Activists groups integrate the help of the community to fight racial inequality

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 6:44pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

Over the past few months, anti-racism activists within One Community and the Poor People’s Campaign have been working to combat racial inequality in Washtenaw County.

County Commissioner Felicia Brabec, chair of the board's Ways and Means Committee, is working with with One Community to implement a plan of action working both internally and externally.

“What we’re doing is we’re looking first internally, make sure our house is in order first,” Brabec said. “So we’re looking at everything from ‘What’s the makeup of our boards and commissions? How do we hire folks and how do we promote folks? Where do we post jobs What’s the language that we’re using in jobs for each department?’ ”

One Community is made up of court and county administrators, racial analysts, public defenders and health department workers. Brabec said she and One Community work to educate people about racial inequities within local government.

“Each department is going to have to complete and do what are called racial equity action plans,” Brabec said. “And because each department is so different they’re going to need to figure out on a departmental level how they are going to contribute to addressing some of the racial inequities that we know exist within our county and what they can do to address those.”

Anna Lemler, Washtenaw County racial equity analyst, said she thinks the diversity of One Community has helped broaden perspectives. Lemler noted how One Community has also brought in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) to help consult them on their work. The two groups collaborated to create the trainings best suited for their employees.

“We have a couple of groups that work more internally and one of those is our work development team,” Lemler said. “(It) has 18 different staff not only from different departments but also from a different hierarchical level. While the action team has more top leadership, the workforce development team is much more diverse in terms of what kind of position level they hold. The diversity both in terms of level and of department representation is really key to the work. That is also a model that GARE has suggested it’s called their breadth and depth model and so we want to make sure that the breadth is speaking to ensure all departments … and the depth is speaking to that hierarchy level.”

Brabec said the best way to create action plans is by working with other departments within the Washtenaw County government. They make sure that every department is teamed up with an expert from the racial equity department.

“We developed with them the trainings we wanted to have around racial equity geared towards what we wanted to accomplish so part of what we knew we wanted accomplished after we got down with are GARE training was we wanted to have or put forth to the board of commissioners a racial equity policy or ordinance,” Brabec said.

Over the summer, the Washtenaw County Commission passed One Community’s race equity policy. The bill establishes trainings as a necessity in the workplace.

In addition to collaborating cross-sectionally within the departments, One Community aims to work with residents of Washtenaw County as well. Lemler said the organization tries to actively include community members.

“We really do need community participation for this to be effective,” Lemler said. “It’s not enough just for it to be internally moving forward by a smaller group. So we really need the community to be vocal and be open and also I think to really be observant and be comfortable asking us for certain information. Both is needed for the work.”

Both Brabec and Lemler visited communities in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and other cities in Washtenaw County to discuss their initiative with the public and to inform them on how they would determine the racial equity officer.

“Another way that we have been informally ensuring a diversity in perspective is that Commissioner Brabec and I held a few community sessions and staff sessions for both to inform the equity policy that was drafted and passed this summer,” Lemler said. “And then also the court competency which are for the hiring of the racial equity officer position that’s now running.”

Though they have received positive feedback, they are aware that people are very skeptical of their plans. Brabec said in September during one of their public forums, a man stood up and said the racial equity policy was unnecessary because he personally did not believe in institutional racism. Despite this, Brabec said residents have been awaiting One Community's progress. 

“We are moving in the right direction and people have been waiting for this,” Brabec said. 

While One Community is focusing on the residents of Washtenaw County, the NAACP is working on campus to create a safe space for minority students. LSA sophomore Jaylen Ausley, co-chair of Health and Awareness Committee of the University's chapter of the NAACP said the organization was working to educate students about the Black community. Their NAACP Week starts Monday and offers events across campus.

“The NAACP is trying to spread awareness of the Black community,” Ausley said. “We’re more focused on spreading awareness, trying to make people culturally aware because not everyone comes from big cities where they have experiences with people that don’t look like them.”

Another group combatting racism is The Poor People’s Campaigna national organization that aims to bring together people across the country to challenge systemic racism. The campaign's local chapter in Washtenaw held a Moral Fusion Summit at Brown Chapel AME in Ypsilanti on Jan. 26. The summit centered around topics such as housing, education system, criminal justice system, policing, environmental justice, immigration and health care. Reverend Joseph Summers, an activist with the Campaign and a pastor of Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, said the summit highlighted the campaign’s goals in Washtenaw.

“Part of the purpose of the summit was to begin the work to develop our goals for our county campaign and the goals come of out the variety of areas that we see inequality and discrimination being perpetuated,” Summers said.

Summers recalled how the summit brought together residents to work together to come up with the main areas of concern.

“Each working group works to come up with one major priority for us to work on immediately in three of the areas that were our greatest concern,” Summers said. “We’re just in the process of now beginning to review those and pull them together. The number one goal of the campaign is to try to look at the mechanisms through which racial and economic inequality and discrimination are perpetuated and figuring out how we can challenge those and bring about a more just redistribution of those resources.”

Summers said by focusing on discrimination at the county level, its effects are easier to see.

“By focusing on it at the county level, we can get a better sense of how it functions and works,” he said. “Washtenaw county is in the bottom eight percent in the country for income mobility.”

To Summers, systemic racism starts with what neighborhood a citizen lives in which can set into effect several other detrimental factors.

“Overall, what you see in this country is where you live tends to dictate where you go to school, and where you go to school tends to dictate whether you go to college or what kind of college you go to, and what kind of college you go to or whether you finish, tends to dictate what kind of job you get, which dictates what kind of neighborhood you get to live in,” he said.

Summers said he was satisfied with not only the Summit but the shift in morale of the community. He said he is happy with how much agreement there was at the Summit on how systemic racism has negatively impacted the community.

“I think what my experience in the community is a profound shift in last several years to rally seeing how much racial and economic segregation defines our lives in this country and in our county,” Summers said. “The people who came to the Summit, I was amazed at how much agreement there was and there were a lot of people there, but in terms of addressing the concerns of how do we really break open these systems that are trapping people in systemic poverty and making it difficult for people to improve their lives, so there’s some very good initiatives going on.”

Summers said he was also very grateful for the efforts put in by other organizations like One Community and the NAACP, and believes the best way to keep moving forward is through a collaborative effort from everyone.

“What we hope is that those who want to work on those issues will find ways to come together and work on this,” Summers said. “I would say one thing about the Poor People’s Campaign is that it holds up a vision of the beloved community as the community of those who come together across our differences to work and improve the lives of all and we’re continue to not make progress if we stay separated by our different primary focuses if we don’t come together and work and embrace each other’s concerns."