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Government & Politics

Summit County Racism as a Public Health Crisis Committee releases latest report

Elizabeth Walters and Veronica Sims
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Summit County Councilwoman Veronica Sims, right, co-chairs the committee with Council President Elizabeth Walters.

For almost two years, ever since declaring racism a public health crisis, Summit County Council has worked to examine how best to promote racial equity. The first phase of its work involved internal reviews, and the second phase added resident feedback, with its latest report released Tuesday.

The new report identifies areas which should be addressed for people of color, including professional development, employee retention, and advancement. Councilwoman Veronica Sims co-chairs the Special Review Committee on racial equity and says going forward, the environment will likely be difficult for people who aren’t welcoming to diverse backgrounds.

"I feel that it'll be hard to hide for 'system maintainers,'" Sims said. "And I think they will etch their own selves out. I mean, it's hard to operate the way that you want to, and I think that's what's so wonderful about the work that we're trying to do. People are entering the [ADEI] journey at different places. I think this will allow us to say, ‘You don't get to enter and stand still.’"

Sims' Co-chair, Council President Liz Walters, agrees.

"One of the things that Councilwoman Sims and I grappled with, very early on in the work, as we put this together, is the role of county government. What can we really do, right?" Walters said. "So much of anti-racism work is the winning of hearts and minds. How do we do that through a county government structure? We can't vaccinate it. We can't tax it. So how do we lead the way to allow people to join us on the journey by making our practices, and the things that we can control, as an employer, as a contractor, as a service provider, truly equitable? And truly anti-racist. We have asked people to come along on that journey with us, and we think that will help move a lot more folks into the space where they are truly a truly welcoming community."

Bhatia: "One of the areas in the report regards salary ranges and how there's less representation for people of color at the higher levels. In the report, it says that could be dependent on education, such as with the Medical Examiner, but some of it is just experience. I assume that means years of experience in a certain role or at a certain profession. So I would think something like that, years of experience, would be already codified for the county? 'If you've been at this position for six years, you're in this range. For eight years, it's this range'; that sort of thing. Is that not the case? Or maybe I'm oversimplifying it."

Walters: "I think 'yes, and.' There is some of that, but there's also a little bit of oversimplification. For us looking at it, it's also that there is not as good of a retention rate. So as you get further and further up the chain, there are less and less staff of color to be considered for those roles. So it's not just enough for us to ask, 'Why are we not putting leaders of color in the role?' We also have to go further down river and say, 'Why aren't enough folks in the pool begin with? How do we work on getting folks into those entry-level positions, making sure they're getting the leadership and mentorship and training they need to continue to succeed. And creating a culture where staff of color feel supported. They feel this is a positive workplace for them, and they want to stay and build their careers with us. So I think it's both, and we have to do both of those things."

Sims: "There are other areas, from contract procurement to allowing people to show up in workspaces as an authentic self, even if that means afros and cornrows, that it is okay and that should not be the the the determiner as to whether you advance or not."

In the next few months, a third and final phase of the work will set goals for the county as part of a strategic plan to promote anti-racism.