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The Tulsa Evidence-Based Approach to Policymaking

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The Tulsa Evidence-Based Approach to Policymaking

The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.

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It has been a century since the Tulsa Massacre and destruction of Black Wall Street. It is a grim milestone, but one that community members and city officials are seeking to move past, by leveraging data, transparency, and empathy to create a more equitable Tulsa.

They are doing so through the Tulsa Equality Indicators initiative, a partnership between the Tulsa nonprofit Community Service Council (CSC), Tulsa’s Mayor, G.T. Bynum, with support from the City University of New York (CUNY) Institute for State & Local Governance. This initiative tracks 54 critical indicators and measures of racial disparities experienced by Tulsans across six areas: economic opportunity, education, housing, justice, public health, and services. Within each of these areas, the Tulsa Equality Indicators (TEI) enable Tulsans, or anyone else who wants to look at them, to track progress since 2018, when the project was launched, of multiple granular indicators, such as median household income by race or food deserts by geography.

TEI was launched in 2017 as part of an expansion of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities Initiative. Mayor Bynum asked CSC to partner with the City of Tulsa in this project because CSC, which is turning 80 this year, has expertise in the curation, analysis, and sharing of data across a wide-range of human-service issues.

CSC began its work as part of TEI by going into communities across the city to hear from diverse groups of Tulsans and learn what their experiences and observations were around inequalities in Tulsa. The listening tour and the community survey process helped the leaders of the project to identify and prioritize the data that ultimately became the Tulsa Equality Indicators. TEI data are quantifiable, updated annually, from a reliable source, and capable of being disaggregated in meaningful ways.

Tulsa’s Chief Resilience Officer, under the City’s Office of Resilience and Equity, works closely with CSC in hosting weekly learning sessions with Tulsans. The learning sessions, which are well-attended with often nearly 100 Zoom attendees even during the pandemic, feature experts in the issues being measured, presentations to and from community organization partners, sparking dialogue and feedback from Tulsan community members. As Melanie Poulter, Director of Innovative Data and Research explains, “Leaning into listening, bringing in experts, and fostering collaboration with city government and communities is what fuels this work.”

City government leadership was critical in transitioning Tulsa Equality Indicators from a philanthropically backed initiative to a comprehensive and sustainable commitment. For Mayor Bynum, the journey to leading with data-driven policy began with a two-year fellowship with Results for America while he was a Tulsa city council member and the go-to official for all things connected to the budget. As the only elected-official in the fellowship, he participated in a deep dive of how to utilize data and analytics to optimize resource deployment in government settings. Mayor Bynum explains, “It was here where I learned that data can be used to transform philosophical debates into practical opportunities for solutions and change, and in doing so, bring together people from both ends of the political spectrum.” Importantly, he saw the potential power this could have at the local level, where policy decisions are largely around service delivery and community resourcing.

Bynum grew up in Tulsa and admits that it was not until he left Tulsa for college in Philadelphia and working in Washington D.C. that it dawned on him that Tulsa was “unofficially segregated” with associated racial disparities. When reading an academic paper written by the president of the University of Tulsa, Bynum learned that African Americans in Tulsa were expected to live eleven years less on average than white Tulsans. Bynum reflects, “As someone who had children, and as a dad, this resonated with me. I couldn’t imagine living in a city where some kids living in a certain area were robbed of a decade of their lives, and the city isn’t doing anything about it.” This was the moment when Bynum decided to run for Mayor: “This data of a shorter lifespan was just a symptom of other significant issues.”

After his election in 2016, Bynum had the opportunity to elevate data to make government more effective in serving Tulsans and drive a more equitable city. He was originally approached by the Rockefeller Foundation to be part of the Resilient Cities initiative from a climate change angle, but Mayor Bynum pushed for the grant to be in service of racial inequity.

Gaining buy-in from 4,000 city employees was one critical hurdle that Bynum faced in implementing the data-driven approaches to government. Employees had been conditioned by leadership of preceding mayor that data was used to determine whose jobs would be eliminated. Bynum recounts that he “had to communicate that data would help [everyone] do their jobs better, which would improve operations, keep our revenue aligned, and ultimately maintain jobs.”

Mayor Bynum also learned that “just because you have data doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with it.” For example, a critical issue for the City of Tulsa is the justice theme, and specifically police use of force. Tension arose when the original methodology of tracking—comparing use of force data to the population data—showed a disproportionate number of African Americans having experienced forced used against them (as compared to white and Hispanic Tulsans). Bynum quickly realized the critical need to leverage education with the nuance of data analysis. “We had to be clear in explaining that this data did not imply that there weren’t issues still to be solved. Yes, this data showed that African American Tulsans had more encounters with police, and experienced more force, but the nuance comes with the next set of research questions: why are they having more encounters with police? What’s the actual root cause?”

Bynum also believes the Tulsa Equality Indicators can facilitate local economic development. He explains, “The Indicators helped shine a light on the economic disparity that exists and shifted the strategy for the city. A lot of the issues these indicators are tracking can be solved with people having more wealth. We are prioritizing economic development, especially for North Tulsa.” For example, the indicator data revealed a disproportionate number of payday lenders in North Tulsa, spurring the City to launch Cities for Financial Empowerment, which provides free financial education and credit counseling to Tulsans.

As Tulsa looks forward and builds on its first three years of Equality Indicators, Bynum has two pieces of advice for policy makers, community leaders, and citizens. First, and “the most important thing”, is to realize and identify common ground to bring people together. As he notes, “Most people agree on basic things—we want safer cities, our kids to have greater opportunities, better futures than what was in the past. Understand that good people can and are going to disagree on certain things, but one of the keys to advancing a community is finding those areas of agreement to unity people.”

Second, encourage your communities and city governments to embrace data as a tool for positive social change. Mayor Bynum emphasizes, “Don’t be intimidated by the idea of using data to solve problems. Bring in folks who have data analysis skillsets with their jobs—in banking, health care, and so on—to volunteer with your community. Data can and should bring together people to make our communities better for everyone.”