June 2019

Column: Working together, central Ohio can hurdle racism to increase prosperity

From The Columbus Dispatch

“Call ’em like you see ’em.”

I heard that phrase countless times during my years as a hurdler competing on the collegiate and international levels. Coaches and trainers knew that if I didn’t honestly and directly identify and focus on core issues, persevere through a lot of pain and push past the human tendency to give up, I would never reach Olympic status.

Our Franklin County Commissioners took that frank self-assessment advice to heart when releasing their report “Rise Together: A Blueprint for Reducing Poverty in Franklin County.” The report flatly calls it out: ”… if real change is to take place, there must be an effort to disrupt the institutional racism and unconscious biases that continue to permeate the community.” They back these assertions with hard facts and data supplied by sources such the Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

As CEO and president of your Columbus Urban League, I deeply appreciate our county leadership’s candor. I know and see it every day. Racism remains one of the highest hurdles this community has yet to clear when it comes to offering economic mobility — a fair chance for a better life — to all our residents. Black women are three times as likely to be evicted. Black babies in Ohio die at three times the rate of white children. The poverty rate for African Americans is 2.5 times as high as the white/non-Hispanic rate.

The problem isn’t new. It’s sadly rooted in American history for hundreds of years. Martin Luther King Jr. advanced it as the next great Civil Rights struggle 50 years ago. He wrote that “no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate poverty.”

The “call” seems very clear. We cannot achieve economic equity unless we confront and move past racism, the same racism that drew the red lines around communities of color a hundred years ago and perpetuates the division between rich and poor, black and white in Columbus neighborhoods today.

As a proponent of the county’s involvement with Forward Cities, I believe this reality came home for many of our business and community leaders as they researched how other cities approach the goal of greater economic and social inclusion. Durham, N.C., Miami, Florida — many metropolitan areas are ushering in more-widespread, color-blind prosperity by candidly and respectfully starting a dialogue, taking steps to change minds and deleting or revising laws and procedures that create divisions rather than heal and uplift.

So, we hear the call. The question now turns to: “Will we act?”

Acting involves thoughtful conversations, big and small. It definitely includes gender and racial equity training, and I again applaud the county for modeling change by training all county employees first.

But it also means opening up seats at the table for voices of diversity and bringing organizations to the process that come from and represent communities of color who struggle with poverty.

Many nonprofits serving under-resourced people insist upon employees and policies that exhibit cultural competence. And their intention is both laudable and important. But we also should bring to the forefront those people and entities who innately understand these issues, whose teams consist of people who have truly walked in the shoes of people of color and families burdened by generational poverty.

Finally, this new direction affords us the chance to change the narrative in our community from talking about poverty to focusing on economic mobility and inclusion. Let’s set our eyes on the positive objective rather than its negative cause.

Congratulations, central Ohio. We’ve made the call. I pray we work together to answer it well.

Stephanie Hightower is president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Urban League, the first woman to hold that position, and a former U.S. track star.

Read the column on