By Agustin V. Arbulu, Director-Michigan Department of Civil Rights
In February 2017, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission released their groundbreaking report, The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint – the culmination of a year-long probe into the civil rights implications of one of the worst public health disasters in Michigan’s history.
In the end, the Commission’s findings were nearly as historic as the events that prompted them. Their conclusion: systemic racism played a significant role in causing the Flint water crisis.
The Commission did not stop with that stunning appraisal. They outlined seven recommendations that must be put into action in order to build a more equitable society and eradicate the race-based separation of wealth and opportunity that has plagued Flint for generations.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has now released a one-year progress report spelling out what we have done to further the Commission’s goals.
The short answer: we have made progress, but we have a long way to go. None of the Report’s recommendations have been fully realized. Some are beyond our control while others are generational at best. Even if aspirational, the Commission’s recommendations provide a blueprint we aim to follow in order to build a more equitable and inclusive society.
The Commission’s first recommendation – that the Commission and Department must do a better job of authentically listening to the constituencies we represent and of making their priorities, our priorities – is the one we have the most ability to influence. As a direct result of this investigation and our engagement with GARE, the Department is realigning all of our processes and initiatives to ensure that the goal of racial equity is at the heart of everything we do. Some specifics:
- In January, the Department hired an Equity Officer, a first in Michigan state government, and tasked him with strengthening partnerships with local, regional and state governments and organizations, expanding our capacity to influence policies that will result in fewer disparities.
- All Department staff received baseline training on racial equity and approaches to incorporate the concept into our daily work.
- Over the next 12 months, one quarter of Department staff will be trained as agents of change, receiving 50 hours of training on operationalizing equity.
- The Department has assigned investigators to work out of local organizations in Flint and other underserved communities on a monthly basis, to take complaints as well as educate and inform residents of their rights in a setting they know and trust.
The Department is not only focused on changing internal practices. We are educating local and state government on the value of implementing policies and practices based on equity to close the gaps between white residents and people of color. These steps include:
- Training governmental agencies on implicit bias and how unconscious reactions can influence policy and have an adverse impact on people of color.
- Building a partnership between Genesee County and the city of Flint to better address racial bias and structural racism, modeled on a successful partnership between Washtenaw County and the city of Ann Arbor.
- Expanding a pilot launched in Kalamazoo to make housing policies fair, inclusive and unbiased into other Michigan communities.
- Developing a program to help government agencies rebuild trust with the communities they serve. We expect to roll out this training program over the next three months.
- Hosting a community forum in Flint to hear from the people who are living this crisis, to learn what has worked and what remains to be done, and what government must do to rebuild trust.
The Commission’s recommendations are not a simple checklist that we complete and tuck away. They will not result in headline-writing solutions that make for a good 15-second soundbite. And they are not only about Flint.
The Commission’s Report covered more than 100 years of public policy – policy that in the beginning explicitly excluded people of color and evolved to implicit discrimination that created a persistent separation of wealth and opportunity based on race. Dismantling the societal structures that lead to this crisis will require tedious long-term work. But it is the work we must do if we want to ensure that what happened in Flint will not happen again.