Zeriah Folston, interim director of the City of Gainesville's Office of Equity and Inclusion, said his office has become a "catch-all" but their efforts must begin with addressing issues within the city's own staff. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Gainesville’s equity director gives update on the city’s efforts

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Zeriah Folston, interim director of Gainesville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, presented Wednesday on the city’s equity efforts.

He said the responsibilities of his eight-person office were broad – in addition to ensuring the city’s workforce diversity and overseeing its push for equity, it heads the new language access initiatives and certifies small businesses.

“The Office of Equity and Inclusion has become a catch-all for everything,” Folston said.

Folston described demand for immediate community-wide equity, but said it’s a long game and the first step is addressing the issue within the city’s own staff.

“My mother used to always have this saying,” he said. “You got to clean up around your own front door before you clean up around other people’s front doors.”

He outlined four key strategies:

  • Training the city’s top leadership, including the commission;
  • Rolling that equity training out to the rest of city staff;
  • Implementing a standardized process to review all proposed city policy through the lens of community equity;
  • Creating a partnership model that empowers the city’s departments to address equity issues themselves.

He emphasized the need to first cultivate the desire for change. Right now, the equity training is voluntary. The opt-in model, Folston said, helps the office identify “who in our management structure is not an at-front ready supporter of the work.”

Folston gave this presentation to Gainesville For All, a collective of community members formed in 2016 to address racial and economic inequities in Gainesville.

The community collective Gainesville For All formed in 2016 to address Gainesville’s racial and economic disparities. Above, members listen to Gainesville’s equity director present on the city’s efforts. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

James Lawrence, the group’s director, pressed Folston to identify what exactly he would be doing with the power of his position to “really move the needle” on equity in Gainesville.

Folston said his office was developing a data governance policy that would improve the way the city tracks and disaggregates data. The data was necessary, he said, to measure and hold the city accountable to their equity goals.

Lawrence challenged that answer by pointing to the city’s 2018 equity report.

“The data has been in now for about five years,” Lawrence said. “We haven’t seen the needle move.”

“The data has been in now for about five years,” Gainesville For All Director James Lawrence (right) challenges the city’s Interim Director of Equity and Inclusion Zeriah Folston (left). “We haven’t seen the needle move.” (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Folston reiterated that his office is focusing first within the city’s own staff, rather than on the community-wide equity issues the study outlined.

Lawrence also announced at the meeting that the Gainesville Empowerment Zone’s Family Learning Center will finally be opening in June after pandemic construction delays. The center will prepare children from six weeks to five years old to enter kindergarten. Lawrence hopes it will serve as an early learning program model that can be replicated across the country.

Last week, the Alachua County Commission voted unanimously to support the center with $350,000 in funding, matching the city’s contribution. Lawrence said the center has received additional financial backing from national partners including the Gannett Foundation, PNC Bank and Cox Communications.

Gainesville For All’s secondary focus this year will be school discipline issues. For more information on participating, contact gnv4all@gmail.com or 386-515-9245.

About Katie Hyson

Katie Hyson is a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News covering racial and rural inequities in East Gainesville and north central Florida. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org. Click here to learn how you can support her reporting.

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