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Tucson hires Laurice Walker as first chief equity officer

City completes 2-year search for head of new agency

The city of Tucson has hired Laurice Walker as the first head of the Office of Equity, almost two years after the City Council first floated the idea of the agency. Walker, who is coming from Minneapolis for the role, has almost six years of experience in municipal equity offices and leadership positions in the field.

The new Office of Equity head signed her offer letter on Feb. 7 and started the job on Monday. In her new role, “Walker will work closely with community and city leadership to create an equity framework to be adopted by all departments and offices throughout the city of Tucson,” city officials said.

Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz, who first suggested an Office of Equity in early 2020, wrote in a public statement that she's encouraged and confident in Walker's ability to lead the office.

"While the mayor and Council have moved the needle on equity, we've done so without an Equity Office and without a chief equity officer," she said. "I'm encouraged to have Ms. Laurice Reed (now Walker) join the city of Tucson team and confident in her ability to guide us throughout our journey to a place where race can no longer be used to predict life outcomes."

City officials nearly filled the post almost a year ago, but the chosen finalist ultimately turned down the job. After rebooting the search process, they ended up agreeing to pay the new hire $145,000 — somewhat more than the $80,000-$143,000 salary range that had been budgeted for the job.

Walker, who married in December and changed her name from Reed, has worked in city governments with similar offices. Most of her career was spent as a project manager for the city of Minneapolis in their Division of Race and Equity from 2016-2021.

One of the biggest accomplishments she had in Minneapolis, she said, was leading “foundational” equity training for more than 4,000 city employees. She led more than 22 department heads through their own racial equity actions plans, and she helped lead the city through their Strategic and Racial Equity Action Plan, which she said “is one toolkit we used to look at our policies and practices in a different lens as it pertains to data.” Her work helped their city council make actionable recommendations for racial equity, she said.

She had an 11-month stint as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion manager for the city of Plymouth, in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. She had been working there since last April before she was hired by the city of Tucson, and she was the first in her role there too.

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To set the foundation for Plymouth’s DEI office, Walker said she created a DEI steering committee, built staff understanding and knowledge of DEI and analyzed policy through a DEI lens.

She’ll repeat that work to establish Tucson’s Equity Office, saying “there's a similar framework as far as getting the work off the ground,” and that “it’ll take a few months to get a good foundation on where we’re going to start.”

She needs to make sure there’s “stakeholder buy-in” or support for the office from the Council, mayor, the city manager’s office, city staff and the Tucson community, she said. She also called those key stakeholders “thought partners.”

One of the biggest attractions to Tucson for Walker, she said, was the “relationship, the trust and transparency that the elected officials, the mayor and city council, have with communities.” She wants to make sure she’s building on that trust and transparency, she said, and hear from the mayor’s Council on Racial Equity and Justice and other boards and commissions.

She’s in her first week, but she said “there’s more conversations and meetings to be had with Council and mayor so I can get a clear understanding of where their collective vision is.”

Since Sept. 2021, Walker has been an equity officer with the International City/County Management Association, a national DEI group that defines the best practices for bringing equity, inclusion, social justice and accessibility to local government.

The ICMA launched the Equity Officer Institute in 2020 to bring together public equity officers from around the county to advance equity and inclusion in local government, according to their website. Walker will continue working with them as part of their second cohort.

She was the chief consultant with the Racial Agility Consulting Enterprise, or RACE, whose mission was to “bridge the gap between mental health and racial equity” and create “racial agility…the intellectual ability to embody the races of humankind as a constituent part of oneself,” according to the group’s website.

RACE promoted an “individual behavior change and organizational behavior change management using a cognitive training model, helping organizations create a workplace where people no longer internalize aspects of their identity in order to survive. Instead, they begin to regulate their nervous systems and bring their full selves to work.”

Walker was also the president of the I Am Borderline Resilience Foundation, a nonprofit she founded at the age of 25 to support people with Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental health condition that Walker herself has been diagnosed with.

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Her work with I Am Borderline has been put on hold, she said, and the organization has been taken over by a board member in Minneapolis.

So far, Walker said, she’s “thrilled to be in Tucson. The weather is amazing considering I’m coming from Minneapolis.”

“I do look forward to working with the rest of the staff, getting to know more of the directors, more about what the departments are doing and what work has already existed,” she said. “(I’m) just trying to figure out how I can continue to support Tucson being great.”

'Inequality holds power'

The Tucson Office of Equity was first suggested in April 2020 by Councilwoman Santa Cruz of Ward 1 in southwest Tucson. The city had just received an early round of CARES funding, and Santa Cruz suggested there should be an equity audit to make sure traditionally underserved communities aren’t overlooked during its spending.

Santa Cruz then took up the idea of having an office that could do these kinds of assessments regularly. By September 2020, she had designed an equity office and an initial equity assessment of CARES funding with the help of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, or GARE, a national consulting network that works with local governments.

“Even in the conversation with the city manager and the city director and city staff, it gets really uncomfortable in the room when we talk about (systemic inequalities), especially because I feel like at times it’s taken as a personal thing. Our folks get defensive about it,” Santa Cruz said when talking about the idea in September. “We’re trying to address the institutional and systemic ways (inequality) holds power.”

The councilwoman felt like discussions about how policy creates inequalities had never been had at the city level but that the Office of Equity could normalize such discussions. “We are a very diverse city, and I think it’s important to do that,” she said.

City Council passed a motion that September to do the equity assessment, outline steps to start an Office of Equity and hire a department head, and the city posted on job boards immediately after with the help of GARE.

By June 2021, the Council had approved a $500,000 budget for the department, but at that point, the city was already stymied in the search for a CEO — chief equity officer. That same June, the city had made an offer to Roberto Montoya, a Denver-based regional manager for GARE, the same consulting agency that helped design the position.

Montoya turned the position down, however, because he decided moving his family wasn’t the best thing at the time, though he and the city had already negotiated a salary.

The city had also considered Augustine Romero, a former principal of Pueblo High School and the founder of WE Schools, a service-learning program for educators, and Genesis Gavino, an official with the Resilient Dallas program, which has a city chief resiliency officer.

When Deputy City Manager Liana Perez talked to TucsonSentinel.com in July, the month after they failed to fill the office next to hers, the city was about to reboot their national search with the intention of having it operational by the fall.

The Tucson government was going through a market study in July to benchmark salaries based on how other cities pay employees in similar positions. The chief equity officer position was earmarked for further review because the role of equity officer or director in other cities with similar departments varied strongly across the country, making it likely that the salary range would change.

The job was posted with a $80,995-$143,458 salary, with the large range meant to allow room for negotiation, Perez said. The qualifications, according to flyers, were at least a Bachelor’s degree and five years of demonstrated success in the administration of community, government, educational or social justice programs.

The $500,000 budget also created room for two other employees for the new department. The chief equity officer will decide what roles those two will have, but the expectation is to have a data analyst and an outreach coordinator, Perez said. It's still too early for Walker to comment on how she plans to use those two available positions, city officials said.

Walker will be paid $145,000 as the first chief equity officer, which is several thousand less than the salary of the city clerk at $150,862. The salary of the city attorney is $182,083, and that of the city manager, the highest paid city official, is $244,275. The mayor is paid a monthly salary of $3,500, or $42,000 a year, and Council members make $2,000 a month, or $24,000 a year.

'Individuals make up the organization'

A graduate of Purdue University Global, an accredited online university, Walker holds a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She’s certified in project management, diversity management, corporate training and cultural somatic psychological first aid.

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About her cultural somatic psychology certification, Walker said it’s meant to “bridge the gap between mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as racial equity.”

“Sometimes when we talk about these factors, we don’t really recognize what’s happening in our nervous system and in our bodies,” she said. “Continuing these practices into the workplace, one of the things I like to say is that ‘individuals make up organizations,’ and if we have to talk about organizational change, we have to start with individual behavior change.”

She’s still enrolled in a Master’s program in the same field with Purdue Global. Tucson city staff are encouraged to continue pursuing higher education, officials said, as they’re even starting their tuition reimbursement program. Walker said she hopes to one day have her Doctor of Psychology, or Psy.D.

She also studied midwifery and has experience delivering babies though she says she hasn’t delivered a baby in the last two years, saying she no longer has the “time or capacity.”

“I did enjoy it while I could,” she said. “Babies are very unpredictable, so it just didn’t fit with my schedule, but I do love to support women however possible.”

Unlike Equal Employment Opportunity Offices, or EEOOs, found in private and public administrative bodies or the city’s own OEOP, Tucson's Office of Equity is meant to be outward-looking. The city’s OEOP looks inward at the city’s hiring practices and investigates complaints against the city though the OEOP does also investigate complaints against employers in the city.

The Office of Equity is supposed to focus on local communities, its residents and how city policy is affecting them but not necessarily with an eye on city employees. The office will determine how the city measures equity and have a say in policy decisions and the development of public programs. The chief equity officer, though, is responsible for developing more of the specifics of the department’s role.

“This separate equity office would be the larger picture of how are we providing equity services to disadvantaged areas of the community, where are we spending our resources, how are we including the community in how we spend our money on streets and housing and so forth. Is all that being done with an equity lens?” Perez said in July. “It’s not just equity in our hiring and promotion practices but also in how we do when we’re serving the community with that equity lens.”

Walker is also relatively young for a high-level city official at age 28. Her youth, she said, “motivates me to be an example for my generation, which is the Millennial generation. A lot of us are taking over the workforce. I’ll just continue to be a leader, and I’m very honored and privileged to have the ability to do that as young as I am.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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