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The day after George Floyd was murdered by a Minnepolis police officer, Denise Barreto started her new job: May 26, 2020, was her first day as the inaugural Director of Equity and Inclusion for Cook County. 

In this role in the Cook County Board’s office, she implements and evaluates racial equity principles into all county operations. 

One of the projects Barreto works on is the annual Racial Equity Week, which this year starts Monday, Sept. 12. Each day of the week, the county hosts an event intended to capture diverse perspectives and inspire conversations about the county’s racial equity progress.

“Racial Equity Week is … a week that we stop and pause and highlight all the different efforts that are happening continuously, not only within Cook County government, but within the county,” Barreto said.

This year’s theme is “Many People One Goal.” It was inspired by the division in the world right now, Barreto said.

“Everyone in this county wants to thrive,” she said. “It’s our acknowledgement of the rich diversity throughout Cook County, and how all of those people can have all those perspectives. And ultimately, we all have one goal: to make a more equitable and just Cook County.”

Former neo-Nazi Jeff Schoep.

One of the week’s first events is a virtual conversation about white supremacy and indoctrination with a former Nazi, Jeff Schoep. Simon Wiesenthal Center Midwest Regional Director Alison Pure-Slovin will moderate that one-on-one conversation at 7 p.m. Monday. 

Additional events feature conversations about designing safe streets for all, issues with the Urban Indian Relocation Program and discussions with filmmakers and storytellers. The majority of Racial Equity Week events are virtual. They are also recorded, so anyone interested also can watch the programs at a later date.

This year marks the fourth time the county has hosted Racial Equity Week. And Barreto said a lot has changed since she took her post. 

Last year, the Cook County Racial Equity Action Plan for 2021-2023 was released and the Cook County Office of the President also issued an executive order to establish a racial equity policy. The policy defines racial equity, racial equity planning, racial equity framework and racial equity action plan. It also mandates equity and inclusion training and requires an annual review of goals to advance racial equity.

The Office of the President has also made an effort to be more inclusive to the county’s rising Latine population. It hired more people of Latine descent to its staff as well as younger people, created a Latine advisory committee and is working with the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement (HACE).  

“Our very offices, our DNA look different from what it did last year,” Barreto said in reference to the added diversity in county hiring. “So we said it, and now I can tell you a year later, it actually happened.”

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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