Washtenaw County, Michigan has some issues familiar to many GARE communities. We are fairly wealthy, considered top notch for education (thanks to The University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University), and generally provide a good quality of life. But that’s only if you look on the surface. Digging a little deeper, you’ll find stark racial disparities in life expectancy, infant mortality, educational attainment, incarceration rates, and other indicators based on race. While there is much affluence, the economic gap is profound and means life conditions and outcomes vary tremendously.
Beginning about six years ago, some individual departments prioritized racial equity. In 2016, a draft Equity Policy was created, however it became apparent that the institution was in need of education and familiarity with content and goals before being able to move forward. A conversation began with GARE due to the understanding that GARE could support the county moving from departmental efforts around decreasing health disparity, or housing inequality, or issues around policing, into a broader, system-wide approach to addressing racial equity.
Washtenaw then became a member of GARE, with the bulk of programming occurring this past year to initiate the work of a new commitment called “One Community: Advancing Racial Equity”. This commitment began as a partnership between the City of Ann Arbor and the County, and includes plans of expansion to local municipalities, educational institutions, the non-profit sector, and eventually the private sector. The commitment is to name racial equity as a priority and to address racism within our institution and ideally the community at-large.
Through the trainings with GARE, the county was suited for a more robust conversation about advancing the work. In June of this year, a draft Equity Policy was presented to the County Board of Commissioners. Afterwards, three community sessions were hosted by Commissioner Felicia Brabec and Racial Equity Analyst Anna Lemler to receive feedback from the community about their hopes, requests, and concerns.
After months of conversation and amendments, the Policy was unanimously passed this September marking a historical moment for Washtenaw County. The final equity policycovers change on 3 levels: individual, institutional, and structural. In its purpose, the policy states:
Many current inequities are sustained by historical legacies, structures, and systems that repeat patterns of exclusion. Without the intentionality stated in this Policy, inequitable outcomes linked to race, socio-economic status, and other identities will persist. The charge of the Policy is for all aspects of county government to address and implement strategies that target inequities that exist within the County organization, inclusive of all its services, resulting in equitable outcomes for all residents…
Furthermore, the policy endorses the need for an Equity Office which is meant to start in 2019 and includes a proposed budget allocation for two staff members at its inception. This is incredibly exciting for the county as it builds capacity and embeds equity into the infrastructure of governance. Until the office begins, two new working groups of train-the-trainer and workforce development will focus on training staff in the Intro to Racial Equity content, and assess hiring and related policies and practices to change outcomes.
Now, onto the challenging work of implementing the Policy with integrity and urgency. Many residents have expressed their support, but with concern about whether transformational change will occur. County leadership and staff take this seriously and acknowledge the difficult work ahead. We look forward to connecting with many of our GARE colleagues as we all work through the long, complicated path toward racial equity.