14, 2019: Town takes steps to make sure one officer's voice does not speak for force 

Sept. 11, 2019: Status of Lt. Pedrini spurs sharp comments -- from board, public 

Oct. 9, 2019: From fury to reason, 27 address Pedrini issue for 3rd week 

Jan. 8, 2020: Town's first diversity coordinator introduced to public
Jillian Harvey began work Dec. 30.  / Arlington Health and Human Services photo
June 8, 2020: Hundreds of Arlingtonians add voices in worldwide furor over racism 

Sept. 25, 2020: Panel challenges Lt. Pedrini to take action to make change real 

March 5, 2021: Beacon Hill event honors Arlington diversity director for black excellence 

Sept. 28, 2022: Town Hall diversity efforts widen with ADA, outreach hires 

Source:YourArlington archives

Both events led to investigations of the Arlington Police Department:  in the first case a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Climate assessment conducted by Visions Inc., and in the second case an internal investigation conducted by the Arlington Police Department. 

Working toward equity

In early 2020, the town hired Jillian Harvey in a newly created position — director of diversity, equity & inclusion — and the Select Board adopted a Black Lives Matter proclamation. 

"This is a journey for us," said Pooler, at the Feb. 13 meeting. "Tonight is a sort of milestone in the process."

The milestone began last January, when Harvey requested $100,000 of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to conduct an equity audit.

"An equity audit will identify barriers to access for community members, including language and communication needs for residents," said Harvey in a letter to the board, "and provide a road map toward Arlington being a more equitable community."

The request was unanimously approved by the Select Board. 

Now, with the completed audit in hand, Harvey isn't surprised by the findings.

"I'm just glad that some of the work I've known we need to do, we [now] have the data to really back it up," said Harvey in an interview with local public television station ACMi.  "When folks read [the audit], they're going to maybe be surprised or act defensive or say that's not reflective of how we do our work."

But Harvey says she hopes that Arlington residents and employees will be open to what the audit says. 

The approach

The equity audit was conducted by Opportunity Consulting, a black and Latina woman-owned company based in Washington D.C., which has worked for more than a decade with cities, school districts and other organizations to improve outcomes for people marginalized by institutions and systems.

The audit — completed between June and December 2022 — explored barriers that limit the town's ability to engage with and respond to the needs of residents from underrepresented communities. The audit focused on three areas: housing, civic engagement and town workforce.

Consultants used an outcome-led equity-review approach, which Iris Bond Gill, CEO of Opportunity Consulting, said begins with identifying differences in outcomes — such as unequal voter turnout.

"The outcomes are what ground us in where we find gaps and areas where inequities show up in the town," said Gill during the presentation 

Consultants examined demographic and administrative data, said Gill, including census data.

Once equity gaps were identified, Opportunity Consulting engaged with Arlington residents to understand their lived experiences and perspectives. 

They created a community survey completed by 126 people, according to the report, and held 30 interviews and four focus groups with community members from underrepresented populations. These included black people, indigenous people, people of color, renters, low-income residents, Chinese speakers, youth and young adults, and residents of Precincts 1 and 17. Conversations were guided by the outcome gaps that had been found in earlier stages in the process.

Arlington remains segregated

Arlington is racially and economically segregated, the consultants concluded. 

"I'm sure that everyone who is watching this knows the difference between East Arlington and West Arlington," said Gordon at the meeting. "I came and I walked — literally walked with a couple of folks from here — down Massachusetts Avenue. Even as I was walking myself, I saw a difference."

Throughout the focus groups and interviews, consultants said, they spoke with only two people of color who lived in areas outside of East Arlington.

Residents from marginalized groups said they felt most comfortable in East Arlington — and felt unwelcome in many other areas, resulting in a sense of isolation. 

"Because of that, there tends to be a lot of clumping," said Gordon. "With housing, where people are spending their money, where people are engaging in social activities."

The few pockets outside of East Arlington where residents of color live, said Gordon, are confined to areas where Arlington Housing Authority properties are located. 

Affordable housing and the majority of rental properties in Arlington exist in sections of town with a higher density of nonwhite residents, said consultants in the report.

"When we continue to build low-income housing in the same areas over and over again," said Gordon, "we are perpetuating that same segregation."

Current patterns of segregation follow historical ones, said consultants. In 1923, racially restrictive covenants were established that prohibited people of color from buying and leasing more than 200 parcels of land in Arlington  — equivalent to more than half the town. 

"I don't think old land covenants keeping blacks out of low-lying former farm land in East Arlington 100 years ago has any legacy consequence, as there is relatively little generational family land holding in Arlington," said Mark Kaepplein, a Precinct 9 Town Meeting member who has publicly called for defunding the town's diversity efforts. 

But, consultants noted, white families many decades ago bought and built single-family homes in these areas, allowing them to amass wealth. Today, these areas are exclusively zoned for single-family housing and remain almost entirely white. 

Renters feel ignored

With relatively few programs that address their needs, renters in Arlington feel unsupported by the town, said Gordon.

"It's clear that many town leaders and many homeowners feel that renters are not as important as owners," said one respondent in the community survey. "We have lived here, contributed in many ways . . . We feel, though, like we're expendable members of the community because we rent."

Arlington has two programs that support renters — the Housing Trust fund and Emergency Rent Relief. However, consultants found these programs to be inadequate.

"Renters feel pretty much ignored by the town," Gordon said, "because all of the policy is geared towards and dictated [by] homeowners." 

Distrust of leadership cited

Conversations with black and brown community members revealed a significant distrust in town government, said consultants, and a belief that "nepotism, financial power and social privilege dominated the positions of most elected officials."

Marginalized residents, and in particular members of the black community, expressed a lack of trust in the town's ability to meet their needs, leading to a diminished interest in community engagement. 

"Town officials and town leaders do not make the time to get to know the most diverse residents in the town," Gordon said. "There's a slight disconnect between folks particularly in marginalized communities in the town not really feeling connected to the people who are making decisions about their daily lives." 

Focus groups revealed that many residents of color have never been visited by political candidates nor witnessed canvassing by candidates for office or representatives from the town. Nationally, communities of color typically receive less outreach from candidates because of a historical trend of a relatively lower voter turnout rate in these communities, said consultants. 

"[Arlington] town officials and leaders," said consultants, "do not have direct relationships or authentic interactions with underserved populations or communities of color."

Lack of diversity in leadership

Arlington has made little progress in diversifying its leadership, with 93 percent of elected and appointed officials identifying as white, according to a demographic survey conducted in the summer of 2022. 

Residents from marginalized communities expressed hesitancy to run for office, said the consultants, explaining that the town has not worked to ensure that successful candidates would not experience harm in town government. 

"Many participants provided examples of a local volunteer group that they felt has a reputation for 'placing pressure' on black and brown residents who are inexperienced in local government to run for office or commission appointment, simply to 'increase diversity,' " said consultants.

In their efforts to "do good," the group — run by upper-middle-class white people — ultimately creates barriers to equity, said participants in the audit, by tokenizing black and brown residents for their own political gain.

Many participants expressed a sense that people within the town tend to assume that "all black and brown people are the same," according to the report.

"They think that just because we're black, our views should be the same as theirs," said one survey respondent. "But black Republicans have the right to exist and have their voices heard just as much black Democrats. We all experience the same racism."

Civic engagement is not accessible

Opportunities for civic engagement and public participation are not truly designed to be accessible to diverse residents, Gordon said. These opportunities include joining commissions, engaging in town events, running for the Select Board and participating in Town Meeting.

Voting also remains inaccessible to marginalized groups, said consultants in the report.

"Residents in areas where there is a higher prevalence of black, indigenous, people of color and low-income residents have higher [rates of] inactive voters," Gordon said. "This suggests that these groups face barriers to voting that differ from [those of] their white, upper-middle-class neighbors."

Most people with whom consultants spoke felt that the town has not implemented targeted measures to make voting and civic engagement accessible to marginalized groups, according to the report. 

In one specific example, a physically disabled resident shared being unable to vote in an election because the polling place was not ADA-accessible. 

Town workforce

White employees of the town make more on average than nonwhite employees, said the consultants. The town's workforce remains overwhelmingly white, with fewer than 2 percent of town employees identifying as people of color. 

"Black, indigenous and people of color and other marginalized populations do not see themselves as potential employees in the town workforce," said consultants in the report.

Sixty-eight percent of survey respondents said that they would not choose to work for the Town of Arlington. Participant comments revealed their views that "the work environment would be toxic for marginalized groups due to the lack of diversity" and "working for the town would mean lower-paying wages and fewer perks than [working in] the private sector."


Consultants provided 12 recommendations, including the establishment of a fair-election plan that would enable voting access, investment in language and communication accessibility, establishing an equity dashboard, conducting a pay-equity audit and addressing restrictive policies for residential zoning districts to allow for desegregation. 

A summary of the audit can be found here >>

The full audit can be read here >> 

Sept. 28, 2022:Town Hall diversity efforts widen with ADA, outreach hires 


This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Emily Piper-Vallillo was published Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

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