We Hear You task force prepares to take action from diversity survey

“If we’re still in the same place five years from now as to where we are today, then we haven’t done our job,” says Diane Brown Wilhelm.

Wilhelm, City Council member for Midland’s Ward 4, has been heavily involved in the We Hear You (WHY) task force since its inception shortly after George Floyd’s murder. The task force is a collaboration between the City of Midland, Midland County, City of Midland’s police, Midland Area Community Foundation, and community leaders.

When the WHY Community Survey data – led by researchers at Saginaw Valley State University – were shared publicly on Nov. 18, 2021, Wilhelm told everyone to “keep an open mind.”

Diane Brown Wilhelm is a city council member Midland's Ward 4. Wilhelm is heavily involved in the We Hear You task force.“The reason I tell everyone to keep an open mind is because everybody’s experiences in life are different,” says Wilhelm. “If you haven’t experienced something or seen it for yourself or encountered it in any form or fashion, it may not be real to you, but it is real to the person who has lived through it.”

The WHY Community Survey was launched online Feb. 6, 2021 and closed on March 21, 2021, with 2,182 total respondents. It contained 89 questions and collected quantitative and qualitative data on Midland County demographics, housing, socioeconomics, healthcare and wellbeing, perceptions and interactions with the police and criminal justice system, local government representation, and personal experiences and perceptions of equity, justice and inclusion in the community.

“You can’t always put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that’s why I say there’s a difference between hearing and listening,” says Wilhelm. “I’m sure there will be a lot of people who will look at the data and say, ‘well, this isn’t in our community.’ But the data is telling us, it is in our community. And we can’t ignore it.”

On Nov. 18, 2021, the We Hear You Community Survey results were shared publicly.Now, it’s time to look at what the data are telling us. How can the issues be addressed? What work is already in progress, and what more can be done?

“Where we are right now is defining the goals for the community discussions because we’ve collected a lot of data,” says Wilhelm. “I’m sure we’ll collect more along the way, but it’s time for us right now to take action based on the data that we do have.”

The first step will be creating multiple focus groups based on the categories. The groups will bring together community leaders who are doing work in that area, but the biggest focus will be recruiting Midland County residents who will be most impacted by these actions. 

“I think we’re on the right track,” says Wilhelm. “I’m excited to move forward into these next steps. It’s been a long 17 months and I’m not sure everybody recognizes how much work this was to get where we are now. … We’re responding to the data. Everything we’re doing is a result of the data.”

Wilhelm says the task force has received community support so far.

Community leaders like De'Ondre "DJ" Hogan, Midland Public Schools' first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, attended the event.“We’ve had a lot of folks in the community that have really stepped up and said, ‘how can I help?’ It’s everyone from individual community members, to those within the business community as well as the nonprofits,” says Wilhelm. “I think we’re going to have a lot of help as we move forward.”

The schedule for the focus groups is planned to be released this month. All are welcome.

Key findings from the survey

The survey focused on six key areas: racial/ethnic relations, housing, socioeconomics, healthcare, policing and criminal justice, and government structure/representation. 

One common theme that Wilhelm has seen across each category?

“There seems to be a need for training on diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Wilhelm. “An implicit bias training — that seems to be a big one that comes up across all the categories.” 

The survey was conducted from Feb. 6, 2021 through March 21, 2021. A total of 2,182 people responded.A word of caution: despite the task force's best efforts, the survey data was not representative of Midland County. For example, minority populations were overrepresented – of the respondents, 6.7% were Black, despite only making up just over 1% of the population. The executive summary had this to say:

“We urge caution when drawing conclusions based on the WHY Community Survey data as the respondent size was too small and not representative of the larger community to draw conclusions… While attempts were made through social agencies and community organizations to contact underrepresented groups, respondents to the We Hear You Survey were largely those of higher socioeconomics and individuals under the age of 55.”

Wilhelm remarked on the barriers to getting representative data in Midland County.

“If we didn’t have COVID, we definitely would have been going door-to-door in some areas where we know it was potentially residents that may not have the internet to be able to access the survey,” says Wilhelm. “... But we had so many limitations due to COVID, I think we did the best we could in the midst of it.”
 
Read the data for yourself – there’s much more to read than what’s detailed below. The executive summary and the full, 183-page report can be read online. You can also access the slide deck from the release event or watch the recorded presentation.

Racial/Ethnic Relations

Two researchers from Saginaw Valley State University who helped conduct the research spoke at the event.Of the respondents, 60% indicated that racial/ethnic relations in the United States were poor or very poor. Regarding Midland County, however, only about 30% of respondents felt racial/ethnic relations were poor or very poor.

In response to the statement, “Midland is a welcoming and inclusive community where I am respected, supported, valued, and can enjoy my life to the fullest without barriers,” only about 44% of African Americans, 49% of Asians, and 42% of Hispanics agreed.

Biased or discriminatory treatment has caused 14% of non-Hispanic white respondents to consider moving out of Midland, but the numbers are much higher for minorities. For African American respondents, it was nearly 43%. For Hispanic respondents, 36%. For Middle Eastern or North Africans, 26%. And for Asian/Asian Americans, 22%.

Housing

Sharon Mortensen, president and CEO of the Midland Area Community Foundation, is involved in the We Hear You task force. She's also involved in the city's Housing Task Force.There were 40 (out of 65) block groups within Midland County in which not one African American individual resided in 2018. This data indicates that the African American population is highly segregated from the non-Hispanic white community. The highest percentage of the African American population was concentrated in one block group, with 11.5%. 

Anticipating stereotyping, Wilhelm proactively says of this well-off neighborhood, “It’s not a ghetto; police are not there every day or multiple times a day.” 

An issue Wilhelm wanted to elevate was affordable housing. Just under half of Hispanic respondents indicate that housing affordability in Midland was excellent or good. Why aren’t there affordable housing options in more areas of our community?

“There’s one thing I think that’s really huge — when people hear affordable housing, they have the perception it’s only going to be low-income housing. In Midland, we have folks working at various income levels,” says Wilhelm. “I believe our overall objective is to have affordable housing based on all income levels in our community, not just low-income.”

In general, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians/Asian Americans are more likely to reside in rental properties, median housing values are low, and housing is older. Wilhelm learned that other communities have an escrow account for renters, allowing them to save a portion of their rent dollars in an escrow account so they can purchase a house in the future. She wonders if it’s one solution that could be leverageable here. Above all, she urges compassion toward those living in affordable housing.

“We don’t know the stories of why they’re where they are in life,” says Wilhelm. 

Socioeconomics

The audience remained attentive over the nearly two-hour long event. Respondents had median household incomes substantially higher than their counterparts in Midland County. 

ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) is a measure that includes households struggling daily to make ends meet; they likely have income levels that are too high to qualify for government benefits. 

In Midland County, households below ALICE survival levels are as follows: African Americans, 62%; Hispanics, 51%; Whites, 35%; and Asians, 17%.

African Americans and Hispanics in Midland County experienced a decline in median household incomes from 2010 to 2018 (about 11 and 8% lower, respectively). Conversely, during that time Asian/Asian American median household income growth was about 45% while non-Hispanic white median household income increased by just over 17%. 

Healthcare

The event ended with a teary anecdote from community member. In his story, he advised the audience to talk to real people to better understand their experiences. While Midland County’s population is reasonably well-insured, African Americans here were less likely to have health insurance than their counterparts in Michigan (about 89 and 92%, respectively). On the other hand, healthcare coverage for Hispanics is higher in Midland County than their counterparts in Michigan (about 97 and 87%, respectively). 

There were also concerns about the affordability of healthcare, similar to what’s seen across the nation. At least 22% of respondents said they could not access affordable healthcare. Given the higher socioeconomic status and younger (below 60 years old) pool of respondents, the data suggests there’s a larger need for affordable healthcare.

Another possible limitation was the challenge in reaching populations with poor internet access. Wilhelm mentions, “They’re working to increase access to virtual care options; they have a pilot going on where they’re doing more home visits.” 

Policing and Criminal Justice

Nicole Ford, chief of police, is a member of the We Hear You task force.In 2018, African Americans in Midland County had arrest rates over seven times that of non-Hispanic whites for crimes against persons; over six times that of non-Hispanic whites for property crimes; and 4.5 times that of non-Hispanic whites for crimes against society (e.g. disorderly conduct). African Americans in Midland County are overrepresented in arrests in comparison to their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

Despite that, a greater percentage of African American and Hispanic respondents (about 43% for both groups) perceived their neighborhoods to be crime-free in comparison to non-Hispanic white respondents at only about 35%. 

African American respondents considered law enforcement to be more prejudiced/biased (46%) than non-Hispanic whites (about 21%).

Over 80% of non-Hispanic white respondents reported that Midland City and Midland County police treated them respectfully, equitably, fairly. For African American respondents, only 60% indicated being treated respectfully, equitably, fairly by Midland City and about 49% by Midland County police. Many non-Hispanic white respondents acknowledged their white privilege in police interactions.

“One of the obstacles that we encountered during the community workshop was the fact that oftentimes, people don’t know which police department they’re dealing with,” says Nicole Ford, chief of police. “Midland City is just one component of our law enforcement partnership within this area. Depending on where the incident occurred, you could be serviced by Midland City, Midland County Sheriff, Michigan State Police, or on our outskirts, Coleman. … It’s really hard to address issues within an agency when you’re not sure which agency it actually is.”

Government Structure and Representation

Maureen Donker, mayor of Midland, is part of the We Hear You task force.Wilhelm thinks implicit bias training is important in all key areas, but she spoke specifically about its importance for government employees. 

“Having that training for elected officials as well as appointed officials on boards and commissions and including city council, I thought that was a big one,” says Wilhelm. “I think it’s important because they’re the face of the community.”

But not all faces are being properly represented. Non-Hispanic whites over the age of 18 comprise nearly 94% of Midland City’s population but nearly 98% of government employees. Non-whites over the age of 18 comprise about 6% of the City population but only about 2% of government positions.

Wilhelm stresses the need for representation of all groups within our community, regardless of the numbers.

“If they feel they’re not being represented, it needs to be taken seriously,” says Wilhelm.

Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala grew up in the Tri-Cities and enjoys broadcasting all the positive change happening in Midland. As Assistant Editor for Catalyst Midland, her favorite topics are environment, wellness, mental health, and the arts. As a human, Crystal is a serial hobbyist: hiking, drawing, yoga, and playing music. Her work can be seen in The Detroit Free Press, Midland Daily News, and The Delta Collegiate. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.