10 Questions with Samia Byrd
The longtime civil servant and city planner was named Chief Race and Equity Officer for Arlington County in early July.
Prior to assuming the role of Chief Race and Equity Officer for Arlington County, Byrd spent three years as a deputy county manager and a decade as a principal planner for the county’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. Earlier in her career she held positions with Quadel Consulting Corp., the National Council of Nonprofit Associations (where she examined the impacts of tax policy on disadvantaged populations), the Urban Land Institute and Aspen Systems Corp. A native of Hampton, Virginia, she holds Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in city planning from Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia, respectively. She lives in Springfield with her husband and two children. Read more of her bio here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What is your role as Arlington’s Chief Race and Equity Officer?
This position focuses on leading, coordinating and overseeing county organizations and partnering with the community to advance racial equity. To me, this entails focusing on systems and our organizational structure and really how racism presents itself—in our policies, our practices, how we interact and engage with the community, and how we serve as the government. Individual complaints or grievances will certainly inform some of our work, but this isn’t a compliance position. Also, it’s not my job alone to fix racism. Even though it’s the first such position in the county, which is great, fixing racism is a job for everybody. We’re talking about behavior and systems and culture. That’s not something one person can affect by themselves.
What relevant experience do you bring to the table?
I’ve been with the county for about 13 years. I spent ten of those in the planning department as a principal planner, and three years as the deputy county manager, so I understand the culture of the organization, the community, and how our policies are developed and implemented. I have a pretty strong background in affordable housing and two degrees in city planning. As a consultant, I did a lot of work in organizational assessment and strategic planning. From the time I started my career in community economic development, I always wanted to serve disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. I have always focused on not just the physical and the built environment, but the social aspects of planning and how the places we make really define a person’s experiences, their access to services, etc. Systemic racism is no different; it’s built into our fabric and how we’ve built and planned our cities. It determines where you live, what you have access to, your jobs, your education. That’s a deep passion for me.
What are Arlington County’s greatest weaknesses in terms of racial discrimination and inequity?
From where I sit, Arlington is considered a very progressive community. There are a lot of good intentions around equity and inclusion, but systemic racism is a challenge everywhere. It’s built into systems everywhere. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know until we start to have conversations and understand where people are coming from. I think the challenge here is being able to identify and name where racism shows up, in our community, in our systems—where people have access to opportunity, to healthcare, to jobs, based on unique factors, like where they live. We’ll be looking at our history and our land-use patterns to better understand why certain areas of the county have higher populations of minorities and disparities. Why they experience Arlington very differently than other ZIP codes in the county. We have to be willing to name the disparities and call them out, and then come up with a strategy for how to address them.
Can you give a specific example?
The community is very engaged in county processes and decisions, but a lot of the time, we may not see or hear from people who have different views or opinions or experiences. For example, when we’re doing development proposals or taking certain actions around planning open space, are we hearing from everyone and about how they are impacted by the decisions we’re making? I think that’s one of the challenges—to dig deeper and look more inward. Arlington has been nationally recognized for innovation in a lot of areas, including urban planning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve and do better. In some ways, it’s harder here than in places where there’s been some huge racial incident and the problems are obvious.
What do you hope to accomplish in your first 100 days?
This is a hard question for me because it kind of assumes racial equity is a project or an initiative. Systemic racism is pervasive and has been part of our culture for more than 400 years, so 100 days doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what we need to accomplish long-term—especially if we want to make sustainable change. But I have been working on a plan. The Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race & Equity has a theory of change where first you normalize, then you organize, then you operationalize. We’ve been doing a lot of this work over the past two years. The next steps for me are meeting with people both inside and outside the organization, and looking at how we can respond—not just to the issue of the moment (because I know there is a lot of momentum right now to focus on race and racism) but also balancing that with some of the deeper and harder work, including gathering data and having challenging conversations in the community, as well as some training. People may be looking to me to tell them what to do—to give them an answer where they can apply something and check a box, but that’s not how it’s going to work. If, at the end of 100 days, we have laid the groundwork for normalizing conversations about race and racism and our definition of racial equity, then to me that will be a huge accomplishment. We all have to get on the same page. The fact that it’s been hard to even say the words race or racism in certain scenarios lets me know there is a lot of work to be done.
Your job description includes “guiding and facilitating the development and implementation of important policies and practices through an equity lens.” What policy ideas do you have?
In September of 2019, the county adopted an equity resolution, which forms the basis of policies in some regard. Racial equity is a matter of principal and how we actually perform our jobs. It is a core competency and what we expect in our interactions and engagement with the community. This, to me, is the policy idea—that we apply racial equity across all disciplines to everything we do. That we use that as our lens in doing our work, asking some key questions in every scenario: Who benefits, who’s burdened, who’s missing and how do we know? Doing so will allow us to identify gaps and work to apply strategies to fill those gaps.
In light of the national conversation and push to defund American police departments, do you support the defunding of police?
As my position is not a political position, my focus is more on what we’re currently doing in Arlington—making certain we have the conversations and gather the information we need to understand where those gaps are and where and how we should apply the racial equity lens. This extends across all departments, and the police department is one of them. In my role, I would want to focus more on What are the policies and practices in place where we see racism? and How do we look at them through a lens so we are not creating any further issues or exacerbating existing problems? When we find and identify those problems, we can develop strategies to address or mitigate them.
The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately and negatively affected Black and brown communities. How do you propose to help protect those communities from a potential second wave of Covid-19?
I think we follow the guidance and continue what we’ve been doing. It’s no surprise that systemic racism shows up in health care. We have an entire plan devoted to health equity and disparities in Arlington County, so this wasn’t something we didn’t know existed. But then the pandemic hit, and the data solidified what we already knew. I think our strategy is, again, to apply that racial equity lens and identify what the needs are based on the data. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job focusing our efforts in those communities that have been disproportionately hit, that are Black and brown. We have a free walk-up clinic, our mask distribution effort, our food distribution effort. We will continue to do those things and work as a government, with all of our departments that are plannable, to help support our Black and brown communities and the disproportionate effects that they face from the pandemic.
Systemic racism is also present in our nation’s schools. What do you think needs to change within Arlington Public Schools as an institution?
APS has its own Chief Equity Officer, Arron Gregory. I’m looking forward to coordinating our efforts with his so we can think more comprehensively about advancing racial equity at the school and county level, as opposed to it being just me or just him.
At the end of your tenure, how will you determine if you were successful in changing Arlington’s landscape?
The goal is that every employee, stakeholder and leader becomes grounded in and committed to prioritizing racial equity. Period. That our work culture and community demand and account for our differences—and that we see this in more diverse and inclusive policies, practices and how we engage; that everyone will be able to identify and point out racism and then determine the strategy to address it. We all need to be able to apply the lens of equity so we know who benefits, who’s burdened, who’s missing. We need to collect the data that tells us so, and then use that data to continually review and make sure we are carrying this out—not just as a philosophy, but to the point that it becomes who we are and how we operate without even having to think about it. We’ll know when we see it, because we’ll see more Black and brown people represented throughout the county, in our workplaces, in our community engagement and in our community structures. I think that’s how we’ll know: when we can actually see the landscape change in terms of color.