Council approves $300K for ‘immediate’ action on racial equity at City Hall

Survey: ‘Mixed perceptions’ among staff on workplace discrimination in Lansing

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Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is charging forward with a $300,000 plan to build an “anti-racist and bias-free environment” at City Hall following a recent stamp of approval from the City Council.

The funding for the mayor’s initiative was released by the City Council through a 5-2 vote last week. It includes about $154,000 to be spent on consultants and more training for city staff.

Another $70,000 will be used for individual departments to craft two-year “equity action plans” that include specific strategies to curb workplace discrimination and chip away at racial biases. 

The rest will be used to develop an online mapping tool to ensure that underserved neighborhoods receive a more equitable share of the city’s attention.

“This is a good first step, and certainly not the only step,” Schor added.

The funds were approved by the Council when it passed Schor’s latest budget proposal, but they were held in a reserve account that required Council approval before Schor could begin spending the cash.

Only Council members and mayoral challengers Kathie Dunbar and Patricia Spitzley voted against releasing the funds. Councilman Brian Jackson was absent from the 5-2 vote. 

Spitzley said Schor’s yearlong efforts to guide reforms related to racial equity have lacked transparency and have been “tainted from the start” — beginning with the requirement that members of the Mayor’s Racial Justice and Equity Alliance sign non-disclosure agreements.

Dunbar mostly criticized the timeliness of the proposal, contending that most of the recent recommendations had already been assembled more than a year ago by the Mayor’s Inclusion and Advisory Council. She also said the $76,000 to create “heat maps” could be better spent.

“I won’t support this proposal, though I do believe that this work needs to be done,” she said.

“It’s a starting point,” added Council President Peter Spadafore. “We have to start somewhere.”

Schor’s latest plan follows a damning new report from the Michigan Public Health Institute that outlined a litany of concerns from people of color over unfair treatment at City Hall.

The City Attorney’s Office contracted with the nonprofit organization in January to conduct an employee survey that aimed to gauge staff perceptions of racial equity, diversity and inclusion under Schor’s administration. The institute’s chief strategy officer, Paul Elam, presented an overview of the responses to the Council last week. City officials have not yet released the full results. A mayoral spokeswoman also couldn’t provide a cost summary for the study.

Of the 888 employees invited to fill out the survey, 289 submitted a response, Elam said. Of those, 60% of respondents were aware of any equity plans being made in the city. In total, about 70% of the respondents were white. About 17% were Black. Another 36 employees participated in focus groups, including at the Police and Fire departments. 

Among the findings: Employees cited inequitable employment opportunities and work-related practices based on race as well as biological sex. Staff also reported inequities in Schor’s administration handled subsequent complaints over that treatment. 

Elam said, “Employees regardless of race indicated grievances were not handled in an appropriate manner and shoved under the rug. This was predominant in a few departments.”

About 7% of employees said they were satisfied with the city’s efforts to bolster diversity, but far more employees of color submitted negative feedback compared to their white counterparts, Elam explained. Other top complaints included a lack of diversity at the Fire Department, a philosophical disconnect on diversity between top executives and rank-and-file staff, a workplace culture largely dominated by white men and general lack of inclusivity. 

“Employees who identified as white and BIPOC had different perspectives regarding their perceived diversity within their respective departments,” Elam said. “That just means everyone is not in agreement on this particular question. Depending on who you asked, they had a different perspective. Some perceived their departments diverse, while others did not.”

Elam said two women “really raised some concerns” regarding sexism at City Hall. Other Black staffers also told him they feel pressured to work twice as hard as white personnel. He also mentioned concerns about “culturally inappropriate symbols” in work-related text messages.

“There is this sort of cafeteria-style experience people have. People of color tend to hang out with people of color. White people tend to hang out with white people,” Elam added, noting that an ongoing sense of “cancel culture” and turnover among top executive roles hasn’t helped.

“By cancel culture, we mean it’s an approach when employees are silenced or dismissed if they don’t agree with something or someone,” Elam explained. “They sort of feel like they’re being pushed to the side. Several employees shared their opinion of this actually happening to them.”

Schor’s latest $300,000 plan marked some of the first concrete financial steps that his administration has taken in the wake of several allegations that paint a racially discriminatory picture at City Hall and the Fire Department, where several complaints have stemmed. 

Most recently, former Battalion Chief Shawn Deprez told City Pulse that she was sexually assaulted by a superior and subjected to unchecked homophobic and sexist harassment. Several current and former Black staffers — including a former scheduler in Schor’s office — are also suing Schor and the city for alleged discrimination and race-based retaliation. 

In the aftermath of racial tensions only heightened after the murder of George Floyd, Schor formed the 40-member Racial Justice and Equity Alliance in July 2020 to examine the potential for reforms. That group worked for the last year in tandem with local attorney Teresa Bingman, who was paid $63,000 to serve as a consultant. At that time, she also served as a senior consultant for Vanguard Public Affairs, which previously assisted Schor with campaign fundraising efforts.

All members of the Equity Alliance were also asked to sign “confidentiality agreements” that prevented disclosure of their discussions, only the polished release of their final recommendations — the latest plan for more staff training and an online map tool among them.

Elam also presented a list of 13 staff recommendations for progress, including recruiting and hiring more diverse employees, focusing on equity at an individual departmental level rather than a citywide scale, hosting more social events for all employees, retaining programs like the Citizens Police Academy and ramping up training related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Elam’s organization also crafted another specific list of recommendations for Schor’s administration, including a charter amendment that incorporates additional funding every year for racial justice strategies, the formation of another diversity-related advisory board, more employee outreach and a policy that “sets a tone at the top that starts with the mayor,” Elam explained to Council last week. 

Putting the plans in motion will “actually move the city forward in the right direction,” Elam said.

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