WHITE OAK — Monique Gardner did not have high expectations when she decided to attend Montgomery County’s community conversation on racial equity and social justice on July 10.
Gardner explained that after hearing about the event from a colleague, she wondered if local officials were asking the public to do their jobs for them. Perhaps, she thought, these same officials who are being paid large sums of money are looking for quick solutions, while the residents that have been elected to serve struggle.
These were her views on the county-sponsored community conversation, which is a part of an ongoing effort by the Montgomery County Council to address issues of racial inequity in the area.
This third conversation, held at the White Oak Community Recreation Center, drew smaller crowds than the first event back in March. However, this event allowed members of the community to speak with local officials about issues of racial equity and the changes they would like to see.
Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro said in her opening remarks that the feedback the council gets from these conversations would come into play when they draft legislation to combat issues of inequity.
In April 2018, the council passed a resolution that affirmed its pledge to create a Racial Equity and Social Justice Policy for Montgomery County. Since then, the council has been briefed on a report that creates a baseline for where the county stands now on racial disparities.
Earlier this year, county leadership has undergone racial equity-training and kicked off the community conversation campaign, which began in the Silver Spring Civic building in front of a packed crowd.
Navarro explained that the council would be drafting legislation this fall to implement policies on racial equity, with tentative adoption early in 2020.
“Just giving everyone the same (resources) means that you are ignoring the fact that there were some groups who did not have the same advantages or the same privileges as others. That doesn’t work,” Navarro said. “So, when we are talking about equity, we need to start understanding that there are going to be certain groups and there are going to be certain communities that are going to need a little bit more.”
She noted that reaching a point in any community where there are no disparities based on race or gender is much easier said than done.
“We are not confused about the fact that this is not an easy task,” she said. “But I tend to say that I’m an irrational optimist, and I think that we always have the opportunity, every single day, to begin work on major structural changes.”
Navarro noted that when you combine individual racial groups, people of color make up the majority in Montgomery County and have since 2000. However, when you look at the data, compiled by the Census Bureau, individual racial groups like African Americans, Latino/Hispanics and Asians make up at most 20% of residents.
“We have been experiencing demographic changes for quite a long time. This is no longer about creating a special program for African American students or Latino students,” she said. “The reality is that this is who we are; this is our population, these are our residents. We no longer should be talking about this as if people of color are niche pockets of population in our country.”
In addressing issues of social equity, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich noted that county government is looking to train all its employees in racial equity. They are also recruiting a new director of racial-equity programs.
“We have to come to grips with racism in this country and particularly the effect on the African American community because it’s not going to fix itself,” Elrich said. “If you wait for people to be ready for this kind of change, you will wait forever.”
During the discussion period, attendees came up with a wide range of changes they would like to see in the county. One group suggested changing the way parks are placed demographically, so they are accessible, and in the center of each neighborhood as opposed to in a location residents must travel to. Other groups suggested policies that would change schooling in the county by, for example, teaching a more-honest version of history which does not gloss over the negative things the United States has done and providing mentorship programs to students.
Gardner highlighted changes she would like to see in housing development, such as creating more affordable housing, promoting renters’ rights and holding landlords accountable. She noted that the people who live in low-income housing usually are the same people who have to deal with unhelpful landlords and unhealthy living conditions.
She did say, however, that she was impressed by the plans Navarro set for the county.
“I didn’t expect anything when I decided to come here honestly,” she said. “But when Nancy Navarro stated that she’s introducing a racially inclusive legislation – hopefully, that the county will operate through like a lens – I appreciated that, because it is by policies, practices, systems and budgets where racial inequity persists, and I was pleased to see that there are like-minded people here.”
Wednesday’s community conversation was the second that Renoir Dawson-Finan attended. He said that although some of the ideas brainstormed at the third event were nearly identical to those floated during the second conversation held in Germantown, it was good to see a strong turnout.
“This shows great recognition by members of the public of what is wrong in our community,” Dawson-Finan said. “It’s great to hear ideas that maybe even the councilmembers themselves hadn’t come up with on their own.”
Members of the county council also attended the event and engaged with the community by joining the roundtable discussions. Councilmember Gabe Albornoz said he feels that these types of events are effective at promoting positive change.
“It’s only when we discuss issues that we can find reasonable and sustainable solutions to longstanding challenges,” he said. “I’d like to see more of our boards and commissions and hiring panels reflect the diversities of the communities we’re trying to serve because it’s only when people who are in decision- making positions can really fully see the entire picture that I think we’re going to have longterm change.”
Once the council drafts their racial equity and social justice policy this fall, it will be held for a public hearing so that members of the community can voice their concerns and provide further feedback.