Agustin V. Arbulu is the director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
In February 2017, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission released its 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.
The commission concluded that systemic racism played a significant role in causing the Flint water crisis.
The commission did not stop with that stunning appraisal, instead outlining seven recommendations 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 (the operational arm of the commission) has now released its one-year progress report spelling out what has been done to further those goals.
The short answer: We have made progress, but have a long way yet to go. None of the report’s seven recommendations has been fully realized. Some are beyond the control of the commission and depend on the actions of others. Some are generational at best. But while the commission’s recommendations are in some respects aspirational rather than practical, they provide a blueprint we aim to build a more equitable and inclusive society.
The mission of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights is to investigate and enforce civil rights laws, and to work to eliminate discrimination and promote equity through public engagement and education. The department has taken a number of actions in the last year in response to the crisis.
The first recommendation - that we 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 result of this investigation, the department is realigning all of our practices, processes and initiatives to ensure the goal of racial equity is at the heart of everything we do.
- In January, the Department hired an equity officer, the 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 8 and 16 hours of 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 that they know and trust.
The department is not only focused on changing our internal processes and culture. We are working with local and state government to implement a wide range of policies and actions to close the gaps that exist between white residents and people of color, in Flint and other communities, including:
- Educating city, county, regional and state governmental agencies in communities throughout Michigan on implicit bias, and how unconscious, unintentional reactions influence policies, practices and procedures in a way that can have an adverse impact on people of color.
- Working to build a partnership between Genesee County and the City of Flint to better address racial bias, structural racism and disparities that exist between different racial and ethnic groups. The effort is modeled on a successful partnership between Washtenaw County and the City of Ann Arbor.
- Expanding on a pilot project recently launched in Kalamazoo to make housing policies fair, inclusive and unbiased. The pilot brings together community-based organizations, the city of Kalamazoo and other stakeholders working collaboratively to address challenges they face related to housing. We believe this initiative can be successfully replicated in 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.
- Returning to Flint in 2018 to host a community forum.
The commission’s recommendations are goals to which we aspire – and to which we must continually recommit - in order to build a more equitable society. They are not a simple checklist that we can complete and tuck away. They will not result in the kind of headline-writing solutions that make for a good 15-second soundbite. And they are not only about Flint.
The commission 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 primarily on race. Dismantling the entrenched societal structures that lead to this crisis will require tedious, long-term work, and will not create change overnight.
As Muhammad Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
We believe this is the work we must do if we want to ensure that what happened in Flint will not happen again, in Flint or anywhere else.