New initiative aims to tackle inequality in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 7:00pm

Washtenaw Country Quick Facts

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Roseanne Chao

 

While Ann Arbor is consistently named the best place to live and known as the most educated city in the United States, the surrounding areas of Washtenaw County know a different reality.

Washtenaw County is the eighth most economically segregated metropolitan region in the country, according to a city press release. Moreover, 60 percent of African-American residents live in “low-opportunity areas with limited job growth” and there is a 10-year life expectancy gap between African-American and white residents –– 16 years between Latino and white residents.

Those statistics come from “One Community: Advancing Racial Equity in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County,” an initiative launched Monday. The numbers reveal segregation and a racial divide in health, job opportunities, income and education throughout the community.

In an effort to address these inequities, One Community integrates government officials from both the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to discuss education and public policy reformation. The initiative is a joint effort with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity –– a nationwide network of governments that strives to achieve equity for all. GARE led a session Monday on anti-racism training for about 80 elected officials and staff members from the city and county, and focused on educating officials and providing them with tools to begin to address inequity in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.

City Administrator Howard Lazarus said the city plans to continue educating officials and move the discussion from the philosophy of equity to the implementation of equitable practices in Ann Arbor and countywide.

“Going forward, the sessions will be similar inasmuch as there will be a lot of large group instruction,” Lazarus said. “But we will work more on providing tools to deal with inequity and they will move from philosophical to more practical discussions.”

Washtenaw County Commissioner Felicia Brabec said this inequity is not a new issue for the community and is something she has been working on personally since the county’s equity summit in 2015.

“What we are doing now is the culmination of years of work of a core group of us really working on bringing it to our region in a way that is accessible for folks and gets people excited and wanting to address inequities and move forward on these things,” Brabec said. “Sometimes that takes a while, but here we are.”

Many officials agreed inequity has been an issue in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County for quite some time. Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski, D-Ward 5, said there was a time when housing policy in Ann Arbor allowed deeds that restricted ownership of the property to Caucasians. While city policies today may seem race-neutral, Warpehoski said there are still policies that drive inequity, one of which was a city mobile "A2 Fix It" app for reporting issues to the City Council.

“These type of policies, while they do not appear inequitable, cause a racial and digital divide. Some people have less access,” Warpehoski said. “These things need to be equally accessible for all people.”

Amid discussion of health and educational inequities, Lazarus touched on current racial issues and public distrust of the Ann Arbor Police Department and the council’s consideration of developing a police review board without investigative power. In response to the community criticism of the process, Lazarus said the police department had already gone through inherent bias training.

“They (the initiative and the review board) are definitely related,” Lazarus said. “I think part of the goal of the review of the police department community engagement practice is to identify the areas where the police department can communicate more effectively, build trust with the community and ensure that the way that we police the community is in large part the way the community wants to be policed which revolves on breaking down barriers and better educational practices. Which is similar to what we are doing with the initiative.”

Warpehoski also argued the idea of a police review board is an ideal that aligns with the initiative’s goals.

“While the design of the police review board and whether it will have police members is not established and is still an open question, having structures both internally and externally helps solidify our commitment to the people,” Warpehoski. “I want all our boards considering equity.”

Lazarus, Brabec and Warpehoski all agreed on several major issues the initiative must address: Health, education and housing. Brabec said during the session Monday she was asked what success for the initiative would look like.

“I came up with these four things right off the top of my head,” Brabec said. “Diminishing or no health disparities, integrated neighborhoods, schools with access to the same resources and developed transportation.”

While the initiative is still in its early educational phases, officials say they hope to begin making real changes in city and county policy soon. The initiative, Warpehoski said, is really about the city finally following through on its core principles.

“We talk a lot about a lot of things in this community, but for me success means we actually roll things out that address the inequities that are very real,” Warpehoski said. “I would really like this to not be a once and done type of thing. I want this to be an ongoing, consistent part of how the city and the county does business. So that we are always challenging ourselves to do better when it comes to equity and we are consistently year in and year out finding ways to address these inequities."