Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL)

Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL)

by Councilman Matt Zone, City of Cleveland //

In early December 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released the results of a two-year investigation into the Cleveland Division of Police. The findings were shocking: Cleveland police officers regularly violated the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution by engaging in a “pattern or practice of using unreasonable and unnecessary force.”

“This pattern of excessive force has eroded public confidence in the police,” the report stated. It also said Cleveland police officers were not provided with adequate “training, policy guidance, support, supervision and equipment needed to allow them to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

Within a week of the DOJ’s findings, our City Council acted. As chairman of Council’s Safety Committee, I scheduled four public hearings in various neighborhoods in our city, making it convenient for citizens to attend and voice their opinions and concerns regarding the federal government’s findings.

Hundreds of people turned out at each of these “Listening Tours” to express their angers, frustrations and concerns face-to-face with members of City Council. We listened, we learned and we pledged publicly to work towards healing and reform.

Since then, we have continued to work with the community and with Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration to restore trust between police and the community. Council recently introduced an ordinance that would put an end to racial profiling. And the Jackson administration recently appointed a 13-member Cleveland Community Police Commission that will make recommendations on creating policies and practices toward reform.

I want to stress that the troubles within the Cleveland Police Department are not exclusive to this city. We are seeing abuses of police power in cities across the nation.

Last month, the National League of Cities (NLC) held an important forum with city leaders and other experts from around the country to respond to the national crises that has elevated issues of race, racism, racial healing, and racial equity. Moderated by NLC CEO Clarence Anthony, I served as a panelist, along with Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, and author and activist Tim Wise.

The event, Undoing Racism in America’s Cities, was the second REAL Talk forum held as part of Race, Equity and Leadership, NLC’s effort to equip cities with the capacity to respond to racial tensions and address historical, systemic and structural barriers that further inequity and racism.

What Racism Looks Like in America Today

For most people, race is a difficult topic. It can spark emotions ranging from denial, guilt, anger and frustration. Some choose to avoid the conversation, perceiving it to be a relic of the Jim Crow era, whereas others speak out boldly and confidently.

My fellow panelists and I agreed that if we are going to create a more equitable society, we have to have this conversation no matter how difficult. We must understand the dimensions of racism. We must acknowledge its historical roots, and how bias (whether consciously or not) affects our criminal justice, educational, and other civic institutions.

“The first role for city leaders is to understand the problem,” said Mayor Freeman-Wilson. “And when you start talking about institutions as a source of that problem, people get a little nervous. But we must take a look at how we are training our personnel, how we’re teaching the next generation, because these attitudes are passed down.”

What We Can Do About It

Local leaders are in a unique position to advance solutions to our nation’s most challenging problems. There are concrete and effective actions city leaders can take to advance racial understanding and create more equitable communities.

  1. Have the conversation early: We must talk with our children about these issues. City leaders can work with parents, caregivers, teachers, faith leaders, and other stakeholders to educate young children about the importance of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance.
  1. Look at policies, procedures and practices: City leaders can apply a racial equity lens to their policies, programs, initiatives and budgets. Local governments have the ability to ensure that there is racial diversity in local government staffing and hiring by contractors working on municipal projects.
  1. Convene community dialogues: There needs to be a platform that creates a safe space where people can share their thoughts. Local leaders have a tremendous opportunity to convene people in a way that allows them to feel that their opinions matter. My “Listening Tours” are good examples.

As a council member in a major American City and as the 1st Vice President of the National League of Cities, I am encouraged by the passion and commitment of leaders to address inequities and build more equitable, inclusive communities. NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership Initiative is uniquely positioned to provide local elected officials the tools, techniques and resources to prepare them to advance the conversation and translate these important conversations into action.

Matt Zone is a member of Cleveland City Council and 1st Vice President of the National League of Cities.


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