Local elected officials of color on race and politics in the age of Trump, part 2

Although it's hardly unique among the states, Michigan's government has a representation problem. According to the Reflective Democracy Campaign's 2015 "Who Leads Us?" survey, 64 percent of the state's elected officials were white men – despite the fact that white men make up only 38 percent of Michigan's population.

In light of that issue, and the greater national discussions of racism that have arisen around Donald Trump's candidacy and presidency,
Concentrate presents the second in a three-part series on our region's elected officials of color. This series is presented in conjunction with Model D and Metromode, our sister publications in Detroit and the metro Detroit area.

Each installment will focus on a different group of government officials – continuing with city council members in this installment.

Raquel Castañeda-López: Demystifying politics

Detroit city council member Raquel Castañeda-López says she "totally understands" many people of color's feeling of fundamental disconnect from government, because she once shared their perception.

"I grew up in a community [Southwest Detroit] where people were rarely reached out to and not many people voted," she says. "I myself didn't really understand our political process and the importance of voting until my mid-20s. I knew it was important, but there was not a conversation at home, nor really in the community, about that."

Castañeda-López first dabbled in politics through an internship with former state Rep. Steve Tobocman while she was pursuing her master's degree in social work at the University of Michigan. From there, the political world wouldn't let her go. She was recruited first by state Rep. Rashida Tlaib to serve as Tlaib's campaign manager and then by her own neighbors to run for Detroit city council.

Now, she says it's vital to actively encourage more young people of color to understand and engage with what seems like a "foreign system" to many of them. Castañeda-López serves on the board of advisors of the New American Leaders Project, which offers educational programs for first- and second-generation Americans interested in running for office. She suggests that voters are ready for more diverse candidates – as evidenced by what she describes as "overwhelmingly" positive reaction to her own campaign for city council.

However, Castañeda-López has navigated some challenging racial issues since being sworn in as the first Latina on Detroit's city council in 2013. In Detroit's District 6 she serves a population that's 39 percent black, 39 percent Latino, and 18 percent white. She frequently struggles with constituents' perceptions that she either overly favors Latino communities or doesn't cater to other communities enough. So she's endeavored to focus on programs that positively affect underserved Detroiters of all racial backgrounds. For example, Castañeda-López spearheaded an effort last year to implement a municipal ID card ordinance, which offers Detroiters who may not have a driver's license or state ID the opportunity to obtain a city ID card (and with it, access to city services and other perks).

"Whether you're black, white, Latino, man, woman, it doesn't matter: we all want to live in a clean, safe city," Castañeda-López says. "So coming from that as a starting point, how do we build bridges and mobilize?"

Lois Richardson: "The pressure is on"

Although Lois Richardson has served consecutive terms on Ypsilanti's city council since 2000, she's spent almost as long trying to build bridges between area communities of color through an organization called the Michigan Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. Richardson was one of the group's founding members 11 years ago and is its current president.

Despite its name, the organization welcomes elected officials of any race (and also offers memberships to non-elected officials who support the caucus). Richardson says the strength of the caucus, which last year counted over 100 members, is in numbers.

"If we can go walk into a senator's office or walk into the governor's office and say we're representing 300 members, that means a whole lot more than if we walk in and say we're representing 25 members," she says.

The caucus has undertaken a variety of initiatives since its inception, but Richardson says the organization's main focal points have always been education and networking. Most recently, the caucus has concentrated its efforts on an annual forum for its members. This year's forum will focus on issues of police-community relationships. Although Richardson notes that Ypsilanti hasn't seen any of the major problems that other communities have experienced with animosity between police and their communities, she says it's still important for her and all local officials to have a dialogue on the topic.

"We set the pace and we need to know all that we can know," she says. "We need to be there so that we can go back to our communities and help our people understand ... and work with our own police departments to make things better."

Since the inauguration of President Trump, Richardson also sees herself on the front lines of another new struggle. She has strong words for Trump's racially charged rhetoric – particularly his assertion that African-Americans are "living in hell," which she describes as "coded language ... straight out of the '30s, '40s, and '50s."

"I really think the pressure is on myself and every other black elected official and every black community leader in a way that we haven't experienced in a long time," she says. "If we're going to lead the people, we're the first ones to catch the brunt of it and we've got to be able to stand strong and put forth a united front."

Doris Taylor Burks: "I'm a fighter"

Pontiac city council member Doris Taylor Burks says she's experienced little racism herself as an African-American holding public office. But with the inauguration of President Trump, she's preparing to take a stand for other minority groups in her community.

Burks says she has experienced prejudice in her political career, which included a lengthy stint on the Pontiac Public Library board before she won her city council seat in 2013. But she says that prejudice has usually been directed towards her gender, rather than her race. Burks cites her first two unsuccessful runs for council, against black male candidates Lee Jones and Charlie Harrison III, and notes other cases in which well-qualified women have been defeated by men.

"It's going to take more hard work, because women especially have to prove that we are capable of being elected officials," she says.

Burks says her biggest point of pride since taking office has been the slow but steady development of downtown Pontiac. Although she doesn't take sole credit, she cites the arrival of Slows Bar-B-Q and the revival of the Flagstar Strand Theatre as major successes. (If council can find a buyer for the long-vacant Pontiac Silverdome, she says, "we will feel like we've won the war.")

But, like Richardson, Burks is battening down the hatches for some kind of fight against the newly minted Trump administration. Having seen the residents in her own neighborhood shift from primarily black when she moved in 31 years ago to primarily Latino today, she says she's particularly concerned about her Latino constituents. She says Trump's "unjust" rhetoric regarding Mexican immigrants is "scary because you never know what's going to come out of his mouth" – but she's also ready to resist in whatever way she can.

"I'm a fighter," she laughs. "I'm a retired UAW member, so I know how to fight."

Next week in the third and final installment of this series, we'll check in with a variety of local elected officials of color, ranging from county commissioners to a district court judge.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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