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two people walking under trees on Chicago residential block

Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department reports a dramatic increase in the number of trees trimmed since it created a departmental racial equity plan.

Pat Nabong

Chicago releases its first city racial equity report

The city of Chicago has released its first-ever racial equity report, which promises to improve government for all residents in a segregated city — from arts and culture to streets and sanitation.

“We have to think about outcomes. We have to think about the services we’re providing for our residents,” said Candace Moore, who became the city’s first chief equity officer in 2019 under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “The ability to have that transparency and see what is happening with each department, how they’re thinking about what is really important.”

A racial equity lens means city government is putting race at the center of decisions on how government works. Moore said this report gives the city a foundation upon which to build a range of policies aiming to provide services to more people. Twenty-five city departments crafted racial equity plans with Moore’s office providing guidance.

There are some tangible results.

The Department of Streets and Sanitation changed its operational processes. When residents needed a tree trimmed, they called 311 and the call would be routed to the department. But when officials started studying 311 data a few years ago, they realized most calls for service came in from majority-white neighborhoods on the city’s North Side.

Upon realizing many residents were not aware of the required procedure, the department shifted to “area trimming” — looking at a map of the city and trimming in the areas that most need it, rather than waiting for a call. The new system significantly increased the number of tree trims. In 2022, between April 18 and June 30 the department trimmed 4,951 trees. This year, in the same time period, the department trimmed 22,393 trees.

Candace Moore speaking behind podium

Candace Moore is the city’s first chief equity officer.

Anthony Vazquez

“It actually benefits the whole city because now we actually have a much more efficient way to trim our trees,” Moore said.

Other departments made improvements after reviewing data through a racial equity lens:

  • The Department of Finance instituted several loan forgiveness programs to help low-income residents catch up with their utility bills.

  • In the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, a provision in an ordinance was removed that restricted individuals participating in the Maxwell Street Market as a vendor if they were previously convicted or under parole.

  • The Department of Housing will add almost 500 housing units in neighborhoods like Englewood, Woodlawn and Bronzeville near transit.

  • The Civilian Office for Police Accountability launched the People’s Academy, a six-week class that offers insight into the organization’s larger role in Chicago’s public safety. Its first cohort graduated in the predominantly Black Austin neighborhood. Prior to the academy, COPA’s engagement with regular citizens was limited to brief interactions at resource fairs.

These changes and city accountability make some activists happy, but people who’ve been addressing equity issues in the city for some years, such as Niketa Brar, say there is still a long way to go.

“There’s no satisfaction in where we are,” said Brar, executive director of the Chicago United for Equity (CUE), which links racial justice advocates across the city’s neighborhoods. “But this report is actually an accounting of where we are. It’s the first time (Chicago has) ever done that.”

CUE helped stop the closure of the National Teachers’ Academy in 2017 when the city was considering turning it into a high school. CUE created Chicago’s first racial equity impact assessment to show closing the school would come at the expense of Black students.

“This report moves us from a conversation about equity in the city that I think in many people’s eyes has been kind of vague and a little abstract to getting very clear,” Brar said.

Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @adorakn.

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