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Arlington Spotlights: Samia Byrd

Samia Byrd is Arlington County’s Chief Race & Equity Officer, leading Arlington’s work to advance racial equity both internal to the County and external within the community. Before assuming this role, she served as Deputy County Manager and in various roles in the planning division. Previously, Ms. Byrd worked for a private sector consulting company, the National Council of Non-Profit Associations and the Urban Land Institute. During her time at Quadel Consulting, she worked closely with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and traveled the country to work with local housing authorities. We spoke with Ms. Byrd to learn more about her experiences and her vision for Arlington County’s racial equity plans.

ACVS: Could you start by telling me about your career before joining Arlington County?

SB: Before I started with Arlington, I held several different positions.  As a City Planner by education I spent many years working in the areas of housing and community and economic development as a government contractor, in the nonprofit sector as well as in the private sector as a consultant. I went straight from undergraduate to graduate school.  Upon graduation in 1995, my career goal was to come to Washington, DC to work for HUD as I was very interested in affordable housing and community development programs. I landed an internship with the National Council of Negro Women where I focused on a grant program to provide information and support for employment and economic empowerment of minority women in Mississippi.  When that grant ended, I gained a permanent position with a government contractor, Aspen Systems Corporation who managed the Information Center for HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development (CPD). I had the opportunity to serve as a resource to grantees on several programs such as CDBG, HOME, HOPWA, EDI, Section 108 Loan Program and Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities. I also provided direct support on-site at HUD, CPD to the Government Contract Manager along with working on a special project for the Deputy Assistant Secretary to develop information for John Heinz Neighborhood Development grantees and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I went from there to work as an Associate at the Urban Land Institute where I performed research, analysis and writing and contributed to case studies on real estate markets and trends. I also served as a Program Director at the National Council of Nonprofits, a state association for nonprofits at the local level, developing a primer on the implication of tax policy on low income and vulnerable populations before I came to Quadel Consulting where I was a housing management consultant for eight years.  Quadel specialized in the administration and operation of public housing authorities (PHA) across the country on behalf of the Department of Public and Indian Housing (PIH) within HUD. Much of my early work there centered on working with PHAs with “troubled” designations from HUD, completing assessments and developing recovery plans to turn the agency from their “troubled” status to good standing in meeting their programmatic and financial obligations. Other times, it was necessary to complete organizational assessments and plans and take over the management and operations, staff some of the agencies at the local level.

ACVS: Could you tell me more about your work with Quadel Consulting?

SB: As I progressed at Quadel I began to work more around the physical care, maintenance and development of public housing assets and portfolios. At that time, late 90s - early 2000s, HUD had a program called HOPE VI, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. It was a grant program that awarded PHAs up to $20 million based on a proposal to revitalize public housing properties and redevelop them as mixed-use, mixed-income communities. It included social and economic programs as part of the revitalization efforts that would enable residents to return to these communities. I worked with the residents, the community, architects, and developers to determine the revitalization plan and program, and authored and submitted the grant applications on behalf of the PHAs. In addition, I assisted in completing several disposition grant applications for PHAs along with strategic plans, capital fund plans, and toward the latter part of my tenure, served in more on-site management engagements. For about a year, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I worked onsite at HUD Headquarters   administering the Section 8 disaster voucher program and I also spent a year in Baltimore as an on-site compliance manager for their housing choice voucher program in the area of client file reviews.

ACVS: If you could summarize a common thread among your work experiences what would that be?

SB: I’ve always been interested in the social and economic aspects of planning at the community level and how the places we create impact people and and opportunities to advance or have access to what they need to thrive as well as how people shape places.  The common thread is the use of information, availability of resources, understanding programs, operations and systems to be able to build bridges and bridge the gap where there are areas of marginalization and disadvantage present.  Also, there is a thread of empowering and building the capacity of people and the organizations that serve them to successfully contribute to and shape the places where they live, work and play.

ACVS: Could you explain your transition from working at the federal level to the local level with Arlington County Government?

SB: I wanted to be in a space where I was directly doing the work at the local level. In my previous jobs, we gave tools, resources and information to the local agencies to do the work and implement the programs or provided them with plans, training, technical assistance in areas of service. Throughout my career, I realized the value of directly working at the local level and having a direct impact on the people that you serve. Having worked with a lot of local housing authorities, I started to regain interest in city planning in physical form particularly working on creating revitalization plans. My mentor at the time, an Arlington resident, knew of my interest and encouraged me to pursue development opportunities and a career in planning at the local level. One such opportunity was for a Principle Planner in CPHD with Arlington County. The Principle Planner position was specifically for a site planner and I realized that the work I had done up to that point was very much relevant and related and was a way for me to bring together my interest in development, creating place and impacting people. I served in that role for 10 years as a Principle Planner on the Site Plan Team, then as Site Plan Coordinator facilitating the County’s development review process before being promoted to Deputy County Manager. 

ACVS: Tell me more about your experiences as Deputy County Manager

SB: As Deputy County Manager, my area of focus or portfolio was the County’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development (CPHD), and the County’ Board’s Meetings and Agendas.  Deputies serve as Senior level advisors to the County Manager and in working directly with Department Directors. In this role I provided guidance in furthering the County’s vision, goals and actions relevant to land use planning, development policy and programs.  Specifically, I provided oversight of the County’s Department of Community Planning and Housing Development which includes: Planning, Housing, Neighborhood Services with Historic Preservation, Zoning and Inspection Services.  Also, given the significance of land use and planning in the County and the role on the Board’s agenda, I served in this role as coordinator on behalf of the County Manager to the County Board in facilitating the agenda and reports for all items considered by the Board on a monthly basis in addition to work sessions and other meetings to consider policy.

ACVS: Tell me about your journey within Arlington County and how you decided to take on this role as Chief Race and Equity Officer.

SB: In 2018, we attended a day long workshop convened by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) for the Chief Administrative Officers and their senior staff. The Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE) led this workshop and it was on the importance of advancing racial equity in government. After attending that workshop, I had a conversation with the County Manager and I brought up the fact that I was the only person in the office in a leadership position that looked like me, meaning Black. We began having more conversations about the workshop and extending those conversations to ones of equity with the Executive Leadership Team (ELT). I worked with a smaller group of ELT members to discuss what our County government should be doing to advance race and equity. GARE and COG started working with a group of colleagues from around the region which included me and Gurjit Chima, Assistant County Manager and Director of Human Rights representing Arlington County to come up with a program for all jurisdictions to advance racial equity in local governments as a region-wide effort. This became what is known as the regional racial equity learning cohort program. Around the same time, a plan for health equity by the County and community by our Public Health Director and the Department of Human Services, Destination 2027 was underway, and they recommended to the Board among many recommendations put forward, to adopt an equity resolution.  In 2019, then Board Chair Christian Dorsey’s focus was equity.  We talked about an equity resolution as well as the need and timing of having a Chief Equity Officer position.  I worked with Board Chair Dorsey on the resolution and the same month it was adopted, September 2019, the Cohort program began. I served as the coordinator for the Team on behalf of the Manager and reporting to the Board throughout their time of learning which was September 2019 to July 2020. During that time, we continued to talk about having an equity focused position but we weren’t certain what the position should be or what that person would do and really wanted to learn more through the work and efforts of the Cohort program.

For the majority of my tenure as a Deputy County Manager I had been working on and focusing on racial equity and became the lead if you will in this area.  When we had a better understanding though our work with COG and GARE of having a dedicated position, in the summer of 2020 given my history not only as a Deputy County Manager but previous positions in the County and career prior to, interest and grounding in public service, leadership and passion for being a bridge builder and gap filler for women and people of color, my knowledge of the organization and relationship in collaborating with staff and the community across disciplines, it was a decision, that just made sense; though I definitely did deliberate on it long and hard.

ACVS: Could you explain more about the equity resolution?

SB: The County Board’s Equity Resolution provides a framework for how we move forward to advance equity and specifically racial equity in Arlington County as a government and with the Community and it is connected to the County’s participation in the COG Racial Equity Learning Cohort Program led by GARE. It iterates the Boards’ commitment to having a shared terminology, normalizing conversations around race and equity, education, training and awareness; collaborating to foster equity with community leaders and partners and APS; colleting and disaggregating data to identify disparities and gaps in service; and assessing and analyzing programs, plans, policies and procedures and public engagement to determine whether they exacerbate disparities; developing a policy framework for an equitable approach to decision making; and establishing equity targets and measures.  It directed the County Manager to not only regularly report back on the work of the Cohort team but present a racial equity tool to be used in policy, program and budget decisions and apply an equity lens to a line of business for the FY2021 Operating Budget and FY2021-2030 CIP asking these questions: Who benefits? Who is burdened?  Who is missing?  How do we know?  The resolution in this way provides a great deal of direction in informing the work we are now undertaking.

ACVS: In July 2020, after years of work locally and regionally, you became Arlington County’s Chief Racial Equity Officer. Tell me about that.

SB: Right after George Floyd’s murder, I led an employee town hall with members of our Cohort team where we talked about race and equity very directly. Soon after came more of a push for us to be more focused on a position – not solely because of everything that was happening, but to bring intentional focus to the work at a higher level and with the work of the Cohort concluding to not lose any ground. Based on their learning, we had a better understanding of what was wanted and needed to bring some accountability to the work and next steps moving forward as an organization and within the community; Someone to be specifically focused on racial equity. On July 8, 2020, a new position of Chief Race and Equity Officer for the County and my appointment to that position was announced. I didn’t realize what that really meant and its significance until immediately thereafter!

ACVS: Looking back on your career, do you have any reflections about where you are now?

SB: Looking back on the work that has spanned over my career, it all leads to this place [Chief Race and Equity Officer] – bringing together the social and physical community development, land use and housing, collaboration, resource and information sharing, strategic planning, organizational development and assessments;  understanding how organizations work and people work with in them and how programs and services are provided, it all seems to make sense. And especially my nearly 14 years of experience working with the County in planning and development and as a Deputy County Manager is very important to the role I now have, for example,] my understanding of how the County Board the Manager’s Office and our form of government work; knowing staff and having built relationships across departments; understanding how we make decisions and policies; and how the community engages with us. It is helpful to have that understanding of local government and who we are in Arlington; to know the community and the community know me. This is where I am supposed to be, what I am supposed to be doing, and all at this appointed time.

ACVS: What is your overall vision for racial equity within Arlington County?

SB: One of the first things the team had to do as part of the COG-GARE learning cohort was come up with a vision statement. We defined an acronym for RACE: Realizing Arlington’s Commitment to Equity. The [vision] statement was: “Arlington will be a place where all are valued, educated, healthy and safe regardless of race.” I thought this was a striking statement and it has become the vision statement and acronym now being used for the County’s work to advance racial equity. The mission ultimately is focusing on racial equity and closing the gap so that race is no longer a predictor of one’s outcomes or success in any area of life. Race should not be the defining factor in whether someone is successful. We are focused on advancing racial equity County-wide and reducing, preventing, and eliminating disparities in our policies, procedures, programs and engagement.

ACVS: Could you tell me about some of your main short-term goals and/or a major long-term goal that can be accomplished within the Arlington County organization?

SB: The first goal is to normalize. Which means, we need to get a place where we can normalize conversations on race because people don’t want to talk about it. Normalizing also means that everyone has the knowledge, understands race and can speak about disparities. Also, there should be no backlash or adverse impacts when someone speaks about race. We should be grounded in the same terms and definitions. When we say certain terms, people need to understand what we are talking about. It’s normal to not talk about it [race] it is hard, uncomfortable and pervasive, but that has not moved us anywhere.

The second goal is to organize, which includes finding the right organizational structure, what resources are needed, and accountability and building our capacity to make certain the work is supported and sustainable in these moments and beyond. Operationalizing is a longer-term goal which means that everyone has an equity mindset and knows how to apply it along with a racial equity lens to their work and decision making consistently and constantly as a matter of practice. Another goal is to assess, meaning how do we measure our progress to include establishing benchmarks as we evolve.

ACVS: What have you been working on directly?

SB: Currently, the main things are normalizing and organizing. We established community wide conversations on race and equity in the fall of 2020 with a partner organization, Challenging Racism that we call Dialogues on Race and Equity (DRE).  This included virtual conversations among community members on privilege, bias and race, training of partner organizations to host conversations with their networks, a community assessment to gauge perspectives and experiences on race in the County and the availability of a neighborhood Toolkit for neighbor to neighbor conversations on privilege, bias, race and equity.  With the community, these conversations are the foundation for work to come with partners to determine areas of action in advancing race and equity. Within the organization, building upon the Cohort program, I have established an interdepartmental Racial Equity Core Team to assist me to develop guiding principles in key areas for implementation at the department level – communications, community engagement, data and metrics, education and training, finance, contracts and procurement and workforce.  The purpose is to advance the Racial Equity Framework into a County-wide Racial Equity Action Plan where the work at the department level is aligned with the vision, mission and goals around RACE.  Other things forthcoming: a racial equity dashboard that provides a baseline of indicators and measures of success as a data point based on race; an education series for county staff to be introduced to terms and concepts around race and racial equity; a timeline to document the history of race in Arlington County in all lines of business, and facilitated dialogues on race and equity for staff similar to those that were led by Challenging Racism within the community. There is a lot happening!  This is all work to lay the foundation!

ACVS: What is the importance of the racial equity work Arlington County is doing, specifically to our business community and to Arlington as a destination?

SB: We have a vision for the County that says Arlington is a diverse and inclusive world-class community. If you look at Arlington and where the diversity is represented, you don’t see it as inclusive. We want to live up to who we say we are, not just for residents but for people who do business or frequent our community. The importance of having diversity and inclusiveness is that if everyone is participating, then everyone is better off. The goal is to target our efforts to those who are worse off, and Black people historically are worse off, with solutions that benefit everyone. We know how much power there is in bringing everyone together. It’s important for us to understand [that] if we improve outcomes for people of color, everyone will benefit.  I don’t mean inclusive by just adding diversity, but are you valuing the voices and listening to what they have to say? Providing opportunities for black and brown people, our immigrant communities to have full access and participation in all areas that contribute to place: wealth, health, housing, education, criminal justice system, for instance?  When we can do that, then the entire community is made whole, is better off and will thrive. Not only will we live up to our reputation beyond words but in action and we will become a destination where people will want to live, work and play and we will have the local resources (human capital) for businesses to also thrive.

ACVS: What would be your advice to County employees trying to navigate these times of social injustice and unrest?

SB: First and foremost, take care of yourself. Everything we have been enduring over the past year, and for some years beyond that, has been traumatizing and impactful in some way to each of us individually and collectively. Being aware and taking care of ourselves and each other is necessary. Also, be brave and be willing to be vulnerable – we must have conversations. The only way to get to a place of understanding is to have difficult conversations with one another. We need acknowledgment, awareness, and the opportunity to share. Be aware of who you are, how you identify, and what you believe. We need to allow each other that space to connect, learn and explore. Lastly, this is a journey, be thoughtful and intentional about how you navigate it mindful of yourself, others and the balance needed to bring about long-term systemic change and culture change. Approach these times, yourself and others with patience and grace.