Equity: Engaging people, increasing capacity, removing barriers

To help us and the community get ready for our 2015 Community Meeting on November 3, we’re working with a variety of community partners who are advancing equity in Kalamazoo County. Pictured with President/CEO Carrie Pickett Erway (second from left) are (from left to right) Donna Odom, SHARE; Jacob Pinney-Johnson, SHARE; Rev. Dr. B. Jo Ann Mundy, ERACCE; Chéree Thomas, SHARE and Douglass Community Association; Lillie Wolff, ERACCE; and Fernando Ospina, ERACCE. Photo by Jacqueline Luttrell

Lately it seems as though reports highlighting disparities in infant mortality rates, high school graduation rates, health care access, employment rates are surfacing with increasing frequency. It can be easy to “sleep through the static,” until we consider that the numbers in these reports are actually people.

These reports don’t just present information; they tell stories — stories about children, their parents, our community. When we value these reports for the stories they tell and not just the numbers they present, we can better understand that unless we are all doing better, our community will not truly succeed. Until we remove the barriers some encounter, Kalamazoo County cannot be a community where every person can reach full potential.

Over the last few years, we’ve learned that expanding the diversity of the voices we hear can greatly improve how we understand and address community issues. So we’ve become more intentional about engaging the community, and strive to incorporate diverse perspectives as “standard operating procedure.” As a demonstration of this, our first step in planning our 2015 Community Meeting was to ask our community partners to share their suggestions for speakers who could provide a thought-provoking message that would help us all better understand the concept of equity. As a result, the November event will feature best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who will speak about race in America. Sponsored by PNC Bank, Coates’ talk is also part of a University Center for the Humanities at WMU’s 2015/2016 speaker series: Reimagining Communities.

Input from the community also informed the identification of our strategic priorities: equity and education. We are committed to improving educational outcomes and removing the barriers that prevent all people from reaching full potential. As we engage in this work, understanding equity becomes critical. Says President/CEO Carrie Pickett-Erway, “As an organization, we recognized early on that to be effective at increasing equity and reducing disparities, we would have to address the gaps in our own awareness, knowledge and capacity.” 

“While we’ve been working hard on this for several years, we know our learned experience is inadequate and incomplete compared to the lived experience of people who are the targets of discrimination,” she says. “So working with the community and not just for the community is essential.”

Many community partners — individuals, organizations and consultants — have already begun to help us shape a strategy for impacting equity in Kalamazoo County. We are currently conducting a scan of equity work going on in the county.

“By better understanding what assets and resources — human and financial — we have, we will be able to determine where we have the greatest opportunity to leverage our support and offer leadership.” says Pickett-Erway. “We hope to identify the gaps that are not being addressed, identify how we might help those that are already doing great work, and elevate our collective efforts to transform our community.”

At the same time, we also continue to examine our internal policies and practices. We need to ensure that every aspect of our daily work — in every functional area and at every level — fully reflects our core values: diversity, equity and inclusion; integrity; and excellence.

We know the people who live, work and raise their families in Kalamazoo County passionately believe it is a special place where amazing things happen. We believe this passion can provide the momentum our community needs to eliminate the social, legal, economic and other barriers that prevent every person from reaching full potential and living positive lives.

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