Since Sumayya J. moved to Ypsilanti after spending a year in northeast Ann Arbor, she says she's noticed the visible difference in the quality of buildings, homes, and shopping plazas – a difference familiar to many Washtenaw County residents. But she says many county residents, especially those born into privilege, may be ignorant of the racism inherent in the difference between the two communities.
"Institutionalized racism is very real but unfortunately most people are not educated to recognize or be aware of it," says Sumayya, who requested her last name not be used in this story. "It’s deeply ingrained in the way things work in our society as well as the subconscious stereotypes we carry."
One year after Washtenaw County and the city of Ann Arbor announced the One Community initiative to advance local racial equity, Sumayya is one of many county residents hoping to see concrete improvements as a result of new equity efforts at the county level. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed an equity policy in September, stating that the county will ensure racial equity is addressed in areas including hiring and retention processes, budgeting, training, and community engagement.
The policy defines equity as "fair and just opportunities and outcomes for all people." It also defines racial equity as "the development of policies, practices, and strategic investments to reverse racial disparity trends, eliminate institutional racism, impact structural racism, and ensure that outcome and opportunities for all people are no longer predictable by race."
The policy also mandates equity training for all county staff and officials, the creation and implementation of an equity action plan for each department, and accountability measures for policy implementation.
The county is establishing a Racial Equity Office, and is currently reviewing 63 applicants for the new position of racial equity officer. Once chosen, the officer will select two staffers and begin working to create racial equity action plans for the county and each of its departments.
County commissioner Jason Morgan says there was impassioned debate among the board last year regarding what type of funding should be allotted to the Racial Equity Office. The board approved $250,000 per year for the next four years beginning January 2019, which Morgan describes as "structural, permanent funding" for the long term.
"To me it was important to say to the organization and the community that this work isn’t going anywhere," Morgan says. "The people we hire aren’t temporary because racial inequity is not temporary."
Education on equity
Passage of the equity policy isn't the only recent outcome of equity advocacy at the county level. County commissioner Felicia Brabec serves on the nine-member One Community Action Team, which meets every other week to keep equity work moving at the county.
"Part of the reason it took so long to bring this (equity policy) in the first place was that people weren’t ready for it," Brabec says. "It took years of laying groundwork to get us to that unanimous vote on the policy."
Last year, as a result of the One Community initiative, the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) began training county officials on structural racial inequality. GARE, a joint project of Race Forward and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, has worked on equity initiatives in nearly 100 governments nationwide. Brabec says those trainings have helped give county officials a common knowledge and language regarding racial equity.
Before GARE training began, Brabec recalls one county department director expressing that there were no equity issues to address in the county. But after the training, that director told Brabec racial inequity had become apparent to them and their team. Brabec says many county residents hold similar views to what that department director expressed. One resident who attended the board meeting where the equity policy was passed did not believe racism existed.
"That is part of the work," Brabec says.
Brabec is enthusiastic about the year ahead, and says one of the county’s goals is for all 1,300 county workers to be trained on racial inequity. Erika Bernabei, owner of New York City-based Equity and Results, LLC, is a trainer for GARE who facilitated two local training sessions. She says additional, long-term training will likely be necessary to facilitate the "slow and intimate" process of culture change on a personal and institutional level.
“You can understand (institutional racism) intellectually, even if emotionally you’re struggling,” Bernabei says. “But understanding how you personally contribute, even for white folks who are not even aware that they are doing something that is harming, doing that kind of transformative work has to happen.”
Although One Community began as a partnership between Ann Arbor and the county, Brabec says Ann Arbor has decided to take a different direction with its equity work. County administrator Greg Dill says the county and Ann Arbor are not aligned with their framework or timeline at this time, but both are supportive of moving equity work forward.
“It is our hope that by doing that, we will be a leader in this area and bring some of the other municipalities along," he says.
A long-term solution?
County officials, employees, and residents have varying outlooks on how equity in the county may improve as a result of the equity policy and other recent efforts. County commissioner Ricky Jefferson says addressing equity in the long term will be a "difficult task." Jefferson notes that a long history of redlining and other inequitable policies have created a scenario in which "your ZIP code determines your potential for wealth building."
"To speak about any worthwhile changes at this point is premature," he says. "All of the inequitable policies are still intact at the county and in Ann Arbor."
Jefferson says until the Racial Equity Office is fully established, county hiring processes and distribution of services will continue to be governed by existing systemic inequitable practices.
County public health officer Ellen Rabinowitz is thrilled about the equity policy’s passage, due to what she considers clear statements of intent for equity in all areas of the county. She notes that while mortality rates in general are going down, African-American babies are still two times more likely than white babies to die within their first year of life.
"In public health we are always looking at health disparities," says Rabinowitz. "When you look at life expectancy rates there’s huge disparities."
Mark Maynard is a racial equity advocate and a longtime Ypsi resident who works in Ann Arbor. He says he'd like to see more affordable housing, social mobility, equity in education, and more steps to increase dialogue on disparities in the county.
He's not yet hopeful about change taking place in the county, however. He has lived in the area since the early '90s, and he wants to see accountability and action instead of what to him has been more of the same. He notes that an oft-cited 2015 report by the county Office of Community and Economic Development identified a key solution that has yet to be appreciably acted upon: increasing the number of affordable housing units in Ann Arbor.
"Deal with the real problem," Maynard says. "We already know what the solution is."
Superior Township resident Yodit Mesfin Johnson is the chief operating officer and VP of strategy for NEW, a consulting firm focusing on diversity, inclusion, and equity. An advocate for racial equity, Mesfin Johnson says "equity is about acknowledging inequity," and that the county is now uniquely positioned to begin to center the communities it serves in the change they hope to see.
"The equity policy offers our community an opportunity to acknowledge the deep and historical institutional practices which marginalized community members and to work with them to transform the future," she says.
Afaf Humayun is a reporter, poet, artist, and activist who works to preserve and expand the future of the humanities while staying engaged on issues of inclusion. You can find some of her writings at The Keel Port Huron and The Arab American News. She lives in Ypsilanti.
All photos by Doug Coombe.