5,000 Washtenaw County residents took a 21 Day Equity Challenge. Here's what they learned.

After participating in the 21 Day Equity Challenge spearheaded by the United Way of Washtenaw County, Tien Holmes is certain she'll find it impossible to ignore systemic injustice.


"The challenge opened my eyes to some of the privileges that other people have – that I would’ve never considered as privileges," Holmes says. "I'm new to Washtenaw County, so to realize that disparity exists here makes my work more rewarding."


Holmes is an AmeriCorps financial stability service member serving at the United Way of Washtenaw County. She is also one of over 5,000 people who committed to the equity challenge. From Jan. 6-26, registered participants received a daily email containing links to writing prompts, readings, videos, podcasts, and other educational materials relating to equity. Participants were encouraged to spend about 10-15 minutes exploring each day's materials, with the goal of building awareness and conversation around equity issues.


The initiative was modeled after a challenge designed by Food Solutions New England. United Way of Washtenaw County president Pam Smith heard about the challenge through another nonprofit agency, YWCA Greater Cleveland. She participated in that organization's 21 Day Challenge and saw how it had localized its efforts and mobilized its community.


"Then I dug a little deeper and found out about both challenges and decided to bring it here, because the segregation and the economic divide that continues to grow in our county needs to be addressed," Smith says. "And integral to that is being able to have healthy conversations."


Holmes found herself having a number of meaningful discussions throughout the 21 days.


"This challenge sparked dialogue," she says. "I sent the privilege test (included in the challenge's Jan. 8 installment) to several of my friends and we had an open conversation about what it meant for them to go to summer camp, versus me never attending one."


Holmes was born in Ann Arbor, but had to move to Florida when she was eight. She says it's been eye-opening to come back to Ann Arbor and understand that some of the problems that forced her to move away are still flourishing.


"To be honest, I’ve been black all my life, attended a historically black college, so a lot of things I already knew," she says. "But we all see things through different eyes and I like to have someone explain what they are seeing through their eyes."


Time will tell how participating in the challenge will impact Holmes' personal and professional life in the long run. However, she already reports a triumph. She was able to convince her grandmother to take the challenge.


"She’s from a different generation and she really started to see things from a different lens and understand that, yes, access to certain levels of education do depend on race, location, ZIP code, et cetera," Holmes says.


Impact and inspiration


The United Way of Washtenaw County has a vision that by 2030, county residents' ZIP codes will no longer determine their opportunity in life. Yodit Mesfin Johnson, CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work and board chair of the United Way of Washtenaw County, says 5,000 people participating in the challenge feels like an "important step forward" in that goal.


"We have work to do and the conversation was intended to invite people to be part of the change and lend their power to fuel a social movement," Mesfin Johnson says.


The idea of taking action resonated with challenge participant Michelle Peet. Peet is the assistant principal of the Early College Alliance at Eastern Michigan University, a member of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's Social Justice Leadership group, and most recently, a Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium (WEOC) Equity Challenge Support Partner.


When WEOC's director asked if WEOC should sign up to sponsor the equity challenge, Peet jumped at the opportunity. She volunteered to serve in whatever capacity was needed as a representative for WEOC.


In the midst of the challenge, she said, "what I find deeply meaningful is the way it helps me broaden my resources in order to deepen understanding or enact change or make an impact."


As the ninth-grade coordinator at the Early College Alliance, she was instrumental in bringing the challenge to her student community, particularly the ninth-grade Academy. Three times a week students were granted class time to engage with challenge material. They were also encouraged to continue self-driven learning on the other days, outside of school.


"It's been great to share it in my other circles as well. Whether I'm chatting with folks at a Pilates class or dining out with friends, it's been a topic of conversation," Peet says.


With the challenge complete, she says it was a powerful tool for overall community engagement.


"Most important for me is the expansion of resources and networking to continue to do this work, especially with young people and other educators," she says.


Teamwork makes the dream work


Toni Kayumi, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor YMCA, expresses similar sentiments about the potential and power of connecting the community. Kayumi says the YMCA was a sponsor for the challenge because equity is "a very important topic" for the organization.


"The challenge showed that when nonprofits come together in collaborations we can make a greater impact together than we could alone. And that is a big part of our organization's belief system and strategy," she says.


Many of Kayumi's staff have had opportunities for diversity and equity training. One of her hopes was that completing the challenge would add another dimension of knowledge, experience, and competency that would help her staff and board be as welcoming and inclusive as possible.


She has already identified a couple of ways she and her team can utilize some of what they learned.


"At each of our director meetings or director-coordinator meetings we start with an icebreaker to help staff get to know each other and bond," she says. "Some of the prompts that were in the challenge could become further icebreakers for us."


Also, when Ann Arbor YMCA staff members attend conferences or trainings, they are asked to share a small segment of a workshop or presentation with those who were unable to attend.


"Having new tools and information from the challenge available, and closer at hand, could really be helpful to us," Kayumi says.


Exploring the future


All challenge participants are invited to the Equity Challenge Summit, a concluding event on Feb. 26. Further event details are to be announced in an email to challenge participants. Attendees can share what they learned, give feedback, and discuss action plans for the future.


There will also be future opportunities for those who didn't take part in the 21 Day Equity Challenge this year. Based on the initiative's success, United Way of Washtenaw County staff are deciding if it will be an annual or bi-annual event.


"The challenge exceeded our expectations in the number of people it brought together, the conversations it has started, and the actions people are taking because of their participation," Smith says.


Mesfin Johnson was also moved by the public's response and the support from sponsors. She says the most important thing she learned is that many people are truly interested in transforming Washtenaw County.


"The most challenging part is now. I hope that people don't see the challenge as the end of our journey," she says. "I hope that they see it as a continuation, and that they use it as a springboard towards more work to dismantle racism and oppression here."


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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