GERMANTOWN – Hundreds of residents sat at round tables and discussed issues of racial equity and social justice in the county at Black Rock Center for the Arts on June 26, a gathering hosted by County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-4) and County Executive Marc Elrich (D).
The council president said she and Elrich were hosting the event in anticipation of Navarro’s proposal of a policy related to the evening’s discussion, which she plans to introduce in the fall. The council previously approved a resolution (Resolution No. 18-1095) on racial equity and social justice in April 2018, according to a booklet titled “The Racial Equity and Social Justice ToolKit,” which was distributed at the June 26 meeting.
“Addressing issues of racial equity and social justice is a must, if we seek to ensure the continued economic vitality of our county,” Navarro said. “While Montgomery County is known for embracing its diversity, disparities in education, employment opportunities, health care and housing persist across races and ethnicities, income levels, genders and English language proficiency.”
Residents filled at least 20 tables that fit five to seven people. Each group discussed their responses to questions prepared by the county, as well as their own relevant life experiences. Dozens more residents attended at graduated seating off to the side broke into their own groups and discussed the questions.
The layout was different from that of previous town halls, in which residents got out of their seats and took turns sharing their comments or questions using a microphone.
At the June 26 meeting, one speaker from each table shared the group’s comments. These were written down to be shared with the Office of Legislative Oversight staff for review.
The issue of racial inequity also came up in some people’s comments during a police town hall hosted by Elrich and County Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At-Large) recently at John F. Kennedy High School in Wheaton.
Some people at the June 26th meeting said they attended to hear from elected officials about the issues, while others said wanted a better read on how other residents felt.
Elrich said he and his staff aim to reduce issues of racial inequity in the county.
“My administration and I are focusing on social and economic justice initiatives to ensure that everyone can succeed regardless of race, ethnicity or economic circumstances,” said Elrich. “It is critical that we understand and address the history and impact of slavery, racism and discrimination on the African-American community.”
Though population groups broken down by race have similar rates of employment and of high school completion, the differences lie in other measures, such as whether a family owns its home and how likely children in the home will live in poverty, according to the Racial Equity and Social Justice ToolKit, which cited 2011 to 2015 county Census data.
“Blacks and Latinos were also 32–41% less likely to own their homes and their children were 2–7 times more likely to live in poverty than Whites and Asians in the County,” according to the ToolKit.
Also, on average, households of White residents who are White make nearly twice as much as households of Black residents, according to the booklet.
At the Black Rock Center for the Arts meeting, county resident Samira Hussein said she believes Elrich should provide an opportunity for individuals to share their concerns about race with him one-on-one, in case they are afraid to share their views publicly. She said some people at her table said nothing during the discussion.
“A lot of people would be afraid to share in (a) public setting,” Hussein said.
Hussein said she experienced a problem with equity because she has found the county lacks a liaison to the Arab or Muslim community, while the county provides liaisons to other communities.
Albert Ticona, a 29-year-old Gaithersburg resident, said he attended the meeting because he was interested in the topic of the discussion and how others would respond to it. He said his upbringing was different from that of many of his classmates, adding that he lived in a different neighborhood.
“Just that, growing up in Montgomery County, going to school here, there was a big gap for me, in particular, than to my peers, who were more far well off,” Albert said.
As a student living in Gaithersburg but attending school in Rockville and Potomac, Ticona said he found the diversity at school“very different” than at home.
“I personally didn’t really feel like I … (like) it was a difficult thing to go through…but, like, looking at my other friends who were going through the same grade, it was not the same experience I had,” said Ticona.
Ticona said he asked his table mates at the meeting if their parents ever took them aside to instruct them how to talk to police. Answers at the table varied, including some individuals who said yes.
James Pauley said he came to the meeting because he wanted to hear about the experiences of residents with racial backgrounds different from his own.
Pauley said before the meeting he hoped to take with him a “better perspective of how different people in the community are living their lives, how they view the environment around them and struggles that they might face.”
Then, Pauley added, “Statistically speaking, black and brown people have a lot more challenges than a white male, you know, like myself.”
Resident Michael Dennis, who is retired, said he disliked the set-up for the event and that the questions were feelings-based and focused. Dennis said he was used to solving problems, not discussing feelings in isolation, so he chose to sit out his table’s discussion.
“I’m coming from a solutions perspective,” said Dennis. “I don’t care about feelings; I can’t affect anybody’s feelings. I have worked in civil rights law enforcement all of my life, for over 35 years.”
Dennis said he did listened to the comments by Elrich, Navarro and other speakers, but he believed some terms used in the discussion had unclear meanings.
“And that was never defined,” he said of “racial equity.” “And so, people are sitting out there talking about racial equity, and I’m listening to conversations around me. I chose not to participate in any of the groups, because I didn’t think that they were going anywhere.”
Another community conversation event will occur at 7 p.m. on July 10 at 7 p.m.the White Oak Community Recreation Center in Silver Spring.