"Getting Real About Race" event challenges Washtenaw County to identify and address racial disparity

A diverse group of about 25 local leaders convened Oct. 17 for the free event, which aimed to spark conversation and set an agenda for eliminating racial disparity.

A diverse group of about 25 local leaders convened Oct. 17 at Lillie Park in Pittsfield Township for "Getting Real About Race," a free event that aimed to identify the many racial disparities affecting Washtenaw County residents and to set an agenda for eliminating them.


About 100 people attended the event hosted by Survivors Speak, a local organization that has hosted numerous anti-racist marches, rallies, and other events in recent months. The bulk of the event was devoted to five panel discussions examining disparities in areas ranging from housing to education, followed by a community dialogue to identify solutions for those problems. Yodit Mesfin Johnson and Valerie Kelley-Bonner emceed the event, and several community members read poems, performed songs, and offered personal testimonials in between the panels.
The day started with opening remarks from leaders including Rev. Joe Summers of the Episcopal Church of the Incantation, Washtenaw County Commissioner Ricky Jefferson, Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, Pittsfield Township Supervisor Mandy Grewal, and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.


In his opening remarks, Summers told the audience they were gathered to build a new movement to challenge Washtenaw County's "racial and economic caste system." He referenced low-income individuals' extreme overrepresentation in prison populations, and their extreme underrepresentation in the University of Michigan's (U-M) student body.

Rev. Joe Summers.

"This county is in so many ways reflective of our nation as a whole," Summers said. "If we can confront and overcome the system of racial and economic segregation here, and build a house of racial and economic equality here, then we can figure out how to build a new nation, the nation that has not yet ever been but could be. That's worth giving our lives to bring about."
Richardson echoed that sense of purpose.

Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson.

"We've been at war forever," she said. "But if we want to win this war, we've got to change. We have got to begin to be strong enough to stand up and call out what we see, to stand up in the face of evil and say, 'I'm not going to just let it slide by any more,' because when we let it slide by, we become complicit."


Exposing disparities in health


In his opening remarks, El-Sayed challenged the audience to consider what it means to have a public, noting that "Black folks have been excluded" from the "public" in public safety, public health, public education, and other basic services. He foreshadowed the theme of the afternoon's panel discussions, which kicked off with a panel focused on exposing racial disparities in health.


Moderator Leah Chapman opened the discussion with a focus on the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on Black residents. Panelist Lisa Jackson, a psychology professor at Schoolcraft College, listed numerous factors that influence that disparity: Black people are more likely to live in households that include extended family, have a higher likelihood of working frontline jobs with higher virus exposure risk, experience greater lack of access to care, and have an overall high level of stress, which can impact immune system function.

Dr. Lisa Jackson.

"I think to be an African-American in 2020 and be halfway conscious is to be stressed," Jackson said.


Mental health figured prominently in the discussion. Aura Rosser, a mentally ill Black woman shot by Ann Arbor police in 2014, was repeatedly cited as an example of how the local mental health system fails Black residents. Jackson and fellow panelist Judith Thurman both noted a significant stigma associated with mental health and the health system in general among the Black community, with Jackson pointing to the Tuskegee syphilis study as a prominent example of how the system has failed Black people and fostered distrust among them.


Jackson advocated for better funding for community mental health services, and for police to be better trained to understand and respond appropriately to mental health issues.


"You are more likely to get a diagnosis after you have entered the criminal justice system, not before," she said. "That's wholly inappropriate. ... We need to help people before they get into the criminal justice system."


Exposing disparities in employment


Nate Frazier, host of the podcast "Heart to Hearts," hosted the afternoon's second panel, focusing on disparity in employment. Panelists Shamar Herron, executive director of Michigan Works! Southeast; and Paul Hickman, founder and CEO of Urban Ashes, both emphasized the disproportionate incarceration of Black people as a major barrier to their employment.


Panelist Melvin Parson, executive director of We the People Opportunity Farm, noted that entrepreneurship can be an important path to employment for returning citizens. But he also said not everyone is cut out for that path, and that entrepreneurs still need care and support from their community to succeed.

Panelist Melvin Parson.

Herron noted that for many of those returning citizens, housing and other social supports are just as important and just as difficult to access.

"There needs to be a more holistic system for helping these individuals out," he said. "I can't tell you how many times a day I hear, 'I know such-and-such. Can you give them a job?' The last thing they need right now is a job. They need to get some stability in their lives and they need care circles that can help them. ... We need to wrap our arms around folks and make sure they know that there's a system here to support them, not just throw them in somebody's job."

Shamar Herron (in red cap) speaks, surrounded by Nate Frazier, Paul Hickman, and Melvin Parson.

Herron expressed intention to take a personal role in that work, having recently been promoted from deputy director to executive director at Michigan Works! Southeast. He said people need jobs that will allow them to be more than "just over broke," and that Michigan Works! Southeast will reposition itself under his leadership to help its clients obtain professional training and to ensure employers are paying a living wage.


"We're not going to be peddling jobs at people," he said. "We're going to be making sure individuals have the resources and the support they need to have a career."


Exposing disparities in criminal justice


Frazier also moderated a panel on disparities in criminal justice, which saw frequent references to Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw's (CREW) recently released report on the subject. Panelist Eli Savit, Washtenaw County's prosecutor-elect, said "you don't need a report to know we have tremendous inequity in Washtenaw County's criminal justice system." However, he referenced the report's finding that Black people are anywhere from three to 29 times more likely to be charged with a crime than white people in Washtenaw County, depending on the type of crime. Savit laid out his plan to eliminate that disparity and the adversarial nature of the prosecutor's office.

Eli Savit.

"It's going to take some time to do this, but I will promise you this: We will get a third-party evaluator in there who will be transparent about our data," Savit said. "We will identify the racially disparate treatment in the justice system and then we will eliminate it."


Hakim Crampton, a prisoner rights advocate from Jackson who served 15 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction, delivered an impassioned speech on the issue. Crampton noted that he got out of prison only because of the "radical" choice of a parole board chairman, who was then fired for releasing Crampton and two other prisoners. Crampton said officials need to be prepared to make similar decisions, even if it means putting their jobs on the line, and that voters need to "take the responsibility from the hands of the system" by electing people like Savit.

Hakim Crampton.

"We have to stop being afraid that if we somehow talk about being revolutionary when it comes to deconstructing these systems, that somehow we're talking radical," Crampton said. "So what? What's wrong with being radical in a very unjust, cruel world?"


Exposing disparities in housing


Alex Thomas, an Ypsilanti Township community advocate, hosted the fourth panel of the day, which focused on disparity in housing. The panelists were Desirae Simmons, co-director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice and member of the Ypsilanti Planning Commission's Housing Affordability and Access Committee; and Greg Pratt, member of Partners for Affordable Housing. The panelists pointed to segregation, lack of opportunities for people of color to advance financially, and intergenerational wealth-hoarding as some of the main factors driving disparity in housing access in Washtenaw County.


Pratt expressed dismay about a comment he'd seen on Facebook about the affordable housing millage proposal that Ann Arbor residents will be voting on in November. He paraphrased the comment: "We don't need affordable housing in Ann Arbor. Affordable housing can just go into Ypsilanti."

Greg Pratt.

"This is just something that I hear time and time again, and that's a cultural thing," Pratt said. "I don't know what we're going to have to do to change it."


Thomas asked the panelists what steps people of means could take to help address housing disparity in the county. Simmons suggested working towards creating nonprofit community land trusts, which she described as a way to "provide permanent affordability" and "stabilize housing for generations." Pratt echoed Simmons' thoughts, advocating for the "decommodification" of housing by promoting co-ops and undoing the "stark power differential" between renters and landlords by building and strengthening tenants' unions.


Simmons noted that economically privileged residents are often successful in holding up or entirely stalling new housing proposals, but they also have the power to take a different approach.

Desirae Simmons.

"We need folks with means to actually come out there and put yourself on the line, because they don't listen to people who don't have power," she said. "Just keep that in mind. They always push against that. We need folks who have the power that they are recognizing to put yourselves on the line too."


Pratt issued a call to the county's universities, particularly U-M, to help with the county's affordable housing crisis.


"I'm not saying that to call out the leaders of those institutions," he said. "I want to call them in. Please come and help us, if you're listening today."


Exposing disparities in education


The final panel of the day focused on disparities in education, moderated by Kelley-Bonner. The panel began by discussing what steps need to be taken to close educational achievement gaps and remove barriers for students of color. Panelist Krystle DuPree, who is currently running for a seat on the Ann Arbor Board of Education, criticized racial-neutral educational policies like school choice and No Child Left Behind, noting that children of color must contend with segregation in schooling and unequal access to high-quality curriculum and teachers.


Panelist Paula Sizemore, an administrator at Ypsilanti Community Schools, said the key indicators used to measure academic achievement also put children of color at a disadvantage.


"If we think that standardized testing is an indicator of our children's intelligence and of our children's knowledge base, then we've used the wrong system to test them in the first place," she said. "A test is not what you take when you go out for a career or when you engage in actual civic life. So the key indicators that we're using to say whether or not our students are living up to certain standards have already failed them, because these indicators were never invented or crafted for children of color in the first place."


The panel also addressed challenges relating to the disproportionately low number of teachers of color in county schools, and to educating teachers on racial issues. Panelist Matt Hamilton, an educator at Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy, said "we're absolutely harming kids" by not having more teachers of color in classrooms.


"[Students of color] notice when they're not in a room with someone who looks like them, and they're not going to have a good experience," he said.


Hamilton noted there are professional development opportunities available through the Washtenaw Intermediate School District for teachers to better support students of color, but a lack of follow-through once teachers complete those programs.


"We get this training and then we don't get support in our buildings," he said. "... It's absurd, because we have standardized testing and other things that we're held accountable to, but teachers can be outright racist and there's no accountability."


A path forward


After the panel discussions concluded, Ypsilanti City Councilperson Anthony Morgan led a community dialogue session, inviting participants to reflect on the day and create a vision for the community's next steps in addressing the issues that had been discussed. Several participants took the mic to offer thoughts, primarily focused on criminal justice reform. Speakers proposed a variety of solutions that included requiring police to purchase malpractice insurance, making police directly accountable to the neighborhoods they serve, implementing racial bias training for police, and dismantling the policing system entirely.


Sha'Teina Grady El, who was punched in the head by a Washtenaw County sheriff's deputy this summer and became a local focal point of anti-police-brutality protests, spoke during the dialogue session. She said she felt education was the key solution to all the disparities that had been discussed, nothing that "the history of the melanated people has not been put in the forefront for many years."


"If you don't know where you came from, you won't know where you're going," Grady El said. "... You can give somebody all the money you want. If they aren't educated enough to know where they're going or what to do with it, it doesn't matter. ... Anything that you give someone, if they aren't educated to know how to use that to prosper, it's for naught."


Trische' Duckworth, Survivors Speak founder and lead organizer of the event, closed out the session by thanking the audience and exhorting them to stay engaged.

Event organizer Trische' Duckworth.

"When we first started protesting, we had mass amounts of people, and then the numbers began to dwindle down," Duckworth said. "So I leave you with this: challenge your family, your friends, and everyone around you. We must stay the course. This is not a one-and-done conversation. This is 400 years-plus of oppression, but it's going to be up to each and every one of us."


Patrick Dunn is Concentrate's managing editor.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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