Creation of Unity Council Latest Step in Arlington’s Continued Work to Eliminate Racism, Discrimination
By Susan Schrock, Office of Communication
Posted on July 09, 2020, July 09, 2020

Unity in the Community

The new citizen-led Unity Council is among the latest ways the City of Arlington continues its work to create an exemplary, safe environment in which to live, learn, work and play for all residents — regardless of race, ethnicity or national origins.

The Arlington City Council on Tuesday made its first appointments to the 28-member Unity Council, whose mission will be to gather community input, research best practices and recommend strategies that the City of Arlington could implement to promote and encourage greater equality across our community. The Unity Council’s work to create a racial equity plan is part of the City’s commitment to equality, inclusion, and the elimination of institutional racism and other forms of discrimination in its policies and practices.

From police reform to the planned adoption of a racial equity plan by next year, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams said the city will advance a number of short-, medium- and long-term goals that aim to build unity in the community and improve life here for all.

“It will be a continual journey, yet we are trying to work so we are able to make progress all along the way. This isn’t a situation where we are trying to put off things, but neither are we are trying to move too fast,” Williams said. “There are some things that are real clear cut that we can do to make a difference in our community. We are working toward equality and justice so we can live in unity. That is the goal.”

Advancing Equity in Arlington

Arlington’s strategies to advance racial equity include holding community conversations, listening to voices promoting racial equity already, making changes to systems and policies, and planning a path forward.

Williams said one of the City’s immediate goals is police reform, which recently included an update to the Arlington Police Department’s Use of Force policy and a review of recommendations in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report to strengthen community trust and collaboration. Longer-range goals are expected to come out of the Unity Council, which will send its recommendations to the City Council by spring 2021.

The City Council also unanimously adopted Racial Equity and Equity Related to COVID-19 resolutions and the charge for the Unity Council, which is based on a framework provided by the National League of Cities’ Race, Equity and Leadership initiative.

District 8 At-large City Councilwoman Dr. Barbara Odom-Wesley, who is involved in NLC’s Race, Equity and Leadership initiative and requested that the Council consider the equity resolutions, said discrimination and racism don’t have to be as obvious as the segregation she experienced as a child to cause real and lasting harm. Disparities in access to healthcare, jobs, housing, educational opportunities, and essential services can keep people trapped in the cycle of poverty. Promoting equity helps individuals to determine their own level of success, instead of it being determined by their race, ethnicity, nationality or zip code.

“I do think we have children who feel less than. When you look at families who live in poverty, they have the same dreams and hopes for their children as everyone else does. What they do not have is a roadmap of how to get from here to there,” Odom-Wesley said. “They need marketable skills. They need livable wages. They need opportunities. There’s a lot of work to be done and we are all committed to getting it done.”

Maintaining the Public’s Trust

Public outrage and frustration over incidents of police violence, including the death of George Floyd—an unarmed Black man in Minnesota earlier this year—has sparked protests, demonstrations and calls for change in cities across the country. Arlington is listening and ready to take action, Odom-Wesley said.

“Racism and injustice have been with us ever since we’ve been a country. We, as a society, have managed to push it down to just below the surface,” she said. “But from time to time, that scab gets ripped off. Something happens and it is a glaring example of plain, overt racism. That is what happened with the George Floyd incident.”

“It just rips the scab off. All of that frustration and hurt and anger comes oozing out in the form of protests, in the form of resentment. My hope is this time will be the last time, and that this time we’ll put some policies, procedures and practices in place that will weed out the systemic racism.”

In 2016, the Arlington Police Department was selected as one of 15 law enforcement agencies nationwide to serve as an exemplary implementation model for the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. But no community or law enforcement agency is perfect, and Arlington’s work is not finished to ensure a positive role and function of police in our society, Williams said.

The department is currently reviewing its Advancing 21st Century Policing Report to the Community to measure its progress and evaluate recommendations that could be implemented, Williams said. Additionally, the department updated its Use of Force policy in June 2020 in alignment with the national #8CANTWAIT project. This includes a ban on chokeholds and strangleholds, requires de-escalation before resorting to force, requires city employees to intervene to stop or prevent the use of excessive force by another city employee and requires comprehensive reporting related to the use of force. The department had many of the recommendations from this report already in place and implemented the vast majority of guidelines in 2017. Department officials say they welcome continued dialogue on this topic through upcoming virtual listening sessions that will launch this month.

“Maintaining the public’s trust is critical for police departments as they grapple with the emotions and genuine frustrations people have with policing,” interim Police Chief Jaime Ayala said when the policy was updated and shared with the public. “We believe we are in a good position to address the many questions that we are receiving based upon the caliber of training and policies that are already in place in Arlington. We are also open to expanded community conversations to analyze our current practices and policies to ensure they are reflective of what the community expects.”

Community conversations are already under way. Last month, Pastor Kennedy Jones invited members of the Arlington Police Department to participate in the Equal Protection and Justice Under the Law Summit at the Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church last month. On June 7, Jones also led a march from church to City Hall, where he presented the Arlington City Council with an Equal Protection and Justice Under the Law Proclamation.

Kennedy was among those appointed Tuesday to the Unity Council, whose roster also includes the 15-member Community Relations Commission.

“We recognize that the burden of leadership is not easy, but bearing the weight of unequal treatment and justice is an even greater burden to bear, especially for those that can least afford to,” Jones said in the proclamation. “Let our work here today together, make right the broken places in our administration of the law and heal the harm that far too many throughout our society have been scarred by.”

Click here to watch the June 23 City Council discussion of the Unity Council. Click here to watch the June 30, 2020, City Council discussion on the Unity Council.

Expanding Our Understanding 

Dr. Ronnie Goines, pastor of Koinonia Christian Church, called the creation of the Unity Council “a major stride in the right direction” in broadening the community’s understanding of the challenges and hurdles that exist.

“I’ve seen a lot of intelligent people but they were ignorant to certain perspectives. It’s a big world but if you only interact with like-minded people, you will have a small-world view,” Goines said. “The Unity Council is such a major thing because it expands all of our perspectives. When you bring in some of the best minds in Arlington—people who have a heart for the city and a heart for humanity—nothing but good can come out of that.”

Community engagement and input will be critical to the city’s success, said the Rev. Michael Glaspie of Mount Olive Baptist Church.

“We need to constantly look at things we can do to bring each other closer together. If we could have periodic community conversations, where all aspects of our community have an opportunity to sit down, listen and understand what issues are out there, then we can collectively address them,” Glaspie said. “The better personal relationships we have, the better we can operate together.”

Unity Council Members Appointed July 7, 2020:

  • Akram Abbadi
  • Murjan Altawil
  • Ines Roach
  • Jason Shelton
  • Charletta Sharp
  • Grace McDermott
  • Pamela Roach
  • Dan Fernandez
  • Kennedy Jones
  • Reecia Stoglin
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