Save for the single member of the general public who spoke on the matter, the staff of, stakeholders in, and board of California’s Water Resource Control Board Wednesday heaped praise on the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWCRB) first ever Racial Equity Action Plan.
The plan, developed over the past year after the Board passed a resolution entitled “CONDEMNING RACISM, XENOPHOBIA, BIGOTRY, AND RACIAL INJUSTICE AND STRENGTHENING COMMITMENT TO RACIAL EQUITY, DIVERSITY, INCLUSION, ACCESS, AND ANTI-RACISM” in November, 2021 is meant to redress past racial inequities in water supply systems and ensure that all future actions taken by the SWRCB are considered through “a lens of racial equity.”
Celia Pazos, who works with the Santa Regional sub-board and help shepherd the plan, said the plan “acknowledges the historic role in creating inequitable outcomes” of past water policy, confronts “institutional racism throughout government,” and will allow staff to “connect the dots between systemic racism and how we do our jobs every day.”
The plan, said Greg Gearhart, Deputy Director, Office of Information Management and Analysis, will help alleviate the clear current connection between “pollution and prejudice,” while James Nachbaur, Director, Research and Planning (his department will add at least one new employee to carry out the plan), said the additional topical training the SWCRB will now embark upon will “normalize and operationalize racial equity” at the agency.
Yuan Liu, the sole member of the general (non-stakeholder) public to speak (via Zoom) wondered if the whole plan was a waste of taxpayer money.
“This is the racialization of public policy,” Liu said, after noting he, too, was a member of the BIPOC community referenced throughout the plan.
Liu criticized the “cultural euphemisms” used throughout the plan and worried it would simply enlarge the growing “DEI industry” with little other benefit.
After noting the potential constitutional issues with hiring with an eye towards racial balance and that so-called “diversity training” often actually has a negative impact in workplaces, Liu asked the board to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of his children not being judged by the color of their skin, but the “content of their character.”
Board Chair Joaquim Esquivel replied that the plan was “not about politics,” and that “evidence shows continued exclusions and inequities” that make the plan important.
“I appreciate your comments, but we have very different views on the subject,” Esquivel replied to Liu – twice.
While the overwhelming majority of the plan was presented (not voted upon because it is a “living document” based on the November, 2021 resolution) with little comment (and no modifications), one aspect did elicit discussion: the “community capacity building” portion.
Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed bill AB 2108 which requires the SWCRB (and not, it seems for now, other state agencies) to “establish a community capacity-building stipend program to promote meaningful civic engagement by disadvantaged communities and tribal communities in the state board and regional board decision making processes, among other activities.”
The plan includes such a program which involves the SWCRB paying “community partners for the time and expertise.” In other words, the board will give money to (certain types of?) people to interact with it at, apparently, some yet-to-be-determined level.
Boardmember Laurel Firestone praised the concept, saying it’s important that the BIPOC community “not just participate but be valued” and this program would “put our money where our mouth is.”
It is not clear if by referring to “our” money Firestone was offering that the board itself pay out-of-pocket for the program or that California rate and taxpayers continue to fund the effort, though presumably the latter is the more likely meaning.
Exactly what the program will cost, who will be eligible for payment, and other details were not in the plan itself and an attempt to clarify those issues prior to the deadline for this story were unsuccessful (we will update if and when the SWCRB provides the information.)
Nefretiri Cooley, SWCRB Communications Director (her department will add at least two new employees to help with the plan), said the program was “about removing barriers to engagement,” though Seth Bothwell of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, while very supportive was concerned that the final draft of the plan did not mention also paying travel expenses over and above any stipend.
Cooley and Esquivel both noted the plan is a living document and that the issues regarding the community capacity-building program will continue to be addressed.
While supportive of the plan as a whole, Board Vice-Chair Dorene D’Adamo did offer a word of caution regarding the finances of the stipend plan, saying it needs to be operated as “transparently” as possible out of the potential concern “that it could be seen as a slush fund.”
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