Montgomery County to hold community conversations on racial equity

Montgomery County, Maryland, officials are hosting a series of conversations centered on racial disparities in housing, education and economic opportunities.

Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro said there’s a very practical reason for taking on issues around racial equity. In announcing the series of community conversations, she said, “When all of our residents have access to opportunities, then everybody benefits here in Montgomery County.”

A look at Census figures from 2011 to 2015 helps illustrate why officials say they want to talk about this now. Statistics compiled by the county show unemployment rates at 4 percent for white residents, 5 percent for Asian residents, 8 percent for Latino residents and 20 percent for African-Americans.

As for statistics around children living in poverty, 2 percent of white children come from homes that struggle economically, while the figures were seven times higher for Latino children and eight times higher, at 16 percent, for African-American children.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and the members of the council say they are on the same page about the need to bring residents together and work within the county government to make sure that the policies they want to adopt don’t exacerbate disparities in the county.

Elrich said he’s prepared for some of those conversations to be difficult ones. “I don’t want to be in a situation where we just have happy stories to tell,” said Elrich, adding, “I want to make sure we talk about where we are in all of this.”

Council member Andrew Friedson said he’s looking forward to the work ahead, calling racial inequity a stain on society. “And like any stain, if you don’t acknowledge it, if you don’t address it, it sets. You might get comfortable with it. You might get even accept it,” he said.

Council member Tom Hucker, whose district includes Silver Spring, said, “This approach is really going to help us serve all the residents of my community in particular.”

He said the unemployment rate in his district is triple that of most of the rest of the county. “We have a long way to go, and I’m counting on all of you to help us meet our commitment,” Hucker said.

Council member Will Jawando recalled growing up in the Long Branch community of Silver Spring. “I learned what racial disparities were before I even knew what that word ‘disparity’ meant,” he said.

Jawando added that as a child, “I knew that things weren’t equal, but I didn’t know why.”

He echoed Navarro when he said a systemic examination of the problems of disparity could help shape constructive policy changes.

“So, here in Montgomery County, we have an opportunity to lead … so that we can have a government that provides opportunity for all of our residents,” Jawando said.

Council member Evan Glass said addressing the lack of opportunity some residents face has to include looking at their transit options.

“If you miss the bus, or the bus is late — that affects dollars in your pocket. If we really want to help everybody increase their access to opportunity, we have to increase our public transportation system here,” Glass said.

Ananya Tadikonda, the student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a senior at Richard Montgomery County High School, said it’s “exhausting” dealing with people’s ideas of who she is and what she’s capable of as someone who is Asian.

Tadikonda said she has actually been questioned by teachers as to if she “really belonged” in advanced courses when she showed up for the first day of those classes.

“It is exhausting to go to a school in a place where none of your teachers look like you,” she said, adding that students of color face “harsh realities” every day.

Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard said immigrant populations from around the world have been growing for decades, and that her institution “stands ready” to help in the conversations for the future of students “to fulfill that promise for Maria, for Mohammed and for Miles.”

The county is encouraging community groups to form and have “conversations,” and has created a “tool kit” to help guide discussions. A number of events are scheduled through the spring and summer.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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