Can Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County develop a long-term plan to address racial inequity?

In January, Washtenaw County and the city of Ann Arbor announced the joint "One Community" initiative aimed at advancing local racial equity. Now, county commissioner Felicia Brabec, one of the initiative's leaders, says the question is: "How do we have this not fail?"


The original press release on the initiative states there is a 10-year difference in life expectancy between black and white residents in the county, and a 16-year difference in life expectancy between Latinx and white residents. Another statistic positions Washtenaw County at 80 out of 83 counties in Michigan for income inequality. Brabec says the county is like a tale of two cities, citing titles Ann Arbor has received in the past such as "the best place for young professionals" and "most educated."


"But then in the same place you have kids who have 30- to 40-point differences in test scores," Brabec says.


By reviewing all areas of government through the lens of equity, county and city officials aim to address the years of structural disparities that have normalized and perpetuated notions of discrimination. But Brabec says 70 to 80 percent of initiatives with similar aims fail, and considering the present level of disparity in the city and county, One Community's success will require hard work and deep commitment.


"This is a long game," says Brabec.


Short-term effects


One Community's most immediate effect has been a series of trainings for government officials provided by the Local and Regional Government Alliance for Race and Equity (GARE). 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, including Grand Rapids.


GARE conducted an introductory training and overview of its program in Ann Arbor last June. Since January, a nine-session training program has been underway with a focus on awareness and history of racial inequity. The next phase will train government officials to train their own employees.

Gordon Goodwin, GARE Midwest regional project manager, says racial equity analysis benefits people of all races. Goodwin says government has historically played a significant role in the enforcement of laws that directly created racial inequities, such as whether a person could be a citizen, vote, or own property.


"While those laws have gone away primarily because people held government accountable for that change, people of color have not had the same access and opportunity to freedom and justice in our society," Goodwin says.


Ann Arbor city council member Chuck Warpehoski attended GARE's initial trainings. He says in one lesson he learned there were many black teachers before segregation was outlawed, but many of them were fired when schools were integrated, creating negative implications for education.


Another lesson discussed redlining – in particular, how black people looking to invest in property were denied access to certain neighborhoods and ultimately missed out on wealth-building opportunities. Warpehoski says the lessons also covered communication skills and how to talk about racial equity issues.


"These are highly charged issues," says Warpehoski. "A lot of people feel anxious and unprepared to talk about them, especially in a public setting."

Additionally, Warpehoski says the initiative is pertinent to eliminating implicit bias in local police work. County administrator Greg Dill says county sheriff Jerry Clayton and his senior leadership team are "very supportive and very committed" to the initiative, although they have not yet taken GARE training.


As a city council member, Warpehoski is enthusiastic about the partnership between city and county officials.

"By working shoulder to shoulder with county government, we are able to identify new opportunities and new ways to work together on these goals that we wouldn't have ... had we implemented this on our own," says Warpehoski.


Warpehoski says the city has had similar efforts in the past, but none during his time on council.


"(Past initiatives) were a one-off thing," says Warpehoski. "One training and that was it. The ongoing structural approach, not just naming the problem but defining action plans to address equity goals, is something I haven't seen the city tackle before. I have seen some nonprofits address it and some businesses, and I think it's time the city get on board as well."


Long-term goals

In the long term, Dill says One Community is an "opportunity to look at our community in a more wholesome way."


"It's an opportunity for us to infuse equity into some of the investments we make as a community," he says.


The county's annual general fund is upwards of $110 million, and the 2018-2021 budget is currently under discussion. Dill is confident it will include an investment plan for equity. He says issues of equity must be thought about in "deeper and broader ways."


"Unless we are willing to do that from a foundational level and understand differences, understand the challenges we face and think about them in a different way, we'll never be able to achieve those things," Dill says.


One of the initiative's main goals is to develop a sustainable strategy. Ann Arbor city administrator Howard Lazarus says One Community's goal is to provide everyone in the county the benefit of enjoying an exceptional quality of life. That includes safety for children, access to good schools and economic opportunities, fair and equitable delivery of services, and programming structured around those who need it most.

It's yet to be defined how those strategies will be implemented in the long term. Brabec is a strong advocate for an equity ordinance as a way for the initiative to go on for generations. Dill says he is a huge supporter of the county having an equity office that would help sustain One Community's evolution.


"We want (equity) to be a component of the DNA of our organization," says Dill.


County commissioner Jason Morgan says addressing equity in the county is "absolutely critical."


"Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are some of the most economically segregated cities in the state, if not the country," he says. "The fact that we haven't done enough to address that is extremely concerning and disheartening."


Morgan hopes to bring more community engagement initiatives to the county, as not everyone can attend weeknight meetings or easily access the internet. He says improving community engagement efforts is another way to sustain One Community and a way to better serve the community.


Morgan sees equity disparities as the county's biggest challenge, and says there must be vigilance involved so One Community doesn't lose steam.


"It is sustainable only as quickly as we advance the issues," he 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.
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