Photos courtesy of Wayne Law
Twenty-eight leaders from local organizations are joining together as members of the third year’s cohort for Wayne State University Law School’s Detroit Equity Action Lab to further the cause of racial equity.
The equity lab is housed at Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights and is under the leadership of Professor Peter J. Hammer, director of the Keith Center, and 2014 Wayne Law alumna Eliza Perez-Ollin, project director. The lab is made possible by a three-year, $1.3 million grant awarded in 2014 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The lab’s purpose is to bring groups in different fields together to address the issues of structural racism in Detroit.
“Structural racism” describes how public and private institutions historically and systematically provide advantages to white people in ways that are embedded in society.
Diversity in perspective is important to the success of each year’s cohort, and once again, this year’s cohort members represent multiple dimensions of diversity. They include members of the African-American, Arab-American, Asian-American, Latino and Native-American communities. They represent a variety of organization sizes, geographic reach and perspectives with sectors including arts, civil rights, economic development, education, faith, health care, labor, media and policy.
And while there are important elders in the group, youthful energy is a defining characteristic of this year’s cohort. Two-thirds are young professionals age 34 younger, with several others age 44 and younger. “Our members over the last two years continually identified the need to bring younger leaders into our work,” Perez-Ollin said. “Then, they made that ideal a reality by nominating an amazingly robust group. We are really blessed and excited to be working with them.”
Hammer is also enthusiastic about the number of young professionals who make up this year’s cohort. “The equity lab employs a network-based theory of social change. This means that each new cohort further strengthens and expands our collective ability to advance racial equity in southeast Michigan,” he said.
“An important focus this year is on building the capacity of emerging leaders and linking young people to established elders in the racial equity community. The future belongs to the young, and this focus on young professionals brings important energy and new ideas to our expanding network.”
Hammer said he expects this year’s cohort to build on the first two cohorts’ work, continuing to focus particularly on the role of the media, messaging and storytelling in providing solutions for reshaping racialized belief systems and social policy.
The third-year cohort will meet monthly for workshops, trainings and discussions led by local and national experts. The cohort members also will initiate group projects to use their abilities to identify and address long-standing racial disparities in Detroit.
The cohort first met for a retreat Friday, Oct. 7, and Saturday, Oct. 8. At the Thursday, Nov. 3, session, members had the opportunity to learn more about the work of each other’s organizations and start exploring opportunities for collectively making change.
For new member Michelle Martinez, an environmental expert from Detroit, the chance to be a part of the lab is a welcome opportunity.
“Detroit is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, and social learning here is often haphazard, passing or incidental,” she said. “Having the opportunity to have meaningful, deep and intentional discussions across racial boundaries about race in Detroit is special, a real and urgent need.”
For new member Debra Taylor, a Detroit resident and co-founder of We the People of Detroit, issues of racial inequity are well-known.
We the People was founded in 2008, growing out of a citizen-led initiative to resist the mayoral takeover of Detroit Public Schools. The group has since joined forces with others in the movement for equitable access to water. Responding to the crisis created by mass water shut-offs in Detroit, We the People is leading a community-based research project that sheds light on the realities of the water shut-offs. The group celebrated the release of its first report, “Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit: Volume One” in August at the Keith Center.
Taylor says she wanted to be part of the equity lab because she saw it as an opportunity to continue to create allies and strengthen her knowledge and understanding of how to dismantle structural racism.
Mark Crain, a Detroit resident and project director of Detroit Revival Engaging American Muslims, agrees.
The group took shape after the release of the Detroit Future City report, which outlined a plan to create an “ecological innovation zone” in an already inhabited neighborhood that was home to one of the city’s oldest black-led Muslim congregations, as well as its free health clinic.
“I felt it would be beneficial to my organization to be in this space and deepen a relationship with a community of folks working on inequity,” Crain said. “I see the intention behind the equity lab to be a hub, creating a network of people challenging structural racism.”
For Esperanza Cantú, a Berkley resident and public health project leader at the Detroit Health Department, the equity lab will help her leverage opportunities for change within her professional environment.
“While at the equity lab, I want to create a network and a shared vocabulary that propels racial equity forward,” Cantú said. “I have to know how to talk about the importance of racial equity in spaces where I have been given power.”
Members of the lab’s third cohort are:
• Aamina Ahmed of Canton, executive director of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote – Michigan.
• Amanda Alexander of Detroit, assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at University of Michigan.
• Blair Anderson, black male engagement mentor with Uprooting Racism, Planting Justice and with Michigan Faith in Action.
• Marcia Black of Detroit, co-chair of the Detroit Chapter of Black Youth Project 100.
• Lisa M. Brunk of Detroit, owner of Four Directions Wellness LLC and activist, entrepreneur, artist and community organizer of The Raiz Up.
• Esperanza Felicidad Cantú of Berkley, public health project leader – special projects with Detroit Health Department.
• Rhiannon Chester of Detroit, Detroit action strategist for In Our Backyards.
• Antonio Cosme of Detroit, artist and organizer with The Raiz Up and artist, farmer and organizer with Southwest Grows.
• Mark Crain Jr. of Detroit, project director of Detroit Revival Engaging American Muslims.
• Violeta A. Donawa of Detroit, healing justice organizer and community sociologist with Healing by Choice.
• Raul Echevarria of Wyandotte, director of land use and economic development for Urban Neighborhood Initiatives.
• Eleanor Gamalski of Detroit, community organizer with Detroit Jews for Justice.
• Michelle George of Detroit, registered nurse/public health nurse with Matrix Human Services.
• Lola Gibson-Berg of Detroit.
• Aaron Handelsman of Detroit, senior policy advocate for Detroit People’s Platform.
• Alex B. Hill of Detroit, epidemiologist with Detroit Health Department.
• Aramis D. Hinds Sr. of Eastpointe, pastor of Breakers Covenant Church International and co-chair of Detroit Regional Interfaith Voice for Equity.
• Namira Islam of Southfield, executive director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.
• Christine L.M. Joseph of Ann Arbor, epidemiologist with Henry Ford Health System.
• Marcia Lee of Detroit, coordinator of the Office of Mission and Ministry and Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation at Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph.
• Samantha Magdaleno of Wyandotte, director of community organizing for Detroit Hispanic Development Corp..
• Michelle Martinez of Detroit, executive director of Third Horizon Consulting.
• Lena F. Masri of Novi, legal director of Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Chapter.
• Asha Noor of Dearborn Heights, civic advocacy and engagement specialist with Take On Hate.
• Debra A. Taylor of Detroit, director of finance and development for We the People of Detroit.
• Rebecca Thompson of Detroit, executive director of Good Jobs Now.
• Natasha Tamate Weiss of Detroit, writer and poet with Detroit Asian Youth Project and drummer with Great Lakes Taiko Center.
• Sierra Witcher of Detroit, communications chair for Black Lives Matter Detroit.
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