On racial equality, there’s more to do here

Jul 30, 2020 by

Published July 31, 2020

DURING A DEMONSTRATION against inequality and violence, people lined both sides of the Lynn Fells Parkway Sunday, June 7, to say, “Enough is enough.” (Photo by Raj Das @ED Photos.com)

MELROSE — Not long after the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, many in America realized it was past time for a serious discussion about how to become more racially just and fair.

In Melrose, under the direction of Mayor Paul Brodeur, an “exercise” among city departments was performed. Last week, Brodeur’s administration released the findings of that initiative.

 “While Black communities have been consistently calling for change for decades,” the report’s summary begins, “the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks (and others) and subsequent demonstrations have captured the attention of non-Black Americans in communities all across the country. As a result many, especially white Americans, have begun to learn more about their own biases, the ways public and private institutions have marginalized Black people and other people of color in the past, and how systemic racism and white supremacy continue to impact those communities today. As the national conversation evolves, what has become clear is the critical role local governments can play in leading much-needed progress. The ‘Two Weeks Toward Change’ (TWTC) initiative is the City of Melrose’s first response to this urgent call for equity and justice.”

Following is a portion of the report:

 Two Weeks Toward Change’s focus is primarily on establishing a starting point or first step. Neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, this exercise asked City department heads to list their current procedures and practices, identify national best practices, and develop short, mid, and longer term plans for implementing changes where necessary.

Limitations

As a self-assessment, TWTC is necessarily limited by the perspectives and insights of the department heads completing it. Their viewpoint on their departments’ operations may not reflect the experiences of all our residents or especially our Black residents as well as other residents of color.

Many of our city government policies are overseen by quasi-independent volunteer boards and commissions. Their ongoing involvement in this project will be critical in achieving sustained change that cannot be made unilaterally by the department head themselves.

Additionally, identifying national best practices in each department can be challenging. While a wealth of resources exist to help shape certain department policies and practices, other departments have struggled to identify applicable case studies and research.

Lastly, the work of the City persisted during this period. Most departments are thinly staffed and the complications COVID-19 has presented have posed significant challenges for each department. Completion of this report had to be fit in along with the usual duties and activities of each department head.

Findings

1. Historical lack of resources

The City has not substantively or consistently invested in racial equity work. One off trainings for certain personnel have been offered, but have not resulted in the creation of a consistent and active anti-racist culture across City departments. Despite many departments expressing a keen interest in engaging in this work, budget constraints have restricted the ability of previous administrations in investing in a comprehensive needs assessment, providing frequent and engaging trainings, or supporting targeted recruiting practices within underrepresented communities. Director of Human Resources Marianne Long notes that her department has essentially been level funded for the previous 20 years, and that as a result, identifying, acquiring, and offering professional development and training opportunities to staff has not been a consistent or primary focus of the department.

While the City does follow affirmative action and antidiscrimination policies, integrating the spirit of these initiatives into the daily work of each department and at each recruitment opportunity has met challenges due to a lack of resources. With most City departments being thinly staffed, filling vacant roles quickly is critical in ensuring continuity of service to residents, which puts constraints on hiring timelines. Under previous administrations, Melrose residents often received preference in hiring if all other qualifications were equal to those of competing applicants. This has led, at least in part, to a City government which is largely white, with the City of Melrose consisting of 88.9% white residents as of 2019 according to the US Census.

Most departments indicated an interest or need in establishing a City-wide or department specific updated anti-discrimination policy or statement. They also would like the opportunity to receive implicit bias or other training and to update their recruitment practices.

2. Data collection

Understanding a problem and identifying solutions becomes especially challenging when there are limited methods of measuring the problem and outcomes of the proposed solutions. While narratives, anecdotes, and estimates may point policy makers in the right direction, it is especially difficult to communicate clearly and objectively without tracking data. A central problem is how or if City departments should collect and use demographic data. Many City departments do collect significant amounts of data and statistics, but these collection practices are often not uniform or shared between departments. Integrating the collection, management, and sharing of data into City decision making at the department level will be critical to the City’s long term success. In short, we need measurable ways to track our progress.

3. Public input critical

One value of these self-assessments lies in how they differ or comport with public perceptions and reported experiences of our residents. It is critical that this administration includes Black voices and other residents of color to ensure that our policies are responsive. Providing multiple platforms including email, small group meetings, and one on one discussions will be central.

4. City as Employer and Service Provider: Public Safety and Housing

This review highlights the fact that City government is not merely an employer but is primarily a service provider to the residents of Melrose. Certain departments, policies, and practices shape the daily lives of residents and contribute to creating or mitigating significant structural barriers relative to access to Government services, mobility around the City, resident safety, and the affordability of the community. Public safety and housing are two areas which span multiple departments and which have direct impacts on the experiences and type of residents who live in Melrose.

Housing

The housing policy landscape in Massachusetts is complex and ever-changing. Here in Melrose multiple departments and boards play an interactive role in establishing City practices. The Office of Planning and Community Development, the City Assessor, the Office of Inspectional Services, along with the Planning Board, the

Zoning Board of Appeals, Health Department and others are responsible for shaping the City’s role in creating the community’s housing landscape.

A 2015 study commissioned by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston revealed that while the median net wealth of white Bostonians was nearly $247,500, Black Bostonians’ median net wealth was nearly zero. The barriers toward home ownership, or in many cases simply renting, in Melrose are apparent. The City should focus on efforts to continue to diversify its housing stock, and pursue opportunities to adopt inclusive housing and zoning policies. The City’s most recent master plan “Melrose Forward: Community Vision and Master Plan” contains detailed information about past progress and future possibilities.

Public Safety

Providing for and protecting the safety of all residents is the core responsibility of government. Ensuring that public safety officers are trusted community partners for residents of all backgrounds is critical in creating a secure and thriving City. Across the country, policing practices have disproportionately negatively impacted Black people and other communities of color. How this national dialogue influences and informs our perceptions at the local level requires us to take a methodical examination of our current public safety practices. Central to this process will be the voices of our entire community including Black residents, other residents of color, as well as the members of our police force.

5. Action steps

A. The Mayor and the City Council have approved an investment of $40,000 for the purpose of contracting with a vendor to conduct a City-wide needs assessment relative to racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. In the coming weeks, the Administration will invite community input as we solicit that service. We will seek direction relative to recruitment practices, training programs, data collection and management, and other reforms.

B. Following the Commonwealth’s certification of free cash in the fall, the Administration, in cooperation with the City Council, will commit at least $100,000 towards the implementation of these recommendations. The FY22 budget will include specific and ongoing annual funding to support these initiatives in a sustainable manner.

C. The Mayor will direct all department heads to execute the short term goals identified in their respective reports. Based on recommendations by the outside consultant, the Mayor, along with department heads, will implement the mid and longer term goals.

D. Moving forward, the success of this work will hinge not only on the efforts of the City’s administration, but on the actions and conversations each Melrose resident must have if our community is become more just and equitable. The Mayor invites every resident to join their City government in embarking on this work.

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