COUNTY CONNECTIONS: Answering the Call for Equity
Sep 18, 2020 08:50AM
By Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken - From Cook County MN - September 18, 2020
In 2020, local governments had to pivot and respond to a public health emergency that developed quickly and had widespread impact.
On the heels of the rush to control a global pandemic, we have also been called upon to take action against racial inequity. Racial inequity is its own public health crisis, leading to disparities in health, education and justice. These, in turn, negatively impact the ability of our communities to grow and prosper.
Racism, unlike the pandemic, is a distinctly American crisis. Racial inequity has been developing since race as a social construct was first invented during European Imperialism, where it became 1) a means to politically divide and weaken the underclass, and 2) a justification for black slavery and the extermination of American Indians in the quest for white prosperity.
U.S. Census records show that, over the past 50 years, Minnesotans of color have grown from 2 percent to 20 percent of the state's population. People of color make up more than 10 percent of Cook County’s population. After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police this spring, local residents began demonstrating weekly on Highway 61 in Grand Marais to honor the lives of Black, Indigenous, and other peoples of color who have been killed in violent incidents with police. This group has, at times, grown to over 75 people.
At the June 23 meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Interim Administrator Rena Rogers read a letter to commissioners from resident author and recent finalist for the 2020 Minnesota Book Award, Staci Drouillard. Drouillard asked the county to collaborate with other local communities to create a plan of action to combat systemic racism and support black and indigenous communities. “Local leaders have an obligation to unlearn racism and educate themselves on unconscious bias,” Drouillard wrote.
In response to the demand for action, the county board has begun discussions and planning around actions we can take to reduce racial inequity. On July 21, I presented a report to the board on the subject of Human Rights Commissions, followed by input from City of Duluth Human Rights Officer Carl Crawford. County leadership is exploring a land acknowledgment process in cooperation with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and local historical resources. The board also called a joint powers meeting on August 25, where several local entities met to discuss collaboration on the subject of racial inequity. The meeting included representatives from the Grand Portage Reservation Tribal Council, the Grand Marais City Council and ISD 166 leadership.
Change within county departments is also underway. Human Resources is reviewing and improving hiring and personnel policies to strengthen anti-discrimination practices and expand diversity through recruitment. Cook County Public Health and Human Services is conducting outreach and education on how racism impacts all dimensions of individual and community health, safety and wellbeing. For example, the department has used social media to share tools for combating bigotry and to spread the message that each person deserves the same chance to be healthy.
Concern over racial disparities in criminal justice is a primary driver in this year’s demands for change, so the County Sheriff and I are each taking steps towards improving equity in policing and prosecution. Each office seeks to better track race in its operations, a necessary practice so that differences may be acknowledged and improved upon. In the last year, Sheriff Pat Eliasen strengthened de-escalation training resources by adding an on-staff trainer. Finally, the Sheriff and I have partnered to create the Equity in Justice Initiative, a small group including representatives from law enforcement, Grand Portage and the Violence Prevention Center to examine the system and its policies so that necessary change can be made from the inside out.
Additional information is available on the county website at www.co.cook.mn.us.
County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service