Editor's Note: This research brief is part of a joint research project by the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School and Brookings Metro.
As a society, we measure what we value and we value what we measure.

For decades, community advocates and allied researchers have pushed for government leaders to conduct racial equity assessments that attempt to gauge the potential burdens and benefits for communities of color as well as other marginalized communities before budgetary and policy decisions are made.

Since Seattle launched the nation’s first citywide racial equity initiative in 2004, with racial equity impact assessment at its foundation, many cities, counties, states – and now even the federal government – have followed suit. And although the national public outcry against structural racism may have faded from the streets and the media, the much quieter but critically important work of integrating an equity lens throughout government continues.

May 25, 2023 marked three years since the on-camera murder of George Floyd, which was followed by a summer with some of the largest mass protests in American history, calling for racial justice. But in the face of persistent and organized resistance to institutional change, many question whether our nation is truly making progress on the imperative of racial justice.

On one hand, there have been promising large-scale national investments in infrastructure, climate action, and domestic industry, plus a job economy that remains strong for most groups of workers, including workers of color, in spite of inflation and fears of recession. On the other, there are also new and concerted attacks on civil rights, including basic voting rights, reproductive choice and reproductive health care, and whether race and injustice are taught as a defining part of American history–one with a persistent and systemic imprint on our lives and institutions today. These, together with the prospect of another highly contentious presidential election in 2024, have raised the stakes of the national conversation about justice, equity, and fairness.

Beneath these very public conflicts though, at the local level, we are seeing progress in a vital arena of institutional change: Measuring and analyzing the likely impacts of public policy by race, as well as gender and sexuality, income, disability status, and other factors, with the aim of crafting more equitable policies and outcomes. This is a key mechanism to improve the lives and life chances of everyday people, especially the long excluded and underserved, and also to help people hold their government accountable for better results. 

In this context, this research on governing for greater equity highlights a cautiously hopeful story: Changing our country’s institutions, in ways that deliver real results, is not only very possible, it is happening–in highly innovative ways that can make a measurable difference in the lives of the people most burdened by systemic racism and inequities.

In this report, we analyze six cases of innovative racial equity impact assessment (REIA) efforts from localities and states around the country: 

  • In Los Angeles County, the Coalition for Equitable ARPA Implementation successfully advocated for the county’s Board of Supervisors to adopt equity principles and an equity funding formula based on an index of community need to allocate $1.9 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act Local Fiscal Recovery Fund resources. The formula aims to ensure that 75 percent of the funds are dedicated to the 40 percent of neighborhoods with the highest needs.
  • Dallas has used a budgeting for equity tool to assess its entire city budget over the past four budget cycles, across each of its 42 departments. Those budget assessments link directly to the department-specific goals and performance measures laid out in the city’s Racial Equity Plan.
  • In Chicago, thanks to a remarkable civic movement focused on the tools and talent needed to advance equity, the city has used REIA to break new ground on financing and developing affordable housing in ways that address the city’s persistent racial and economic segregation and expand opportunity in housing and business in more equitable ways.
  • New York City, driven by advocates and community leaders, has embedded equity impact analysis for proposed upzonings and other major land use reforms (in addition to environmental impacts) into its regular land use review process.
  • California, having built on decades of environmental justice advocacy, and innovative partnerships that link researchers, community groups and environmental regulators, is showing how targeted resource allocation based on the CalEnviroScreen screening toolincluding equitable commitments to the most disadvantaged and pollution-affected communitiescould potentially be scaled and replicated nationwide.
  • Washington, D.C. created a new unit to help the District of Columbia City Council analyze most proposed legislation for likely impacts on racial equity. This provides policymakers, community advocates, and other stakeholders with specific insights and the capacity to make more informed policy proposals and decisions that advance equity.

Relatively speaking, these places are all politically progressive jurisdictions. Yet they face many of the same governance and implementation challenges found in more contested and conservative places. Moreover, while the six cases do not encompass the full range of equity assessment happening at the federal, state, and local levels, or in Tribal and territorial governments, they illustrate the ways in which the field is not only deepening the practice of equity assessment but also broadening its applications across a wider array of policy issues and functions of government. Critically, there is much to learn from how that tangible progress has been made.

The same is true for the effort to make progress at the federal level, especially through implementation of President Biden’s historic executive orders on advancing equity; we share lessons of that effort so far in a companion blog post, highlighting the significant direct and indirect ways the federal government is shaping local and other efforts too.

Report Contents

Case Studies

Learning from State and Local Innovators: Keys to Successful Racial Equity Impact Assessment Practice

Our review of these local and state efforts, based on conversations with leaders inside and outside of government, revealed four critical elements that undergird the successful adoption and implementation of equity impact assessment as a practice (whether primarily as racial equity assessment or applied more broadly). These likewise are key ingredients to strengthen and expand it as a field of practice:

  1. Enhance and tailor tools, analytic techniques, and data;
  2. Build requisite government operating capacity;
  3. Support sustained and adaptive community engagement, especially by historically marginalized groups; and
  4. Expand accountability and impact.

1. Enhance and Tailor Tools, Analytic Techniques, and Data

As highlighted in our first report, racial equity impact assessment is now employed in specific policy arenas – such as environmental justice, housing, financial services, criminal justice, and transportation – in addition to crosscutting functions, such as annual budgeting.

Each requires attention to detail and highly specific data on policies and programs, in addition to racially disaggregated data. For example, to assess potential displacement impacts from rezoning land, New York City’s Equitable Development Data Tool requires data on housing costs, rental capacity, and construction. This is in addition to demographic and socioeconomic data collected for the affected area. California’s CalEnviroScreen tool can leverage data submitted to the state for permitting and regulatory requirements, and also engage communities to verify that those official data accurately reflect the lived experiences in affected communities.

Chicago’s allocation plan for federal low income housing tax credits, which is built on racial equity impact assessment, requires historical and contemporary data on everything from neighborhood and tenant characteristics of subsidized housing to the scale, services and ownership traits of real estate developers that compete for contracts through that capital program–as well as those firms, especially Black and Hispanic-owned and other under-utilized and often under-capitalized businesses, long unable to compete.

To analyze proposed bills for their likely impacts on racial equity, D.C.’s City Council Office on Racial Equity has to access data, as well as reliable third-party data analyses from researchers and other sources, on a dizzying array of issues, from street vending in the city to real estate ownership, the income and assets of families with newborns, worker access to paid leave, deployment of solar panels, and more.

These data also need to be as geographically and socio-economically specific as possible. Demographic data on race/ethnicity, as well as income, household composition, and need to be linked with the policy-specific data on as tight a geographic frame as possible, down to the scale of neighborhoods and, for some project proposals, even street blocks.

But advocates and policymakers also need a broad look across different policy dimensions, so budgets and the full range of public policy and its interactions can be considered. This can be seen in the efforts by cities to examine their entire budget through an equity lens. Dallas’s budgeting for equity tool, for example, requires both policy-specific and population-level data. Each city department is expected to use disaggregated data to assess and report on how their efforts impact historically disadvantaged communities, and they also are expected to describe how their budgeted activities relate to the “Big Audacious Goals” to achieve racial equity set forth in its Racial Equity Plan and align with population-level indicators drawn from the Dallas Equity Indicators project.

As we explore key questions facing this rapidly growing field, there is little in the way of robust peer learning across agencies, let alone jurisdictions or regions of the country. Jurisdictions lack consistent methods of collecting data disaggregated by race and ethnicity across their departments. There also is little benchmarking of analytic methods to make it more possible for decisionmakers and the public to make judgments about quality, about what good-and getting better-impact assessment looks like.

2. Build the Necessary Government Operating Capacity

The productive and accountable use of racial equity assessment tools and measurement requires a substantial commitment from the government. That commitment has several key dimensions: Adequate and sustained resources for data gathering and analysis (including staff capacity); the ability to coordinate efforts on equity across multiple agencies; and building equity analysis into the fabric of government operations, including budgeting and personnel recruiting. Elected officials and political appointees must work with career managers and staff to build sustainable and meaningful equity analysis into the regular operations of government.

As highlighted in the prior lesson, there must be adequate resources devoted not only to data collection and rigorous analysis, but also to public reporting and transparency, including public access to analyses and tools. The ability to effectively communicate the results of equity assessment helps not only for the analysis of existing public policies, but also of the likely impacts of proposed policies and policy implementation (delivery) approaches. Public reporting and data accessibility allow communities to participate more fully in public policy debates by making what was once the realm of government technocrats available to nongovernmental stakeholders and the broader public.

Governments have some advantages on this issue, in that many agencies have data gathering and some analytic capacity that can be leveraged and strengthened (the quality and extent of those capacities vary widely).

Prior to launching CalEnviroScreen for example–California’s state-wide environmental equity screening tool–the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), which already had strong data-analytic capacity, gathered some permitting data and had begun to report other data on environmental hazards and pollution. Analysts worked with advocates to build tools that combined environmental data with community “ground-truthing.” The city of New York’s new tool that measures potential displacement impacts from zoning changes uses varied data elements gathered by the city for other purposes, and is now housed at the Department of City Planning. The department has a fairly large staff with substantial analytic capacity. Chicago’s Department of Housing, by contrast, relied on a combination of internal staff capacity and some loaned capacity, to do its first REIA-based allocation planning for capital subsidies. Project management was overseen by a fellow, who had already been trained in racial equity impact assessment, and received technical assistance from a respected and experienced nonprofit.

But governments must also demonstrate to their own employees and agencies that they are committed to equity impact assessment in two ways: First, agencies charged with the analytic tasks need additional resources to do the work. If assessment is simply added to the work of agencies already burdened with heavy responsibilities, it cannot be carried out effectively. That will in turn threaten credibility and trust from policymakers, the voting public, and organized interest groups and affected communities whose support is crucial to further invest in and develop these practices to make government more effective and accountable.

Second, senior political leadership and management must communicate a commitment to equity impact assessment, both through resource allocation and personnel priorities. Public agency personnel often are assigned (by law) a multitude of tasks that require informal “triage” of relative importance due to limited resources and shifting political priorities. Governments, however, can show their sometimes skeptical career staffers that this is a sustained commitment by implementing and supporting equity analyses, and highlighting their importance through budgetary resources, staff development and promotions, and other means.

Chicago’s experience is especially revealing in this regard, as it emphasizes the distinction between programmatically focused equity impact assessment, to improve a public agency’s impact, and more internally focused diversity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, which are often talent-driven and culture-focused. DEI work is happening in many workplaces across the country, with mixed effects, but it is very different from the work of judging how an agency’s plans and programs might promote more equitable outcomes in communities.

The District of Columbia experience is also instructive, if more of an outlier for now, in that D.C.’s city council, unlike its executive agencies, previously had no policy analysis unit of any kind supporting it; the law establishing racial equity impact assessment for proposed laws created such a unit and afforded it valuable flexibility to learn and evolve, as the case study explains.

3. Support Sustained and Adaptive Community Engagement that Centers Marginalized Voices

These case studies illustrate how community engagement, organizing, and ongoing monitoring and advocacy are essential to both start and to sustain effective racial equity impact assessment. The innovations we examine in this report were driven by leaders, inside and outside of government, committed to putting the voices and perspectives of marginalized communities, and especially Black communities and other communities of color, in the foreground.

They have done so while recognizing that community engagement can also be a source of organized resistance to reforms that promote more equitable practices and outcomes, or simply part of the slow work of gathering broader public input. Balancing real community input with the need to move projects and policies forward in a timely way is a challenge for successful racial equity impact assessment. If community processes are captured by wealthier and whiter constituencies, as sometimes happens in housing or environmental policy, it would work against the goal of greater racial equity.

In the cases in this report, like many others nationwide, community advocates and other nongovernmental groups are often the first to pilot new initiatives, with local and State governments following that lead. As is often observed in movements for change around the world, the relationship at best is iterative and mutually reinforcing: civil society advocacy wins new policies and practices, which in turn create new possibilities, stakes and institutional arenas, which help stimulate ongoing civil society learning, capacity building, and change strategies. These evolve over time as public officials make vital contributions as implementers, public opinion shapers, and political allies who protect and expand the space for further change.

Ensuring communities not only get involved up front but remain involved helps make equity impact assessments more accurate and valid (including by ground-truthing the analysis) and sustains the political support required to enact impact assessment and protect it in the face of political opposition. Opposition is not always targeted and “frontal,” directly questioning the legitimacy or value of doing equity assessment in government. It can take the form of not providing adequate operating budgets and staffing levels or treating equity assessment as a side issue not directly implicated in routine government decision making. (For some of the debates and growth opportunities ahead, litigation risk and the chilling effects of misinformation and propaganda attacks are also real threats.)

For example, CalEnviroScreen was driven by the determination of grassroots organizing and advocacy within the state’s environmental justice (EJ) community, which remains closely engaged in the tool’s improvement and use. Allied researchers developed the quantitative EJ assessment engaging communities to assure their indicators reflected the real experiences of EJ communities. This ongoing partnership has helped CalEnviroScreen improve technically, while the tool’s continued use and development has in turn allowed advocates and political allies to deepen the state’s commitment to analysis and effective resource distribution. (This support also allows CalEPA to argue for resources in annual budgets.)

Los Angeles County’s ARPA plan was similarly informed by data-savvy community advocates led by Catalyst California, who asked the Board of Supervisors to use indicators to measure community need and to ensure equitable allocation of ARPA funding. The County then worked with Catalyst California and other community leaders to create the COVID-19 Vulnerability and Recovery Index. The County's Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion (ARDI) Initiative then created ARPA tools to guide departments in the equitable distribution of ARPA resources that better reflect county-specific demographics and conditions.

New York’s zoning displacement work grew from a partnership of community leaders and analysts. Together, they helped produce the initial Gowanus study that helped generate and pass legislation requiring equity assessment in the city’s regular land use decision process. Chicago’s equity-driven planning for affordable housing finance and development, as we previewed above, is both a story of a strong and innovative civic movement and of a supportive mayor and entrepreneurial leadership inside the lead public agency. 

Philanthropic support was very important in all of these efforts, in several distinct ways. First, by linking community advocates with research, it has been possible to generate well-grounded research that can stand up to critics. Ongoing community-research partnerships also allow improvement of the tools and their application.

Second, philanthropy has funded leadership development with clear and positive effects, especially in the form of talent deployed both inside and outside of government. Third, philanthropy provides vital operating support for community organizing and advocacy work itself, as both a prod and a support for bold action by government. Fourth, philanthropy has supported discovery, knowledge sharing, and peer learning to support this emergent field of practice as a whole, whether in the form of communities of practice for government practitioners or research projects such as ours.

4. Expand Accountability and Impact

Finally, successful equity assessment efforts are transparent, well-communicated, and connected to strategies or plans for the long-term that aim to deliver measurable impact for community residents. This makes these efforts more effective but also makes them more accountable, not only to advocates but to other political actors, the media, and the public. It is one thing to impact–as in shape–public policy, but another to make sure that policy change has the intended and mostly positive impacts.

Documenting and widely communicating real policy impacts from equity assessment remains very limited for now. It is vital that more be done and strengthened over time. In one positive example, the CalEnviroScreen tool is used to direct 25 percent of California’s cap-and-trade program funds to projects benefiting affected communities, and an additional 10 percent to low income communities. Targeting the funding stream has been made more precise through legislative improvements that learned from the initial efforts.

Chicago’s housing department, after releasing the nation’s first racial equity impact assessment for affordable housing development in 2021, released its second (the updated plan) earlier this spring. The agency reports out on changes–in terms of the relative impact of carrying out impact assessments and then acting on those findings–both in those required planning documents and in quarterly reports that are delivered to the city council. 

Other communities at the forefront, such as Dallas, are integrating racial equity assessments with citywide racial equity plans that map out strategies to make progress toward eliminating racial inequities across various indicators of well-being. The city has committed to creating a public dashboard that shares progress toward its racial equity plan goals, which thereby enables the community to hold them accountable.

But for many other constructive, if nascent, uses of racial equity impact assessment across the country, accountability mechanisms are sparse and mostly informal for now. 

Advancing the Field: Recommendations

The growing practice of racial equity impact assessment represents an important step in the fight against our country's long-standing and entrenched institutional racism. We by no means think this–or similar policies and practices–are sufficient for dealing with that challenge. But at the same time, we are encouraged by the progress of this work, driven by local advocates and communities, and implemented in alliance with political leaders, public managers, researchers, technical assistance providers, philanthropy, and other partners.

The field continues to develop rapidly, with new voices, perspectives and practices emerging alongside the refinement of existing efforts. We now need to protect, strengthen, and scale this progress, and ensure accountability that delivers durable results over the long run. Racial equity assessment can and should grow in the years to follow. The imperative, however, is to effectively and successfully weave it into the regular operations of government policy at a larger scale, not treated as separate or isolated from broader budgetary, economic, social, and environmental policy.

To that end, we conclude with some brief recommendations about how to pursue that goal.

  • Advocates and communities–especially those putting long-marginalized and misrepresented voices in the foreground–should continue to press and demand for racial equity assessments in a wide range of policy arenas, including housing, labor, criminal justice, the environment, family support, and education. They must look to build on the successes and challenges documented in this report, including the work with allied researchers to rigorously document the negative impacts of racism and discrimination on the daily life for all Americans.
  • Communities must also look to directly partner with the government to drive progress forward–an approach some are calling co-governance that is growing at the local level–but maintain their independence to critique government when necessary, and hold leaders accountable for real, measurable outcomes and results.
  • Governments must provide adequate and sustained resources along with the proper management and organizational practices that embed racial equity assessment into regular processes, such as New York City’s land use and zoning review, or Chicago’s affordable housing development and neighborhood reinvestment.
  • Governments must seek ways to broadly apply an equity lens to the full range of their authorities and functions. This will reveal cross-organizational and cross-program opportunities for progress. D.C.’s examination of all proposed legislation through an equity lens, and Dallas’ examination of the city’s budget are both examples of this that show great promise.
  • Governments can ground commitments for racial equity assessment into rules, regulations, laws, and even city charters or state constitutions. In particular, governments can make making racial equity assessment a required part of annual budget planning and proposals, along with tax proposals because of the significant fiscal impacts from taxation.
  • Philanthropy should help to support the capacity for both governments and communities to engage in equity assessment, and at all phases of the process: At the front end, philanthropy should support advocacy for the establishment of new policies and processes; during the process of assessment to ensure fidelity to equity and inclusion principles across diverse communities; and to monitor and hold government accountable for delivering results.
  • Communities of practice and engagement with subject matter experts and researchers need to to share, hone, and develop new methodologies for equity assessment including new and novel ways of assessing their effectiveness and impact. Higher education institutions should teach courses on equity assessment, and, along with think tanks, continue to support engaged research that helps develop and test a diverse range of assessment methodologies. There should also be continued expansion of learning communities that have proven effective, such as the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), which has been instrumental in institutionalizing key practices, including racial equity impact assessments.
  • Data must be more accessible, disaggregated, and as current as possible. Local governments often rely on data provided by federal and State authorities, so improving accuracy and refinement of those data is critical (and a major emphasis of the Biden administration’s implementation of the president’s equity executive orders). But in the end, this must also be a shared responsibility. Local agencies also collect and report data, though many lack the capacity to do it as effectively and robustly as required. Civil society advocates, universities, think tanks and others also play important roles, with their ability to complement and sometimes enrich official data sets, both with raw data and with analyses that can identify trends and patterns that are vitally important for effective deliberation, advocacy, and equitable decision making. Robust and periodic data collection disaggregated by ancestral origins would further aid in analysis.

Our hope is that this report contributes to the further improvement and wide adoption of racial equity impact assessment across levels and functions of government. We are heartened by the hard work and successes of the examples in this report and others around the country. These initial successes and lessons are due to the commitment of communities and advocates, aided by committed researchers and technical experts, and supported and pushed forward by progressive elected and appointed leaders as well as many unsung civil servants. 

While racial equity impact assessment is certainly not a “magic bullet” to overcome America’s centuries of embedded and ongoing structural racism, we believe it is one promising approach to vital institutional change that changes lives, and our national conversation, for the better. As our colleagues Andre Perry and Darrick Hamilton noted, in order to form a “more perfect Union,” federal, state, and local governments must ensure all Americans live in a country honoring its promise to provide all people with the equal opportunity for life, for liberty, and for the pursuit of happiness.


Support from the Robin Hood Foundation, New York’s largest poverty-fighting philanthropy, made this project possible. We are grateful to Darrick Hamilton and Andre Perry for their leadership and guidance on this project, and to Anthony Fiano for his multifaceted project support. In addition, we deeply appreciate the local and state leaders who shared their insights with us, including MarySue Barrett, Marisa Novara (Chicago); Lindsey Wilson, (Dallas); Masih Fouladi, Jacky Guerrero, and D'Artagnan Scorza (Los Angeles County); and Niketa Brar, Namita Mody, and Katanya Raby (Washington DC).