Fair housing work becomes catalyst for cooperation in even bigger intiatives

From a $20,000 seed planted by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) the City of Kalamazoo and a group of community organizations will be working to promote fair housing as they also build a process that allows them to deal with the structural racism that holds back a significant portion of the city’s population.

The funds were awarded to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) to promote racial equity in Kalamazoo. 

In a conference room in the Stockbridge offices of the City of Kalamazoo, Dorla Bonner, Community Investment Manager for the City, Charlae Davis, Executive Director of ISAAC, (the Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community), and Agustin Arbulu, Executive Director, Michigan Department of Civil Rights on the telephone identified a process being put into place that Arbulu says could become a model for many other communities dealing with structural racism. Later that day, Martha Gonzalez-Cortes detailed the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s role in the process.

Efforts will focus on the Edison, Northside, and Eastside neighborhoods, but could go beyond there. The results of this work will be incorporated into the City of Kalamazoo’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Consolidated Plan for 2019-2024.

The trailblazing work will bring together the various organizations and play to each of their strengths. The City through its anti-poverty Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo work, ISAAC with its experience in talking to people in the community, Kalamazoo Community Foundation with its work on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, and other participating organizations with their expertise in housing and lending are already coming together. 

Arbulu says the process will involve “connecting all these various links so that everyone's interest is intricately part of the overall strategy or framework that results in tearing down these patterns, repeated patterns of structural, racial inequities.”

He describes the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) as part of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, an independent body that oversees and investigates incidents of discrimination. The department enforces laws prohibiting discrimination “specifically when it comes to housing and climate, education, public accommodation, and public service,” he says.

In the aftermath of its hearings and subsequent report on the Flint water crisis, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights took on the cultural barriers that allowed the citizens of Flint to be ignored for so many years as they became lead poisoned from the local water supply. “You might say that we're the first governmental agency that tackled structural racism and the role of race in a way that we did,” Arbulu says.

“And from that, we made recommendations to delve into the role of structural racism, structural barriers, and how you bring about institutional change and build capacity…. I looked at this as an opportunity to further the work that we're doing around racial equity—how do we help communities be more responsive, especially local units of governments like Kalamazoo? With that in mind, I was thinking of, ‘Well, I can leverage this, where might I go, what cities?’

Existing working relationships with those in Kalamazoo, such as Martha Gonzalez-Cortes, Vice President of Community Investment at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, were instrumental in Kalamazoo being asked to be part of this work.

The idea is that by working through this process not only are fair housing concerns addressed but partnerships deepen and the connections are made. “The deeper the connection, it creates trust, and you find ways to work and you begin to look at different ways of addressing the challenges that exist,” says Arbulu. He calls it is a “targeted initiative.” 

“We want all of our communities to reach a certain target, right? We all want it. Whatever that target is” says Arbulu. “And there are some communities that are farther behind. We have to ask ourselves why. And what can we do to bring them up? Every community wants great housing, restaurants, safe places to walk. So if there are communities that are lagging, we've got to address that, because we're talking about equity here. By raising the levels for these communities we're really improving the life of everybody, and the life of a city.”

The work will be done on two tracks, says Bonner. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights will see that city leaders are trained in racial equity. On the second track organizations including ISAAC will work with the Fair Housing Center of Southwest Michigan and other organizations to collect the feedback that “will inform all our other programs,” Bonner says. 

Dorla BonnerFor the city, the goal is to be able to recommend action that will bring down barriers. These action items will, in turn, become budget items that can be funded over the next five years. “That is our goal, to actually have actionable items. While ISAAC is doing the broad-level, the policy work, we're going to be on the ground level. We want to be able to say, ‘OK, here’s money that we're going to assign to a specific area, such as to fix code violations for low-income folks.’ We are actually doing that this year. We're testing it — to fix code violations for low-income folks so their houses don't just continue to deteriorate.”

With city leaders trained to better understand issues of inequity, they can examine, “How do we do parks? How do we do public services? How does public safety handle things? .… We have the opportunity to do some amazing work to change how we do our work,” Bonner says.

ISAAC will be working this spring through its housing task force to determine what it will ask for in terms of policy changes from elected officials. This summer and into the fall ISAAC and the City of Kalamazoo will conduct listening sessions in the neighborhoods, in the form of focus groups and community gatherings.

Right now, the ISAAC housing task force is talking to others working on housing issues to find out what already is being done, what is going on, and determine what the needs are, says Davis. “We’re asking them what they are facing while doing this work, the bottom line, and what policy changes would help them do their work better.”

The Kalamazoo Community Foundation will be moving through the process as one part of its Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation work undertaken with $865,000 in funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 

Martha Gonzalez-Cortes of the Community Foundation says the template for doing the TRHT work leaves a lot of flexibility for participants to adapt it to the work that needs to be done in their community. The Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation framework promotes work in four areas: Changing the Narrative, Racial Healing and Relationship building, Separation (desegregation and decolonization), and the Law and Economy. 

“It's up to a local community to zero in on one, two, maybe more, individual projects or focus areas,” Gonzalez-Cortes says. “Very early on in our TRHT conversations, we realized that there was a lot of synergy and a lot of work being built around support for the city's need to do a fair housing assessment.”

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development made the assessment optional, but the will to do the work had been established. “The city, to their credit, said: ‘We need to do this anyway. We think it's the right thing to do. We think it's been many years since we've looked at these issues in this way, and maybe now we have more flexibility in making sure that the tool works for the conversations we have to have in our community. We've already gathered the partners and we're halfway down the street. Let's go ahead and finish it.’ So they're committed to wanting to see the data and do the work, which I think is remarkable.”

Gonzalez-Cortes sees the fair housing work as coming under the umbrella of historical segregation and issues of concentrated poverty that are included in the TRHT framework. Housing is a key area of work there, she says.

“Part of the real struggle for us as a community, I think,” Gonzalez-Cortes says, “is that we have a number of big initiatives happening at once, and you have a small group of people leading organizations, or leading the initiatives. We could all be crossing paths three times a day. And so part of what we started to imagine in December was a world in which we could have one meeting instead of three to accomplish big work. We've got different timelines, and slightly different players, and what if it all came together? Where are the points of connectivity?”

A plan emerged that the participants hope will help eliminate the structural disconnect that comes when groups are working on their own without comparing notes with others providing the same kind of services, often called working in silos.

“Everybody's better served if we can figure out how to be in communication with each other faster, sooner, rather than later,” Gonzalez-Cortes says.

Bonner and Davis encourage people to participate when they learn there is an opportunity to speak out on housing concerns. “Your voice matters and there's power behind it,” Davis says.

There are those who might have gotten discouraged by conversations with the City in the past that led nowhere because of the city’s budget woes. But Bonner says the generosity of those who have donated to the Foundation For Excellence has made it possible for the city to undertake initiatives it could not afford in the past. The goal is to actually support and possibly fund initiatives, not to just have conversations,” Bonner says

“When you hear that we're coming, come on out,” Bonner says.

Along with MDCR and the city of Kalamazoo, other partners in the effort include the Fair Housing Center of Southwest Michigan, the Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community (ISAAC), the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services (KNHS), and Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equity (ERACCE).

Arbulu went on to emphasize the current initiative is only a first step. “Imagine that this can be replicated in other communities. Think of the changes, the possibilities that it could create and the changes that could be made in the way we see things. Then imagine the way it can get translated and how we can live in a different manner that is less driven by the legacies of racism. 

“I think that's important, you put power in the hands of the community,” Arbulu says. “And we have a government that wants to learn and is open. You begin to change the entire lens if we can envision what is happening in Kalamazoo and how that could be translated into other cities and communities across Michigan. I think that's critical. Kalamazoo is a trailblazer and we're very excited just to be part of this initiative and working with all the fine organizations and people of Kalamazoo.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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