Using Data for Good: How Los Angeles Is Achieving the SDGs Through Gender Equity

By MJ Altman on August 25, 2021

People across America are using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a roadmap to recover better by turning these global ambitions into local action.

In Los Angeles, that means analyzing data to create smarter policies for those in need — including women whose work, households, and health have been affected by COVID-19.

 

How do you achieve gender equity in Los Angeles? It’s a question that Tanya Pineda grapples with every day in her quest to better serve the 4 million people who live in the country’s second-largest city.

As a municipal employee and member of the Mayor’s Innovation Team, she’s helping lead L.A.’s sustainability and social justice efforts by collaborating across departments and industries to reimagine how the city functions — and help reach residents furthest behind first.

To get the job done, Tanya is joined by colleagues with a diverse set of backgrounds from data science to urban planning to journalism.

In fact, the city’s more than 50,000 employees have all been tasked with making gender equity a central part of their mission. “It’s not just people who are dedicated specifically to this line of work,” Tanya says. Her team has met with the heads of all 38 city departments that report to the Mayor, from the Department of Transportation to the L.A. Zoo. “This has become a passion project for them too.”

The Innovation Team’s work extends beyond the city government, fostering partnerships across L.A. with academic researchers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders.

The City of Los Angeles is working with academic institutions like the University of Southern California on student-led research and community projects toward achieving the SDGs. Photo credit: Bohao Zhao

 

At the heart of these efforts is the power of data and the common language of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals adopted by all UN Member States and embraced by governments, companies, and communities worldwide as a blueprint toward a better future for everyone, everywhere.

L.A.’s commitment to the SDGs has permeated political circles and urban planning, informing everything from how the city funds sports and recreation to the ways in which local schools and businesses measure, monitor, and benefit from open-source data.

“We’ve helped to pioneer the tracking and connecting of SDGs and to use them as a prism for everything we do — to have a city librarian, or a port director, or somebody who runs the largest municipal utility in the country, or heads up our fire department, to know that she or he has this prism through which everything we are doing must be refracted.” Mayor Eric Garcetti said last year during an event hosted by the Brookings Institution and the UN Foundation.

This prism also reflects the enormous potential that exists when diverse perspectives come together. And the SDG principle to Leave No One Behind means that everyone must be involved.

This shared commitment — to collaboration, sustainability, and equity — are what the Global Goals embody. “We like to say that just as the SDGs are interconnected, so our solutions need to be,” says Angela Kim, SDG Program and Data Manager for the L.A. Mayor’s Office.

The city’s work also reveals how this set of 17 universal aims — such as eradicating poverty and solving hunger — become more tangible at the local level. “They are no longer about lofty goals,” Angela says. “We are piloting and offering hyperlocal solutions, from reimagining public safety to investing in green spaces to supporting housing and food security.”

L.A.’s local leadership on the SDGs is shaping the national and global conversation, and showing how cities can build back better from COVID-19.

LIVING IN THE CITY OF ANGELS

Los Angeles boasts one of the most diverse demographics in the nation. It contains the largest immigrant populations outside their home countries for South Korea, Iran, Thailand, Mexico, and El Salvador. Nearly half of its population is Latino, 11 percent is Asian, and 10 percent is African American.

Los Angeles is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, but that all came to a halt when the COVID-19 lockdown hit.

It’s also one of the world’s top destinations — home to Hollywood, the gateway to Disneyland, spectacular beaches, high-end shopping, and more. In 2019, before COVID-19 drew the world to a standstill, L.A. county attracted a record-breaking 50 million tourists. One study estimated that L.A. county lost some $19 billion in travel-related spending in 2020.

In a matter of weeks following the shutdown, unemployment in L.A. more than tripled from 5% in March 2020 to just over 17% the following month. The pandemic wreaked particular havoc on the entertainment, retail, and hospitality industries; as a result, a huge segment of the city’s workforce suffered — especially jobs disproportionately held by women.

As schools shut down and hospitals filled up, city residents — especially mothers of young children — struggled to balance their regular, paying jobs with new, unpaid roles as home-schooling parents and caregivers. Meanwhile, those women in L.A. who remain in the workforce face ongoing pay disparities, earning, on average, just 81 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts.

This so-called she-cession mirrors what is occurring across the country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in the U.S. left the workforce at nearly four times the rate of men last September.

COVID-19’s outsized repercussions for women haven’t been confined to economics.

“There’s the pandemic you know about,” says Michelle Milford Morse, the UN Foundation’s Vice President of Girls and Women Strategy. “Then, there’s the shadow pandemic,” referring to the global rise in violence against women that coincided with the virus’ spread.

Calls to L.A. County’s domestic violence hotlines tripled at the beginning of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, because 75% of the country’s front-line health workers are female, women have been disproportionately bearing witness to COVID-19’s death toll.

Most health care workers in the U.S. are female—and women have faced unique challenges due to COVID-19.

These aren’t just numbers. Each of these statistics represents a human reality, offering important insight into the scope of the challenges wrought by COVID-19 — particularly on women.

“The answer to improving the health of our societies and the health of our global population is the same: Put women and girls at the center of efforts to recover from COVID-19.”

GOOD DATA, BETTER POLICY

As the adage goes: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. This is especially true when it comes to creating effective policies.

Compared with most U.S. cities, Los Angeles is ahead of the curve when it comes to collecting, analyzing, and publicly sharing what is known as disaggregated data — individual statistics broken down not only by sex, but also race, age, ethnicity, income level, and in some cases, even by specific neighborhood.

Disaggregated data offers a far more granular look at complicated challenges like poverty and hunger. Globally, however, a lack of gender data remains one of the biggest obstacles toward gender equity, according to Data2X, a global alliance to improve the availability, quality, and use of gender data for better decision-making.

“We’re always asking, How can we better measure and address the gaps that we identify through the SDGs,” Angela says. “For example, if we’re measuring unemployment, we need to also capture women who have been pushed out of the labor force altogether to get a fuller picture.”

Staff in the Mayor’s Office are also quick to note that achieving gender equity means evolving beyond the traditional binary concept of men and women to include the LGBTI+ community, including transgendered people.

To boost transparency and government accountability, the city has created public, online dashboards tracking access to fresh fruits and vegetables, renewable energy use, health insurance coverage, and other SDG indicators.

“It’s really instrumental that we provide safe spaces for these demographics so we can ultimately improve city services for all underrepresented genders,” Tanya says.

It also means understanding the complexity and intersectionality involved in tackling such complex challenges as hunger and poverty — a key pillar of the SDG framework.

“You can’t just look at the overall numbers in a city like L.A., which is so diverse and where our socioeconomic and racial borders tend to coincide,” says Nina Hachigian, L.A.’s Deputy Mayor of International Affairs. “We need to be very intersectional about the way we think about gender equity, because our indicators could be good in some areas, but then when we start to break it down by race, for example, we find out that there are underlying inequalities that skew the numbers, sometimes to a large degree.”

One example is how officials have utilized disaggregated data on homelessness, breaking down statistics by sexual orientation and gender nonconforming or transgender status. Another is the city’s maternal mortality rates, which show disturbingly high disparities when disaggregated by race.

To boost transparency and government accountability, the city has created public, online dashboards tracking access to fresh fruits and vegetables, renewable energy use, health insurance coverage, and other SDG indicators. Its SDGs Activities Index, for instance, offers a living encyclopedia of people and organizations in L.A. taking action to advance the Global Goals.

“If you don’t measure the progress, then you can’t know whether you’re actually doing the work,” Nina said during an event hosted by the Brookings Institution. “And if you don’t set ambitious targets, you don’t know whether you’re really doing as much as you could be doing.”

In 2019, Los Angeles became just the second U.S. city after New York to publicly report its SDG progress at the UN by releasing its Voluntary Local Review.

Six months later, COVID-19 hit.

Suddenly, the need to address universal challenges like hunger, inequality, homelessness, and poverty became even more urgent.

LEAVE NO ANGELENO BEHIND

COVID-19 underscored just how crucial local governments are when it comes to delivering emergency and essential services. The once-in-a-century pandemic sparked a wave of social ills that rippled across L.A.

In response, the city and the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles launched the Angeleno Card, which provides direct financial assistance to families hit hardest by the pandemic. Most of the program’s participants were women, according to Tanya.

The pandemic also highlighted data’s powerful role in real-time policymaking. When women’s shelters in L.A. reached capacity, officials responded by launching Project Safe Haven, which provided safe housing, meals, and support services for more than 1,500 survivors of domestic violence and their children while increasing shelter capacity by 150%.

At the same time, the city collaborated with state and county officials to launch Project Room Key, which secured vacant motel and hotel rooms for individuals experiencing homelessness. The initiative not only protects high-risk individuals from contracting COVID-19, it also helps curb the virus’ spread and protects the capacity of local hospitals.

While the pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges that vulnerable populations face in Los Angeles, it also illustrates how the SDGs — through their focus on equity and sustainability — can lead to a more resilient and inclusive future.

​​“Across the board, women have lost more work than men have,” says Nina. “So we have programs that are specifically looking at how to boost women-owned businesses and help small enterprises get back on their feet.”

“There’s a consensus that we want to be able to respond to the immediate needs and protect as many livelihoods and lives as we can, but do it with a green and just perspective,” says Erin Bromaghim, Director of Olympic and Paralympic Development and Hilton Foundation Fellow on the SDGs for the L.A. Mayor’s Office. “That’s very much tied to the SDGs. As we track the specific programs dealing with emergency response, we keep the idea of leaving no one behind at the center of the agenda.”

This was true even before the pandemic, with Angelenos in charge championing gender equity as a foundation for progress.

In 2003, Los Angeles became one of the first U.S. cities to adopt the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a human rights treaty protecting girls and women in civil, political, economic, social, and cultural matters.

Attendees at LA’s 3rd State of Women and Girls Address and Expo in 2019. Photo credit: Eric Garcetti /Flickr

Los Angeles served as a model for the rest of the country by creating the Gender Equity Coalition, which mandates a Gender Equity Liaison from every city department, and directing department heads to prepare action plans, complete with quarterly updates to measure and address disparities in the workforce.

When it comes to the city’s services, the results of this gender lens have been far-reaching: installing additional security cameras and lighting on street corners with high rates of documented human trafficking; investing in girls’ recreational programs to boost participation in local sports; bringing more women and underrepresented, underserved communities into Hollywood through its Evolve Entertainment Fund; and achieving gender parity across its 41 boards and commissions for the first time in the city’s history. Since taking office in 2013, Mr. Garcetti has also gradually raised the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, which provided raises for nearly 50% of the city’s female workers.

The Mayor’s Office has also created its own gender toolkit, which first defines “gender equity” (allocating resources by need instead of equally) before offering worksheets and methodologies that other cities and organizations can adopt, such as partnering with local universities to collect data.

In fact, this approach is how L.A. officials created the inaugural Report on the Status of Women and Girls in Los Angeles, which examined citywide data on gender inequality. Together with researchers from Mount Saint Mary’s University and the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women, L.A. released this first-of-its-kind report in 2015 — the same year world leaders adopted the SDGs at the United Nations headquarters 3,000 miles away in New York.

UNITING FOR PROGRESS

When it comes to achieving equity and sustainability, the city prides itself on its partnerships — the last, but not least of the 17 Global Goals.

Supporters include major entertainment companies based in L.A. such as Disney, which has partnered with the UN Foundation’s Girl Up initiative to advance gender equality worldwide, and Sony, which launched a global competition for emerging filmmakers in 2018 to illustrate and inspire local action on the SDGs.

Perhaps its most creative and insightful partners are L.A.’s youth.

So far, the city has worked with more than 160 undergraduate and graduate students as interns, members of task forces, and consultants on projects that advance the SDGs at the local level.

Los Angeles has worked with hundreds of students and youth activists to make progress toward the SDGs. Photo credit: Office of the Mayor of Los Angeles

“What’s often surprising is the extra direction that they’ll take a project,” Angela says about how working with students has revealed aspects of the SDG indicators that she had never thought about. Instead of asking, “How can L.A. achieve SDG5?” they asked, “How can we increase women’s access to child care?”

“Take public health. If we were measuring gender equity in public health we would think of things like maternal mortality and access to health care,” Angela says. “The students proposed girls’ participation in youth sports programs and the participation of women and other minority genders in decision-making roles of youth sports programs as another way to measure gender equity. Their rationale is that public health isn’t just a visit to a doctor, but the daily habits and building healthy lifestyles.”

These projects not only help advance SDGs, but they also help nurture the next generation of SDG advocates by boosting student buy-in and ownership of the Global Goals.

“It’s been so wonderful to hear the perspectives that different students have brought to the table because everyone who’s been involved has come from very different backgrounds,” says Gaea Morales, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California who served as the SDGs Summer 2020 Project Coordinator in the Mayor’s Office. “For example, I’m an international student from the Philippines, and my focus has always been rooted in environmental policy. These experiences that students like us bring means we can think more critically about our problems, how to make the SDGs real and specific to L.A., while also offering a model for other cities.”

The results of this data-driven, equity-focused collaboration are rippling far beyond the city limits.

Last fall Los Angeles joined five other cities — Barcelona, Freetown, London, Mexico City, and Tokyo — to launch City Hub and Network for Gender Equity (CHANGE), an international community to fight global gender inequality that has only worsened during the pandemic.

“In Los Angeles, gender equity is a prism for everything we do,” Mr. Garcetti said announcing the network’s launch. “CHANGE is bringing that same perspective to cities across the globe –– uniting a collection of trailblazing mayors around steps and tools to dismantle inequality and forge a more inclusive and sustainable future for all.”

“Exchanging knowledge between cities is so instrumental to this work,” Tanya says. “It’s a growing and evolving conversation where we can share what’s worked for us.”

For Angela, the Global Goals are a way to unite these efforts.

“The SDGs offer a starting point, but it’s really not the end,” she says. “It’s about asking the right questions, identifying the gaps, measuring what matters, and figuring out a better way to do things.”

“Having these conversations and digging into the data means we can build partnerships and take action. That’s what it looks like to bring the SDGs home.”

 

This story is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American leadership on the SDGs.

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Featured Image: Eric Garcetti/Flickr
Parallax Images in order of appearance: Fabio Sasso/Unsplash, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden/ U.S. Navy, Cedric Letsch/ Unsplash