8 Questions with Alize Asberry PayneDesiraé Simmons
Alize Asberry Payne is the first Washtenaw County Equity Officer. She started in her position in July 2019. Given the racial inequities between the 48197 & 48198 zip codes and the rest of the county, I wanted to learn more about how she will approach her work. During the public presentations that the final candidates did in February 2019, Asberry Payne shared that her background is in organizing so we talked about lessons that community advocates, activists, and organizers could use too.
1) What is a Racial Equity Officer exactly?
It’s the person who’s supposed to help set mission and vision for the Racial Equity Office in collaboration with both government and the community. Day-to-day that looks like helping to examine county-wide policies and procedure and engagement strategy around race equity and community justice priorities. How are we distributing resources in our community? Are we utilizing county government services in an equitable way? Are they distributed equitably? Equity is about making sure communities have what they need to not just survive, but to thrive. And, different communities have different needs.
The Office of Community and Economic Development just revamped their opportunity index that highlights not just disparities but the state of where we are in the county. It illustrates a community’s access to high-quality affordable housing, employment opportunities, and upward mobility from poverty among other things.
“Cannabis in particular has a history of negative impact on communities of color via the war on drugs and incarceration. […] My concern from an equity perspective is, how do communities that have disproportionately dealt with all the negative impacts realize the positive benefit of the financial resources [from the recreational cannabis industry]?”
2) Do you feel that you have the tools to address equity issues within the county system? What would that look like?
The bulk of my work so far has been on figuring out what our baseline is as a county and how to work effectively from there. The tool that I see as being most critical to this process is community voice and community input into what we need in order to create the kind of equitable county that we want to live in.
The idea of the listening tour in March is not that it is a complete process, but that it is the start of the longer process of strategic planning for the equity office. The larger goal is to take what comes out of that tour and turn it into the five-year, comprehensive strategic plan for the equity office. So we have a clear sense of, especially in line with the census count that is going to be happening in 2020 […], what we need to prioritize based on the numbers and metrics—but also on the narrative information we are getting and the feedback from the community.
3) I’m glad you mentioned the census. This is something that we’re talking about a lot in the community. How do we break down the census for people to understand how it’s used to determine resources?
The Census numbers are used for everything. In my younger years I was asked to participate in the census and I declined because I didn’t really understand the importance of it, but for every person that we don’t count that translates to about $1,800 of lost revenue for programs and services in the area; that’s a lot of money. The number that’s used for population count is typically coming from the census. If we are looking at how to expand the number of public health workers, how do we raise money for infrastructure, including public transportation? The census is a direct way we can do that.
4) This is lifting up for me differences in voting participation and those who are most negatively impacted by policies. I’ve seen a map showing an area in Ypsilanti Township where a large population of African-Americans live and how the polling places are all located outside of that area.
My dad once asked me, “Why did the bank robber rob the bank?” I responded, “Because it’s obviously where the money is.” He said, “Yes, people don’t try to steal something from you unless it is valuable.” Nationally there is a trend around making it more complicated and difficult for people to vote; it should be the easiest thing for people to access. There are some groups that want to have more control over the resources than is equitable, and the way to make sure their smaller voice is heard loudly is to make sure others do not vote.
5) Tell me more about your community activism work. How does that experience inform your work today—what are the transferable skills?
My first major campaign was when I was 12-years-old in a local organizing group called Third-Eye Movement. It was out of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and it was part of a statewide coalition called Schools not Jails. We were trying to prevent passage of the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, which criminalized statutory offenses, expanded three-strikes laws, and was the modern precursor for our gang database and gang identification systems. It was all about criminalizing young people. And I couldn’t vote. And most of the people who were going to be impacted by the law could not vote. I became really aware of the importance of voting and setting policy.
That was also the first big experience I had with what it felt like to lose. We did everything that we could to win. We held cultural events, freedom schools, school walkouts, know-your-rights trainings, workshops. We talked to everybody—we did radio, TV, coalition building. And, we lost. And up until election night, it was inconceivable to me that we were going to lose.
That was the first time I read a ballot proposal end-to-end and I could break it down to anyone who asked about it. It gave me an awareness of how our laws are written and how important it is to participate in the process. It still took me a few years to understand that while reactionary organizing is important and has its value, we also need to proactively set policy directions for our community.
From that I built a career. I’m now in year twenty-two of this journey. A lot of that was focused on working with the most vulnerable populations—young people who were gang-involved and doing violence-prevention work, working with young people who were homeless or coming out of foster care, folks who had substance-abuse issues. I burned out because I didn’t do the self-care I needed and I was less effective for a while. I learned the importance of becoming grounded in a place of intentionality and healing. I learned that it’s OK to just sit down and watch cartoons and that I haven’t betrayed the work by having a latte. And by your laugh, I know you know what I mean by that!
6) Are there any similarities you see from your organizing work in San Francisco and Detroit to what is happening/is needed here?
The work that I did in Detroit is more relevant to Washtenaw. I was running a civic engagement and education campaign around a community-driven ballot proposal, and then I ran a civic engagement program around our city charter revision process. A lot of that work was about effectively engaging with government structures and figuring out how we affect the kind of change we need to see there. The government is designed to work for us, if we understand how it is supposed to work.
Understanding legislative process, and roles, and responsibilities of your elected officials is key. Understanding how to both write and analyze policy is key! The way that our government was structured […] it was designed to be slow and cumbersome to change. The idea is that one person should not be able to solely move a governmental entity by just yelling the loudest. It should require a general consensus, or least a strong
representation of a majority of the people in a community or in a society. I think that a political science 101 course that just was, like, ‘Our elected officials are supposed to do
these specific things’ would be super useful as a primer for how to effectively
organize. That would help to figure out how to get to the win, and policy is
generally how you get to the win.
I do understand having an adversarial relationship to the “big G” Government. But, your local government is really going to have the most impact on your day-to-day life. You need to figure out which elected official is appropriate to address your issue, come to the table expecting to hold them accountable, and be willing to work with folks. Government is, at the heart of things, a service organization. It exists to serve the people. When we get away from that, then the folks inside of government and the folks outside of it wind up being unhappy with our performance.
7) I’ve come to realize how important local elections are more and more during my time in Ypsilanti. I think about my voting history, and how I didn’t always prioritize local races like I probably should have. I’d love to hear your thoughts about issues our City Council has considered recently: social equity for cannabis, decommissioning people of color and the lack of representation overall on our boards and commissions, a truancy ordinance that is based on what’s “supposed to be working” in Ypsilanti Township, and Project Greenlight.
Social equity and cannabis is a hot button issue right now. I know that Ypsilanti City and Ypsilanti Township are divided on this issue for different reasons. I think that at this point, what we have from the state is a recreationally open marketplace for Michigan. And so, how are communities going to benefit from that? I would ask that question for any industry. Cannabis in particular has a history of negative impact on communities of color via the war on drugs and incarceration. Now we have this industry where, the number I saw […] in Michigan, there was one million dollars in sales done during the first recreationally open week. That is a lot of money. My concern from an equity perspective is, how do communities that have disproportionately dealt with all the negative impacts realize the positive benefit of the financial resources? Is there a way that the community here could institute a tax capture to benefit populations that have been disproportionately negatively impacted? There’s a lot of possibility with how to use those resources, but they need to be properly directed to addressing the harm done.
I live in Detroit, and we have Project Greenlight. I personally am in support of privacy for the sake of privacy. Any time we have an intrusion on our privacy there should be a justification for it. It shouldn’t just be the de facto norm. If the government wants to change that in any way, they need to prove why that is useful, valuable, and important. Now, public safety is a reason to minimize privacy and there is the question of what expectations for privacy you can have in public spaces. Those are very valid questions. My concern is—does the benefit outweigh the potential harm? Facial recognition technology is not something that has proven to be completely reliable all of the time. If there is any possibility that a person could be falsely accused of a crime, or have their life interrupted in a negative way because of faulty technology, then I think we need to be very careful. If the technology is sound, if there is true public benefit and safety, if the community that is going to have Greenlight installed is supportive of it and wants those things there, then that needs to be balanced out as well. It’s complicated.
Now as far as the truancy law goes, I am a data and metrics person. So when somebody says, “We know this thing works.” I’m always like, “Cool. Show me the numbers.” Especially when it has the potential to criminalize young people. For young men of color in particular, having that early contact with the juvenile system makes it more likely for them to wind up in our adult system.
8) What’s the good news when it comes to racial equity in Washtenaw County?
There’s a bunch of good news that I want to share! The equity office is in the process of hiring a Racial Equity Manager, so there will be a job posting soon for that and a hiring process, and I’m excited because that means the equity office is doubling in staff size. This will help to keep us on track in terms of our community engagement activities. The baseline of racial equity in Washtenaw County will be completed by the end of January, and a community listening tour will follow starting in March. And we are starting the planning for a regional equity summit in September. More details to follow, and anyone who would like to be involved in that should absolutely reach out to me.
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