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Cincinnati Aims To Create A Racial Equity Task Force 'With Teeth'

over the rhine
Al Behrman
Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is just one area of the city that has changed drastically over the last 10 years, but not always in equal measure. A new task force aims to change that.

Racial minorities have historically had unequal opportunities in education, employment and housing. This summer,inequity in policing and the criminal justice system brought millions of people protesting in the streets across the country, including Cincinnati. But over the past few months, it's the inequity in health care that's been pushed into the spotlight due to COVID-19.

Cincinnati's Racial Equity Task Force was appointed earlier this fall and has the tall order of trying to recommend policy to take on these issues.

'We Feel The Urgency' 

In cities across the country, reports from well-intentioned task forces collect dust in filing cabinets and are deleted from hard drives to save space. They're notoriously known for not having any teeth when it comes to making big changes in communities.

Nonetheless, the Racial Equity Task Force was created with almost 20 members in late Octoberand charged with creating policy recommendations to the mayor and City Council. 

"This issue of health and health inequities systems, systemic and structural racism is not new. It has existed for centuries," Committee Co-Chair Renee Mahaffey Harris said, adding that writing reports and gathering data is not what's going to happen with the Racial Equity Task Force.

"I think we all feel the urgency, and I think COVID-19 — I think what it has done is made us feel even more urgent," she said. "We can't keep talking about it. We can't keep reading reports. We don't need to read any more reports. We need action."

According to data from the CDC, Black and Latino people are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Native American are 2.6 times more likely to die.

This glaring gap is part of a web of inequity in communities, Harris says. People of color are less likely to have access to obtaining degrees in higher education, which directly impacts the kinds of jobs they have, which in turn impacts the kind of health care they get. Everything - from transportation to work from home opportunities - has come to a head during the pandemic.

"We do instinctively know from the data already what the issues are and problems are," she said. "I think we all want to move aggressively." 

'The Key' To Changing Outcomes

Part of that includes instilling a "bottom up" approach to supplement data about the city with anecdotes from people living with the racial disparities, she said.

"I think that's the key to changing outcomes that in some ways seem like they're so big, right? I think the way that they become smaller is that they're from the bottom up."

Cincinnati City Council Member Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney says the task force is much needed when it comes to lawmaking in the city. It started being discussed this spring when the city was preparing to declare racism a public health crisis. She didn't want to see the declaration made without incurring other direct action.

"There are different groups that are working on different elements anyway," she said. "And so we said, let's pull them together and see where we are; what people are working on. Let's look and see where the gaps are." 

Kearney knows what those gaps are better than most people on council. She grew up in Avondale, a historically Black neighborhood where racial inequity is prominent and widely experienced.

"I think people who are living maybe in a more privileged environment, might not understand that there are reasons that people are impoverished," she said. "There are reasons people don't own their homes. There are reasons for racial disparities in health. Folks who are living in food deserts and not getting adequate health care." 

For her, the key to turning things around in communities like the one she's from is focusing on both short and long term projects that will keep people engaged in the process and measuring exactly how things are changing for people.

"I would like to see thriving neighborhoods, for example, where we have development, but the people who already live there are benefiting from those developments. ... So there's less poverty, and there's more economic growth for everybody," she said. "I'd like to see more home ownership. ... I mean, there are things that we can look at and say, 'You know, are we doing better?' And so those are things I'm really interested in measuring."

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.