Two years after declaring racism a public health crisis in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the government of Cuyahoga County has begun following through on its pledge to address racial disparities.
So far, according to the Cuyahoga County Equity Commission’s second annual report, it has created new departments dedicated to equity, contracted with more local minority-led businesses, and prioritized development projects in historically disinvested neighborhoods.
County Executive Armond Budish and officials in his administration said the 39-page report (see below) reflects a top-to-bottom commitment to addressing socio-economic and racial disparities in Cuyahoga County.
“We are trying to plant as many seeds as we can now that will blossom over the years,” said Budish, who has been in office since 2015 and is not running for reelection in 2022. “That’s one of the better ways we can make sure that the success we’re experiencing will continue into the future, regardless of the executive.”
The county’s work began internally, with a restructuring of equity-focused departments, but as officials refined their approach to racism, they have also begun looking externally, funneling resources and funding to communities most affected by systemic racism. The impact of these initiatives is as yet unclear.
Internally, the county’s newly-formed Department of Equity and Inclusion takes input from two also newly formed bodies, the Cuyahoga County Citizens’ Advisory Council on Equity (CACE), which is a citizen council, and the Cuyahoga County Equity Commission, composed of county department directors. This year, the department also is organizing training in racial equity for all high-level county employees and creating assessment tools to hold each department accountable to their goals.
On the external front, meanwhile, the county’s Department of Development doled out more than 200 loans to minority-owned businesses last year, and county council approved an additional $3 million in grants for four local nonprofits that lend support to small, women- and minority-owned businesses. In the same vein, county government overhauled policies and procedures for contracting with such businesses, all with the intent of working with them more often.
The county also invested heavily in new development projects in Cleveland’s predominantly African-America Central neighborhood and opened a diversion center, a facility that connects those convicted of drug-related crimes with treatment rather than incarceration. The county also plans to keep investing in affordable housing and home repair programs, rental assistance and source of income legislation, lead mitigation, and broadband expansion.
According to the county’s resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, Black residents, largely those on Cleveland’s east side, live on average six years less than white residents. They’re also far more likely to suffer from diabetes and succumb to cardiovascular diseases. Those disparate outcomes are driven by social and environmental factors like poor access to healthy food, education and employment.
What does declaring racism a public health crisis mean? How does racism impact health outcomes in Cuyahoga County? What are local governments doing about it? Click here for more information.
Budish said the impacts of these racial equity initiatives will endure. Others, though, said more work will be necessary to prevent a loss of momentum through the transition to new leadership next year.
“We certainly need to leave anyone who might succeed us with an understanding of the work done, the ambitions that were created, and the hope for what might be possible,” said Eddie Taylor, the chair of CACE. “That is a duty that we are going to take seriously as we go through this process, because transition sometimes can lead to that stumbling, that inaction.”
The Budish administration’s push for equity began in 2020 with the creation of the Equity Commission and CACE as part of count council’s resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. Taylor said the county has listened to CACE and implemented several of the council’s recommendations over the past year, but getting CACE together wasn’t easy, said District 7 County Council Member Yvonne Conwell, who chairs the Health, Human Services & Aging Committee. The county adopted the legislation to create it in 2012, but action on it was slow.
“I had to push,” Conwell said. “I started making jokes that I’m going to roll out a red carpet in the county chambers when this small segment of the equity plan gets created.”
Budish said he didn’t assemble the council sooner because, “We also tend to have dozens and dozens of boards and commissions, so if it’s not absolutely necessary, we try not to add to that.”
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Following 2020’s initial changes in the summer, a county-hired consultant released a disparity study in the fall. The study found that the county’s efforts to eliminate longstanding discrimination in awarding contracts to minority-owned businesses “had not worked.” In response, Budish and county council voted to disband the county’s Department of Diversity and Procurement in May 2021, delegating its responsibilities to two new, separate bodies: the Department of Equity and Inclusion and the Department of Purchasing.
“Our goal would be to be an example of diversity, equity inclusion within our own operations,” said Lenora Lockett, who was appointed as the Department of Equity and Inclusion’s director shortly after it was formed. “We can learn from the community and benefit the community.”
Since taking charge of the new department’s eight employees and $967,146 budget in September 2021, Lockett has helped arrange a $277,800 contract with Cuyahoga Community College to train all of the county’s executive-level employees on racial equity over the next year and a half. That’s in addition to informal roundtable-style discussions hosted by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services and CACE.
Lockett’s department is also working on a “scorecard” and other assessment tools that will help hold the county’s other departments accountable to their equity goals.
Not all the county’s equity initiatives have been in-house. To mitigate chronic disinvestment in communities of color, Lockett’s department also created a map of “equity zones,” building on the past Opportunity Zone program. The new zones include most of Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs, many of which have large African-American populations.
The Departments of Public Works and Development will give priority to projects in these “equity zones.” The departments will use a point system to decide which projects to fund and give those in equity zones 10 points automatically.
One of the “equity zones” in Cleveland is the Central neighborhood, an early benefactor of the Budish administration’s “Neighborhood Surge Program.” So far, the county, in partnership with Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc., has brought job fairs that connected over 100 Central residents with employers, begun renovating the Cleveland Central Recreation Center, dedicated about $330,000 to improving internet connectivity, and invested about $100,000 in planting trees.
The next step, Budish said, is bringing a bank and credit union into the neighborhood. Some Central residents, however, have said they would prefer a grocery store and a mental health treatment facility.
Most external outreach on equity by the county has taken the form of funding for businesses and hiring contractors. Of the $122.7 million in contracts the county awarded in 2021, about $17 million, or 14%, went to women- or minority-run businesses and small businesses, all of which are grouped together in one category. That’s more than usual; Between 2012 and 2021, the county awarded only 9% of contracts to those groups. Still, there’s room for improvement. According to the most recent census, the population of Cuyahoga County is 30.5 percent Black or African-American.
In late 2021 County Council approved an ordinance overhauling policies and procedures for contracting with women- and minority-run businesses in an effort to make the application process more accessible.
Additionally, the recently approved $3 million in grants will be divided up between The Ohio Aerospace Institute, which will receive $1 million; the Economic Community Development Institute (ECDI) and National Council for Community Development (also known as the National Development Council), which will each receive $750,000; and Village Capital Corporation (VCC), which will receive $500,0000.
“In the position that I’m in, I would like to make a long term impact,” Lockett said. “But that’s on the next administration to determine how they want to implement their programs.”
What happens next?
The question of who will succeed Budish is still open. One Democratic candidate is Chris Ronayne, the former president of University Circle Inc. The other is Tariq Shabazz, a Navy veteran. They’ll face off in the Democratic Party primary on May 3. The winner of that race will face Republican Lee Weingart in the Nov. 8 general election.
All three candidates have expressed commitment to equity in their own ways, highlighting socioeconomic and racial disparities prevalent in the county’s housing market and economy.
Regardless of who wins, the County will remain committed to racial equity, Conwell said. While the immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic has, at times, forced her equity work “to the backburner,” she said, she has faith in her colleagues. Conwell said District 9 Council Member Meredith Turner, who was recently appointed to fill Shontel Brown’s seat, told her she wants to work on health equity.
Still, confronting the county’s broad-ranging disparities will require participation from other entities, Conwell said, including MetroHealth and the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, both of which receive taxpayer money. Achieving equity will be a team effort.
“This is not something that we can overturn in a night,” Conwell said. “This is everybody being dedicated to it.”
This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media funded by The Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land