SILVER SPRING — County leaders and community members gathered in the Silver Spring Civic Center for a discussion about racial disparities in Montgomery County.
The Community Conversation, hosted by County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council on March 13, was a way to work toward advancing racial equality in Montgomery County.
Last year the council adopted Resolution 18-1095 to develop a Racial Equity and Social Justice Policy that is meant to combat discrimination and bias in the county.
“We have to create a framework of equity that continues to look at everything, whether it’s our policy guidelines, or laws or budgetary decisions,” Councilmember Craig Rice said. “That’s going to make sure that we’re focused on uplifting all of our communities and not discriminating against them.”
To facilitate discussion at the Community Conversation, the council put together information packets that highlight the issues they hope to address. The seven-page packet includes statistics about inequality in Montgomery County, tips on how to talk about it and discussion questions.
Roundtables had been set up to facilitate discussion among attendees, but the event became standing room only when more members of the community came than expected.
An Office of Legislative Oversight report included in the information packet indicating that Montgomery County follows the same nationwide trend of overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system and on child welfare. It also shows the tendency of people of color to experience higher levels of disadvantage in education, economic development and health than their white or Asian counterparts.
Specifically, for Montgomery County, black and Latino residents are more than twice as likely to live at or below the federal poverty line and more likely to be unemployed than people of other ethnic backgrounds, despite relatively high graduation rates, according to the study.
There are disparities among ethnic groups when it comes to graduation rates in Montgomery County, as well; Latino residents are less likely to complete high school than students of white, Asian and black ethnicities.
Student Member of the Board of Education Ananya Tadikonda, implored the inclusion of the youth perspective in looking for solutions to these disparities.
“This work is crucial to the development of the next generation,” Tadikonda said at a press conference. “It is exhausting to go to school in a place where you walk into an honors class and people don’t think you belong there. It is exhausting to go to school in a place where none of your teachers look like you, and it is exhausting to go to school in a place where the curriculum that you’re learning is written by your former oppressors.”
A focus on educational initiatives to combat racial disparity was a recurring theme from county officials.
“It starts from age zero to five by making sure that we have more access to quality pre-K programs throughout the county, and then building on that to make sure you get the best grades,” said Rice. “Whether its curriculum, whether its teacher diversity, whether it cultural competency all the things that we know are roadblocks to folks as they try to access a high level of education.”
Community members had an even wider range of issues in which they would like to see changes. Some of the issues from the Community Conversation include integrating housing, racial bias testing for officials in schools, transparency and accountability in policing, and teaching accurate history lessons that don’t whitewash the experience of native peoples.
One community member highlighted the issue of grouping all Latinos together on census reports and government forms when there are distinct differences and identities to account for as well.
“You can’t claim you want to be there for us when you don’t even see us,” she said.
Another attendee, Andy Banks, went into the Community Conversation hoping to talk more about housing inequalities.
“It’s a systemic problem which is really obvious to me,” he said. “People are saying that it’s not just this program or that program that’s at issue, but it’s how the system itself distributes power in this community.”
Banks explained that he notices how affordable housing neighborhoods don’t have access to the same services and amenities that wealthier neighborhoods do.
Patricia Bradley, who also attended the Community Conversation, said that it’s important that the children growing up in the area are treated fairly. But she felt that the conversation organized by the county was lacking concrete steps towards a solution.
“I’m disappointed,” she said. “I’m leaving here, and I had higher expectations. Honestly I feel like it was a feel-good moment for the county.”
She explained that to her the intent of the conversation was good, but she was left wondering what the next step is going to be.
“I just think we’re leaving here without knowing what’s next. I mean we have the packet, but we don’t have the next step, maybe we’ll get more information but I feel like it just wasn’t finished,” she said.
Further work is planned for the coming months like a youth forum and a county council meeting dedicated to racial equity. The next scheduled step is the launch of the Community Equity Matters Survey and Community Conversation on April 1. According to the information packet that was provided by the council, officials will be drafting policy to address the issues brought up through the community discussions this summer and they hope to pass their legislation in Fall of 2019.
“The key here is follow-through, so we’ll see,” Banks said.