As a new city official, Amber Hewitt may now be better able to enjoy downtown DC – one of her favorite things about life in the nation’s capital. Back when she was a doctoral student of psychology, she did not imagine her career would take her to Washington much less, afterwards, into a position charged with improving racial equity in the city.
An alumna of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program, Hewitt is the District of Columbia’s first-ever chief equity officer. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her appointment in early April. Working collaboratively with other District agencies to eliminate racial inequities, Hewitt will turn her attention first to devising a measurement and data strategy to enable the development of the city’s first racial equity dashboard.
“I envision this to be a collaborative process with citizen experts, external stakeholders, and District leadership,” said Hewitt. “I also look forward to partnering with the Office of Human Rights and the DC Department of Human Resources in designing a racial equity training series.”
Hewitt heads the Office of Racial Equity which sits within the Office of the City Administrator (OCA). The OCA is responsible for the day-to-day management of the District government, setting operational goals and implementing the legislative actions and policy decisions of the Mayor and DC Council.
“When we talk about racial equity,” Hewitt continued, “we mean both a process and an outcome. As an outcome, racial equity is the condition where one’s race will no longer predict opportunities, outcomes, or the distribution of resources for residents of the District, particularly Black residents. Racial equity is also about the presence of justice – for example, the creation of racially just policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages, repairing harm, and the elimination of structures that reinforce differential experiences and outcomes by race.”
Hewitt points to community engagement as a key component in applying a racial equity lens to the way government does business or carries out infrastructure projects. Cities can examine current practices around community engagement – such as at what point in the process of designing a policy or program are residents engaged, and how accessible those engagement opportunities are for all residents, she explained.
How well District agencies explicitly incorporate racial equity in their performance metrics is one of several measures of success for the new office. There will also be community indicators to gauge District residents’ attitudes toward the work of the office.
Hewitt brings a unique background and skillset to the Mayor’s office. With deep experience building strategic partnerships and working across systems, she is a psychologist who has been a college professor, a congressional staffer, and a nonprofit leader focused on health equity. She will also rely on her scientific perspective. “Applying a racial equity lens requires understanding the data (quantitative and qualitative) and what the data says about what is driving racial inequities,” she said.
Hewitt served two fellowships: she is a 2016-17 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow sponsored by the American Psychological Foundation, and a 2017-18 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Institutes of Health. In Sen. Cory Booker’s office, she supported work on a bipartisan sickle cell bill that is now law. She said that the skills that came into play there were: “the ability to listen to words said and words unsaid; the ability to synthesize diverse viewpoints and find common ground; and understanding which policy vehicles are moving.”
“Throughout my fellowship years, I gained a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges that impact getting things done in government and learned that you can’t have policy impact by yourself – you have to work with a team for the long haul,” she said.
Hewitt worked on promoting health equity in her last job, and her new position is an opportunity for her to expand her life’s work pursuing social justice. “We as people don’t live in silos. We live in communities. We hold multiple social identities. Everything we do has racial equity component, especially in government.”
Thinking back to childhood, she said, “I’m from Louisiana which has a unique history with racism and oppression, and I grew up with parents who had to deal with different challenges around racism and its impacts.” With four siblings, Hewitt’s family is large and close-knit, and she visits often with family in Shreveport, Louisiana. “My family is very excited about the job. Even my young nephews know it’s special and important, and I’m looking forward to a personal visit from my 10-year-old nephew soon!”
Recognizing that national momentum on issues of racial justice is high, she challenged District residents to maintain it by getting active: “I invite them to hold me accountable in this position. Start a relationship with the office. We just hired a community engagement specialist and we’ll be holding listening sessions and engagement forums.” Her office is also forming a racial equity advisory board to consist of nine community members who will hold public meetings and meet at least quarterly.
Finally, Hewitt had advice to give to scientists and engineers who are considering applying for an STPF fellowship: “Take a leap of faith. I felt pulled in the direction of policy and advocacy, but did not have many mentors in academia doing the work that I had become interested in. So, I had to learn to filter through the ‘noise’ and do what felt right for me. I also had to trust the process. And for me that meant building connections and seeking opportunities that challenged me and to not lean into fear.”