Maria Barakat

Program Manager for Transformative Racial Equity

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“Life outcomes should not be predicted by zip codes and demographics” 

(Office of the Governor of California, 2022).

The racial inequity we see today poses an urgent threat not just to people of color, but all aspects of a fair, just, and sustainable society. To make racial equity real for Californians, we need to address and transform systemic barriers to equity built into state government functions, policies, and decision-making processes. That’s the mandate of California’s newly established Racial Equity Commission, which will host its first public meeting online and in-person in Sacramento (agenda here) on January 24th, 2024.

The Greenlining Institute, with our 30 years of racial equity experience in California communities and beyond, knows the status quo isn’t working. Too many people in too many communities are burdened by the stagnant paradigm of ineffective government functions and policies intentionally designed to maintain the status quo of inequality. This is how we know the racial opportunity gap will simply not close by itself. Racial equity is a practice and realizing equity requires an established, evidence-based approach with key processes and success factors.

The California Racial Equity Commission provides an opportunity to transform state systems to correct past injustices rooted in institutional racism, while also proactively producing more equitable outcomes for communities of color.

Commissioners will develop a State Racial Equity Framework–standardized, evidence-based methods for embedding equity into the function, goals, purpose, and outcomes of government institutions–and provide technical assistance to state agencies and local jurisdictions implementing racial equity strategies. If implemented effectively, these could set the stage for generational changes towards realizing a fair and just California. 

Ahead of the Racial Equity Commission’s first meeting, we’re doing a deep dive into how the Commission came to be, why it matters, and what the Commission will set out to accomplish. We encourage all Californians to participate in this important work by tuning in to the upcoming meeting and following along with us as we collaborate with the Commission to achieve its mission of making equity real in the state.

How the Racial Equity Commission Came to Be

The California Racial Equity Commission is the result of years of persistent action by California organizations, lawmakers, and the commitments of Governor Gavin Newsom’s Administration to address stark, persistent disparities in the lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. It is the beginning of the important work to come to build new ways of government function and practice that directly connects communities to the government that serves them, and generates tangible social, economic, and political wellbeing.

For years, grassroots organizations and nonprofits have advocated for the California State government to address systemic and institutional racism. Amidst the unequal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and public demands for racial justice in the face of police brutality and killings of Black and Brown people in America, a robust coalition of racial equity organizations, including Greenlining, sought remedies to systemic racism and discrimination through policy change. This set into motion a series of actions that eventually led to the formation of the Racial Equity Commission. Here is a breakdown of how this unfolded:

  1. In response to calls for justice for communities of color, the California Strategic Growth Council–the state agency tasked with achieving sustainability, equity, economic prosperity, and quality of life for all Californians–passed a Racial Equity Resolution
  2. In 2020, the California Reparations Task Force was established with its full report released in 2023. 
  3. In 2021, the California House passed House Resolution 39, establishing legislative equity impact analyses. 
  4. In 2021, Senator Richard Pan and a coalition of co-sponsors, including The Greenlining Institute, NextGen Policy, and Catalyst California, put forth Senate Bill 17 to establish the first California Office of Racial Equity. In its final draft passed in 2022, SB 17 produced the state’s first Racial Equity Commission to address government generated inequity by evaluating and recommending strategies for advancing racial equity across California. 

In 2022, Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-16-22 mandating that state agencies take concrete, enumerated steps to address demonstrable inequities. The Governor followed up by releasing an internal memo furthering those directives, and established the Government Operations position for State Chief Equity Officer.

Why it Matters

California is among the most economically stratified states in the nation with massive gaps between high- and low-income families and severe racial disparities. Closing these existing gaps requires systematic changes to the state government. Virtually all determinants of wellbeing–health, wealth, housing and homeownership, clean air, water and land, education, nourishment, safety, justice, transportation–remain unevenly attainable and unevenly distributed by the government across communities in California based on the color of our skin.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum or by mistake. The United States’ colonization of Native American land and the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Native peoples introduced racial difference and racial hierarchy to society as justification of resource seizure, sequestration, and capital accumulation. The transatlantic enslavement and commodification of African and Caribbean people formed the foundation of our economic system of capitalism. And later, intentional government policies and practices like redlining and disinvestment excluded Black and Brown communities from opportunities to build intergenerational wealth.

Now, rather than legally explicit racism like formal segregation laws that divide society and access based on skin color, we see practices and policies that are “colorblind” meaning they do not name race as a factor for exclusion but undeniably produce inequitable results.

Making racial equity real against this pervasive historical context requires our government to intentionally dismantle structures that perpetuate inequity, and design new systems that hold decision-makers accountable to equity outcomes in their internal and external functions. Making equity real also means creating avenues for community power sharing. It means, codifying equity into rules and regulations, requiring the use of robust tools to measure outcomes, and redefining criteria for analyses and impact. It means creating permanent staff and leadership infrastructure empowered to make necessary recommendations for system-wide transformation.

What Will the Racial Equity Commission Do?

The Commission has a seven-year lifespan composed of 11 appointed, unpaid members who will each serve two-year terms. Members represent a broad spectrum of equity organizations and institutions rooted in communities of color across the state. The upcoming inaugural meeting is the public’s first chance to get to know our Commissioners and speak directly to the state government body about the racial equity changes we want to see.

Meet your Commissioners:

Virginia Hendrick- Executive Director of California Consortium for Urban Indian Health Inc.
Gabriel Maldonado- Chief Executive Officer of TruEvolution
Traco Matthews- Chief Health Equity Officer at Kern Health Systems
Jolie Onodera- Senior Legislative Advocate with the California State Association of Counties
Manuel Pastor- Director and Professor at the USC Equity Research Institute
Yolanda R. Richardson- Chief Executive Officer of the San Francisco Health Plan
Simboa Wright- Vice President of SEIU Local 721
Candis Bowles- Associate Director of Disability Rights California
John Kim- President & CEO of Catalyst California
Angelica Salas- Executive Director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA)
J. Luke Wood PhD- President of California State University-Sacramento

The Commissioners will collaborate with racial equity organizations and leaders, including the SB 17 Coalition, as well as California community members through a series of public meetings to work towards the state’s equity goals. In the early stages of this work, the Commission will  establish key foundational elements of continuity, cohesion, common definitions and criteria, and standardized processes that will form the scaffolding for the long term transformations to come. Greenlining will consult throughout the process to support the Commission as it takes these critical first steps.

The Racial Equity Commission’s initial goals include:

  • Developing resources, best practices, and tools for advancing racial equity
  • Developing a statewide Racial Equity Framework 
  • Reviewing and identifying existing policies, programs, regulations, and practices in state government that contribute to, uphold, or exacerbate racial disparities in areas including, but not limited to, education, housing, land use, employment, environment, economic security, public health, health care, the wealth gap, policing, criminal justice, transportation, and public safety
  • Providing technical assistance on implementing strategies for racial equity
  • Holding quarterly stakeholder meetings, to seek input on the Commission’s work
  • Consulting with policy experts in order to conduct analyses and develop tools
  • Promoting the ongoing, equitable delivery of benefits and opportunities by
    • Providing technical assistance to local government entities engaging in racial equity programming.
    • Encouraging racial equity initiatives in California cities and counties
  • Preparing an annual report that summarizes feedback from public engagement with communities of color, provides data on racial inequities and disparities in the state, and recommends best practices on tools, methodologies, and opportunities to advance racial equity

What’s Next? Getting Started

The Governor’s Executive Order directs all state entities to take action and embed equity now, and California already has tools available to start doing racial equity transformation. So while the Commission is just gearing up, agencies and departments can get started by creating Racial Equity Action Plans and implementing Frameworks and Tools. State entities can form and support core teams made of staff with racial equity experience who lead and guide racial equity work internally and coordinate across the enterprise to create racial equity practice and policy cohesion. With core teams in place by the end of 2024 to support implementation, the Commission will be even more effective and efficient as they release statewide recommendations.

Another key first step California entities can take to embed racial equity in their function, budgets, and policies is to establish racial equity training. One available resource is the Public Health Institute’s State of Equity. Their cohort learning program, Capital Collaborative On Racial Equity, has worked with over 50 California agencies and more than 500 state employees to bring “health, racial equity, and environmental sustainability to the forefront of public institutions in California.”

All California entities, state and local, can work this year to normalize racial equity and the changes to come using the Strategic Growth Council Resource Hub and other racial equity resources (Government Alliance on Racial Equity). Dozens of California cities and counties, and a handful of state agencies, have functional infrastructure for racial equity such as resourced offices that evaluate the entity’s function and outputs, bridge communities to power, implement racial equity frameworks, and use budget tools to assess equity projections and impact (San Diego Office of Equity and Racial Justice; Marin County Office of Equity).


The Commission is tasked with momentous work that could show the nation how state governments can generate equitable outcomes and close racial gaps in opportunity. To ensure its success, it’s important for all of us to rally behind the Commission and ensure it has the resources necessary to achieve its goals.

The Governor has allocated $1.4 million dollars for the California Racial Equity Commission  operations per year for three years. When the SB 17 Coalition originally put forward the bill in 2021, they surveyed California’s Racial Equity offices to determine the appropriate budget for the Commission. San Francisco’s Office of Racial Equity had an operating budget of $2 million a year. Given the Commission is responsible for the entire state, the coalition proposed an operating budget of at least $5 million a year. The Coalition remains concerned the $1.4 million will not be enough to give the Commission the infrastructure it needs to effectively advance its goals throughout the state.

The Commission will need to make robust assessments and evaluations, offer comprehensive recommendations, provide technical assistance across state entities, hold hearings, publish reports, and support implementation of recommended frameworks and tools–all work that requires the appropriate budgetary and staffing allocations. Without the right-sized investment in the Commission by the state, it could be an empty promise, hamstrung by the administration and insufficient funding

You can help ensure the Commission receives the resources it needs by making your voice heard and urging the Governor’s office to prioritize funding the Commission’s work in his May Revise budget proposal. You can also follow and support our budget advocacy efforts by following us on social media (@greenlining) and signing up for our newsletter at

And above all: Get involved! Sign up for the Racial Equity Commission’s newsletter, attend the meetings and speak out. The Commission will work to build and bridge power to communities around the state. They need our voices!

Maria Barakat

Program Manager for Transformative Racial Equity

Read Bio