Community in Government: Addressing Racial Equity within the System

By Aaron Neal, MS

November 15, 2019

Aaron serving a government employee at the Sustainability Action Agenda picnic where we thanked, honored, and planned with stakeholders, government employees, and Detroit community for support in releasing Detroit’s first sustainability plan.

Working in Non-Profits and doing community engaged work I was not initially excited about the prospect of working for the government around issues of sustainability. What vested interests could the City of Detroit have in sustainability? In Racial Equity? In Social Justice? At the nexus of these three topics? The reality is that this work does happen in government, it just looks slightly different. There are covert ways to ensure that social and environmental sustainability are happening in the work that is being done with federal and philanthropic dollars. Much like nonprofits, local governments receive monetary support from federal and philanthropic organizations to advance environmental sustainability. For example, the City of Detroit’s Office of Sustainability has long been supported by the Erb Family Foundation’s dollar to ensure environmental, economic, and socially responsible development and maintenance that will withstand the challenges that are unique to Detroit. Further, federal and state funds are disbursed to Detroit to support various initiatives and plans. Having more than one source of funding means having more than one source of influence in the initiatives that the Office of Sustainability must undertake. With these multiple funding sources, it creates unique challenges to maintain relevance while staying grounded in the principles of equitably advancing towards a sustainable future. Thanks to the transparent and thoughtful planning done in this office, the projects underway are set to overcome these challenges.

Another unique experience I had while working in city government was viewing the City of Detroit’s employees and government structures as a form of community. As a person dedicated to understanding and working cohesively with community, I am much more accustomed to working with the communities impacted by government employees and government structures rather than government entities enacting the changes within communities. It took me a while to conceptualize that the work that I was doing was community engaged work…but with the government.

My primary project was to use qualitative inquiry to understand how the city of Detroit conceptualizes racial equity and institutes practices that are rooted in equity. In order to do this, I had to understand the history of the City of Detroit, the culture of its employees, the challenges of their work and positions, and how their work impacted the broader city of Detroit and its residents. I ended up using many of the principles of community engaged scholarship to understand how a city government understands racial equity and what barriers might slow the process of implementing racial equity practices. As mentioned earlier, all my work has been at the community level with the residents impacted by the practices of government. One of the challenges that I frequently faced when working with communities was the slow-moving process towards structural the injustices embedded within the system. While working within the local government, the process towards change is just as, if not slower than that of community-led structural change. While this was frustrating,  I did appreciate the ability to address the structural issues from a new perspective. The people can and should continue to demand more equitable practices from the government and its elected leaders. At the same time, there should always be continual internal progress towards undoing and addressing the inequities present within local government.

This experience really challenged me to work with those that I do not necessarily agree with politically. It challenged me to understand their form of community and to think empathetically about how we could come to a collective understanding of what truth and justice is. This experience taught me about the utility of government and the many challenges that are ahead in creating structural changes. This is challenging and necessary work. We need more activists. We need more government workers. We need more people who can and will do both.

About Aaron Neal, MS

Aaron Neal is a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, Aaron studies Clinical Psychology specifically looking at how structural racism impacts African American youth development. He hopes to use my training to assist in the creation of more equitable practices when interacting with African American youth. His research sits at the intersection of community/clinical psychology and public health.