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A seven-point Equity and Empowerment plan presented to the Human Services Committee on July 10 was met with more criticism than support from the public.  The plan involves City Council actions; equity training; community engagement; staff engagement; empowerment; analysis of equities/inequities in the City’s workforce; and developing/implementing equity in policies, processes, and procedures.

As examples City Council is asked to create of a nine-member Equity & Empowerment Commission. Community engagement will involve recruiting and training volunteers to become Equity Community Engagement Specialists.

In her presentation, Dr. Patricia Efiom, the City’s Equity and Empowerment Coordinator, answered some of the questions posed during citizen comment. Still, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she had additional questions that time did not permit that evening, and she asked that the committee, rather than accepting the report, hold it for additional discussion at the committee’s next meeting. A second to that motion halted discussion and postponed the matter until that meeting.

Residents’ Concerns

Residents criticized the plan for, among other things, not having measures of success, not using available data, and not having a clear way to contact or engage residents who do not attend town hall meetings or use social media.

“My concern about this plan, if it is a plan, is that there are no criteria for measuring success,” said Sarah Vander Wicken. “It is basically a plan to have more meetings and a plan to have more plans. … There needs to be some focus on changing the consciousness of some white people in the City.”

Prudence Morland said, “It seems like a long time before we get to action. … And missing, even by mention, is affordable housing.”

Michelle Hayes said she was concerned about the gap between need and resources. She also said the plan should include information and data that the City already has. “There are people who don’t know about City services, [and we are] asking them how they feel about City services before they know about what services there are.”

Eileen Hogan Heineman, Director of Racial Justice Community Engagement for the YWCA-Evanston/North Shore, said the YWCA “is completely behind this work and wants to support the City.” She asked whether this would be an “internal” program or one taken to the community” and said, “What’s missing is an internal assessment.”

Ms. Heineman also said, “To, me, this is an outline to make a plan. … If you could say, ‘Here are three things we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do them,’ this could get people engaged and excited.” Noting that understanding terms is critical for the plan, she also said, “Our country doesn’t understand [equity], but our City certainly could.”

Karen Courtwright and Priscilla Giles spoke about community engagement. Ms. Courtwright said that, although Dr. Efiom said she would attend ward meetings, “My ward, the Eighth Ward, does not have ward meetings. And I’m not sure how well town hall meetings are attended.”

Ms. Giles said, “You need to have another way to contact people. People who have ideas won’t come out if they don’t know about the meetings.”

Betty Ester criticized the vagueness of the plan and its limited scope of equity. “There is a lot of statement but really no content. You should add all the Title I categories [such as gender, age, and disability].” She also suggested information about how to file a complaint with the federal government be included, since that information was supplied for state and county complaints.

Raina Campbell said, “I question how this is being rolled out. Why aren’t people who have been working on this for a time being included?”

The Equity and Empowerment Plan

Dr. Efiom said she understood that there have to be different ways to connect with community members. The five town hall meetings, attended sparsely and for the most part by white women, “showed us this is not the way we can engage people.” She said there will be two Spanish-language meetings. She also said, “We are engaged at District 65 and District 202, with the YWCA and about 40 other organizations. If we do not engage with them, this will not succeed.”

Dr. Efiom said the definition of equity for this plan is “the guarantee of fair treatment access, inclusion, opportunity and advancement for all residents, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of marginalized groups. Equity invites all people to be active participants in the decision-making processes that shape how the City of Evanston invites diversity.”

Empowerment, according to the plan, is “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights. It is the power given to someone to do something.”

Dr. Efiom said, “We’re not going to do that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. Historically, people who have been marginalized have been given what others think they should have. But in order to achieve equity, we need to ensure that those who have been marginalized groups are empowered to speak for themselves.”

Race must be at the center of equity and equity discussions, she said. Her observations of problems in the City, earlier in the year, as she was working on the plan and engaging with the public about her role, led her to believe that “consistently, across the board, race was the issue. There is a clear lack of participation by people of color. The City does not have sense of trust with the black community. … We have to put race at the top of the agenda.”

Referring to the three-year strategic plan, Dr. Efiom said, “I understand that people want to move quickly, but to develop an effective plan, we need several months. People need to understand what equity is and what white privilege is. Our goal is to change behaviors. For the plan to be effective, we have to have participation. Part of the problem is that the organizations speak on behalf of their clients, but we need to hear [the clients’] voices … because we have historically left people out.”

Committee Response

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said, “I am pleased to hear that you’re focusing on the voices of people who need to be heard. We need to hold the Council and the Mayor accountable on their appointments. Race is our top priority. We are very diverse but very segregated.”

“I’m very excited about the program,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, “and I’m glad to see affordable housing is included. … Where we can challenge ourselves is the budget.”

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said she hoped that Council members would be included in the equity training. Dr. Efiom responded that they would be included. 

Ald. Fleming said, “I think the plan needs more work.” She said she had many concerns about the plan, and time that evening did not permit discussion of them. The Administration and Public Works and Planning and Development committee meetings, as well as the City Council meeting, were scheduled for later that evening.

“Our intention was never final approval,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. “We would like to have 60 days to come back to you.”

“We were asked to accept the report, and I don’t think we’re ready to do this,” said First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, who chairs the committee.

The Equity and Empowerment Plan will be on the agenda for the Aug. 7 Human Services Committee meeting.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...