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City Council members approved a resolution on June 10 that affirmed the City’s commitment to addressing racism and ensuring equity in City operations, recognizing in unusually frank terms the City’s coming to grips with its own history of discrimination and racial injustice as part of the process of moving forward.
Aldermen voted 9-0 in support of the resolution, drawn up by Ninth Ward Alderman Cicely Fleming and described as “a commitment to end structural racism and achieve racial equity.”
The resolution follows earlier steps by the City to make equity a central focus in officials’ decision-making. Aldermen voted to create the City’s first Equity and Empowerment Coordinator during the fiscal 2017 budget year, focusing on strategies to make the City more equitable.
In 2018, the City Council identified equity as a Council goal and approved the creation of a City commission, the Equity and Empowerment Commission, to examine City actions through an equity lens.
In discussing the need for the resolution, Ald. Fleming said, “While these efforts are beneficial, we see racial tensions escalating both nationally and locally, including in our schools.”
Modeled after racial equity initiatives and equity best practices used in other cities, her resolution stresses the “importance to realize that all work done to achieve equity must come from leadership,” she said in a memo, “and include acknowledgement of intentional (and unintentional harm) done to communities of color.”
Along those lines, the resolution noted “the land we currently know as Evanston originally belonged to the Potawatomi Tribes until their forceful and violent relocation at the hands of white colonizers; John Evans, our City’s namesake, played a role in the Sand Creek Massacre that killed approximately 150 Native Americans; and, the first Evanston resident of African descent, Maria Murray, was a former slave purchased by the Vane family to labor as a domestic in 1855.”
In discussion, Ald. Fleming acknowledged that the resolution language in some places is “harsh,” but said it was so out of necessity, “because racism is harsh, and I don’t know a way you can talk about it without using some harsh language.
“I don’t use it to offend,” she said. “I use it to be honest. If you hurt someone, part of that repair is apology. You should stop and recognize what you did.”
The resolution states that Evanston government “recognizes that, like most, if not all, communities in the United States, the community and the government allowed and perpetuated racial disparity through the use of many regulatory and policy-oriented tools.”
The examples cited, included “the use of zoning laws that supported neighborhood redlining, municipal disinvestment in the black community and a history of bias in government services.”
“Such practices were often overt,” the resolution stated, “but more often, covertly adopted or incorporated under the guise of what would appear to be legitimate policy. These ordinances and other City-wide practices have contributed to the decimation of historically black neighborhoods, a lack of trust of government by some black residents, and the collapse of a once economically thriving black community.”
The resolution calls on the City, known for its progressive policies and diversity, to acknowledge its own history “of racially-motivated policies and practices and apologize for the damage this history has caused the City, and declares that it stands against White Supremacy.”
As the elected Council, charged with representing the City and residents, the resolution stated, aldermen should participate in racial equity training, reaching a deeper understanding how their decisions can “hinder or promote equity for all,” paying particular attention to those historically disadvantaged.
In addition, the resolution calls on the City to join the Government Alliance on Race & Equity – a national network of government agencies working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all.
A number of speakers, representing different wards, spoke in support of the proposal during the citizen comment session, which preceded the Council vote.
“It’s time for Evanston to do this – to say we’re going to commit ourselves to anti-racism,” said Alyce Barry. “The bottom line is structural racism hurts people, because someone thinks they need to be hurt. I want to live in a City that doesn’t hurt people by design and helps whoever needs help, by design.” Ms. Barry is board secretary of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL), which Ald. Fleming founded and of which she is still a member.
Another speaker, Sarah Vanderwicken, told Council members that at the Unitarian Church of Evanston a group of people have been working for several years now, “deepening our members understanding about the issues of racial equity and justice.”
She said the effort has extended into the broader community as well. One of the “most powerful and useful things we have been doing is attempting to identify how racism plays out in situations and practices that simply seem normal and every day – part of the air we breathe,” she said.
A few other speakers, though, contrasted the resolution with the Council’s own actions recently on public participation, including a recent vote to diminish the City Clerk’s authority on the Freedom of Information process.
While the resolution is “a nice gesture,” said Darlene Cannon, “I personally don’t believe it will have a positive impact on Blacks. … If there is no action, it’s just words and a photo op … It feels like this is being used to cloak and distract us from the real discriminatory practices of the City, such as institutional racism and lack of transparency.”
In Council discussion, aldermen pointed to the need to make the language in Alderman Fleming’s resolution tangible.
“Everybody has to buy into this,” Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, “and until we do, it’s just a resolution out there with someone’s very excellent intentions and wishes.”
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward acknowledged she had concerns about some of the language of the resolution, especially that which did not point to the work “that many hundreds, if not thousands, of people had done over the past decade to not only recognize the structural problems” of racism, “but also to address it.”
“Those steps are really important, and I want to thank everyone involved in it,” she said. At the same time, she acknowledged that the fight against racism “is an ongoing process that will never end, never should end.”
Introducing the resolution, Ald. Fleming said her goal was to “start what I hope to be a productive healing process, and a learning for the City Council. As everyone has said tonight, there’s a lot of work to do.
“The resolution is not one that has an action plan necessarily. It is a commitment and a statement that you [residents] can hold us to.
“In writing this, it was not my goal to set out a dissertation and every step that needs to happen, because that is the role of this entire Council, the role for us to support our staff in doing.
“What I did do in writing this, my goal was not to be seen as Cicely Fleming’s resolution. …It is the resolution of the City Council, but like everything else, it has to start somewhere. This is a very long process, much of it started before I got here – the Civil Rights movement and so on – but we have not arrived.”