Two fellas waiting on the CTA bus on Chicago's West Side on April 5 | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]

Mayor Lori Lightfoot named civil rights lawyer Candace Moore as Chicago’s first Chief Equity Officer in May 2019. In this newly created role, she oversees the city’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice, where she will advance new policies and practices through the lens of equity. She also works to form partnerships with community stakeholders and city departments to strengthen and promote equitable outcomes throughout city government.

A graduate of Loyola University Chicago’s law school, Moore came from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, where she was a legal advocate for education equity issues. She also served as a strategic advisor and partner to Chicago United for Equity, which works to advance racial equity across the city. 

Moore’s job has taken a sharp turn since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Black people make up 30% of Chicago’s population, but 45% of them have contracted COVID-19 and a disturbing 55% have died of the disease as of April 22, according to the latest data from the city’s health department. The virus is having a disproportionate impact on the city’s Black community because they are more likely to live in poverty and have pre-existing health conditions that exacerbate the effects of COVID-19.

“I mean, the challenge here, and I’ll be really frank, is what we are up against are structural issues,” Moore said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything today.” 

The focus for Moore is now on how structural inequity and the racialized outcomes are being affected during the coronavirus pandemic. Lightfoot has put her in charge of the new Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, created to address the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Chicago’s Black communities. She is working with Dr. Sybil Madison, the city’s deputy mayor for Education and Human Services, and West Side United, a nonprofit group that promotes community health and economic wellness on Chicago’s West Side.

The team is partnering with three community organizations — Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, Austin Coming Together and South Shore Works — to develop hyperlocal, data-informed strategies to slow the spread of the COVID-19 and improve health outcomes among communities that have been most heavily impacted.

As part of their efforts, the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team is hosting three digital town halls that will be streamed through each organization’s social media platforms: South Shore Works (@southshoreworks) on April 23 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (@gagdcchicago) on April 25 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.; and Austin Coming Together (@act.chicago) on April 25 from 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Also, in partnership with Sinai Health System, the team will be distributing 60,000 face masks, which were donated by 2019 mayoral candidate and businessman Dr. Willie Wilson. 

Moore spoke with The TRiiBE on April 7 to discuss her work since becoming Chicago’s Chief Equity Officer. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

You’re 10 months into your new role as the city’s Chief Equity Officer. How has your role changed, or has it changed at all, since the novel coronavirus has ramped up in Chicago?

Candace Moore: I think upon stepping into this role, a big part of my focus was how do you set up a foundation to really advance a sort of transformational change in a city that has multiple parts and that’s really focused on racial equity and driving that racially equitable result. To do something like that is expansive. It takes time. And it takes intentional steps in order to bring folks along and to really move through what is ultimately an organizational change process. 

I think COVID-19 basically creates an acute issue to really move that work a lot faster, without sort of taking away from the magnitude of it. In some ways, it is like a demonstration project of racial equity. Here is a live, real, right-in-front-of-us case example of the manifestations of structural inequity and the racialized outcomes that they present. What are we going to do about it? So the work is to support our team in a process of answering that question. And the goal is to bring people along very, very quickly.

At a press conference on April 6, Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady addressed some of those inequities and how they’re really coming to light now in the middle of a pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, what were some of the issues that you were looking into tackling and improving for Black people in Chicago?

CM: To be honest, one of the big distinctions for me is that a big part of what I was focusing on is what does it take to create structural change? The difference I would say in that is that it is not project bound. It is really about what is the process by which we handle any sort of issue and how do we change that to drive a more racially equitable result. So when you begin to apply that, it becomes, what does that look like in [the Department of] Streets and Sanitation? And yes, there may be a finite issue but what we really want to be addressing is how do we approach it when these kinds of issues come up, right? What do we do differently? Certainly there’s any number of particular issues that we might have been working on at a given time — whether it’s Invest South/West, whether it’s looking at economic development [or] whether it has been some of our work around the poverty agenda. 

Those are specific examples, but what was really key and what I was really trying to focus on at that moment was, there’s going to be a lot of questions and choice points all throughout this. What are we going to do differently? How are we going to make sure that we’re holding race at the center? What are we going to do to learn more, do more and drive at different results? What does it mean to be more inclusive with who gets to come to the table and make decisions? How are we going to be accountable to the data, but also to the feedback that people are giving us? To me, it is those questions that really drive at different outcomes and different results.

Now we’re in a pandemic. The data is showing the effects of health and racial disparities. How are you focusing on bringing equity to Black Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic?

CM: The mayor announced [on April 6] that we are starting up a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team and I am operating in leadership in that approach. Our goal is really to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on Black communities, the community that’s demonstrating to us, through the data, that it’s suffering some of the most adverse consequences of this disease. What we are doing is standing up a team, or sort of a network of strategies and support that are really meant to drive at the resources folks need, the information folks need, to try to mitigate the impact of what is happening. 

So the key is that even as we acknowledge the structural nature of the problem, there are things that we can do now, however small, to mitigate the impact even as we are working on and moving toward trying to address the various structural issues. That’s essentially what the poverty agenda is about in that South/West strategy, etc.

What are some of the things you are doing to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on Black Chicago?

Candace Moore, Chief Equity Officer, Office of the Mayor, City of Chicago

CM: A key part of our strategy is to stand up geographically based networks to really increase the flow of what I call bi-directional information that we are getting out to the community to make sure everyone is on the same page about what they could be doing [and] make sure they have access to information about where the resources are. Those are things that are going to be critical in controlling the spread and also making sure that people have what they need to keep themselves and their families safe.

In that approach, we are leveraging the existing leadership that exists in those communities, right. We are not creating new structures. We really want to tap into the existing networks because we know that they’re there. 

The bi-directional nature of it is that even as we are coming in to support and provide more information and resources, we need information back. We need folks to be telling us about where the gaps are, identifying who needs the services the most, and really sort of teaming up so that the information and resources get to the folks who need it most and we believe that this kind of approach is just what is desperately needed if we’re going to have a much more tight, rapid response to try to support folks as much as possible.

In the beginning of the pandemic, there were rumors floating around that Black people were immune to COVID-19. Did you anticipate that Black people would be adversely affected by the virus?

CM: A couple thoughts here. On a very personal note, as someone who is looking at issues of race, who has spent a lot of my time and my career sort of focusing on structural issues, really understanding how structural inequity exists in our city, there’s a part of me that when I look at the data — and I would say, you also have to realize that you really can’t draw conclusions until the data gets to a certain point. When confronted with that, there was a part of me, I felt like my brain fired off in two very real directions. One was this is a manifestation of an old problem. This looks like the same map that so many other maps look like when it comes to access opportunity and the stratification of those things across our city. 

But the other side of my brain, the side of my brain that is a Black person and feels these things personally, there was still shock. Was still hurt by it. Was still kind of slapped in the face with it. So there’s this dual dynamic there. This is the reason why we were doing the work that we were doing, approaching the way that we are [with] the poverty agenda [and] Invest South/West, because we knew that if you don’t shore up things in a much more structural level, the impact of any one particular incident is going to have a disparate effect on certain communities. The human part of you is still shocked by it and still feels it to your core. But what I think is important about that is that also taps into your sense of urgency, right. It begins to command the why you need to step up, the why you need to get smarter faster, because this is not a game. This is real.

As we’re going through this pandemic, what are some of the specific issues — whether that be health access or housing conditions — that you’re seeing play a role in the statistics we’re seeing for Black Chicagoans?

CM: One in particular is access to information is just critical. We have to think in a really robust way about how people access their information. I think as technology evolves, we rely more and more on technological advancements, and they’re important. They can spread information further and faster, but there are still some tried and true networks that still work.

People still talk to each other. People are still in network with one another. Sometimes you’ve gotta boil it back down to the basics. How do you get in relationships with folks to also share information? That is still one of the most powerful ways to get messages across and to get them to resonate.

What about when it comes to housing conditions and jobs, too? We’re being told to stay at home, but a lot of the time we live in congregate situations. And a lot of Black folks are still working in jobs that require them to leave the house. Essentially, Black Chicagoans don’t always have the luxury to self-isolate or quarantine in a home. Are any of these situations something that you want to address once the pandemic is over, as well?

CM: In some ways, that was the work of the poverty agenda. That was that really expansive thought about what are the living conditions. What are the resources that folks have access to? Because we know when that is inequitable, when that is different, when certain issues apply in this case a pandemic, it’s going to limit our options in how we can protect ourselves and protect our families. 

I think, in the reality of where we are at right now, the key is to develop adapted solutions. So the message of, “Stay Home. Save Lives,” is crafted because that is what needs to happen. Quarantine, isolation, that still needs to happen. Those are still some of our best tools to protect folks but what we need to get to is, in a situation in where there are limitations around that, what are the adapted solutions we’re going to create. What kinds of resources can be put around so that people have more access to that. 

We can talk about what you can do within a small home or apartment, but then also can we think about other ways in which we can get people access to spaces to quarantine and isolate. I think that is going to be the importance of a lot of this work and in starting to get more granular at the community level because in order to answer that question, we have to talk about where our resources and assets are, and what organization we have. We have to get in [a] relationship with one another.