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Racial Equity assessments look to establish a better Milwaukee

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Posted at 6:02 PM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 19:25:07-05

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Common Council unanimously passed a resolution committing to auditing every department for racial equity.

“This is a priority for the city and they recognize the importance of this moment and that we have to do more,” said Nikki Purvis, Chief Equity Officer for the City of Milwaukee Office of Equity and Inclusion. “I think that’s an important component of it. People really do need to understand that we are an organization and we have a responsibility.”

Purvis says these audits are more like assessments of how the city operates. She says they will look over how the city serves communities throughout the city and also take an internal look at how the departments themselves operate.

All of this is in an effort to hold the city accountable. When George Floyd was killed by police in May of 2020, communities cried out for more transparency and accountability. Cities like Milwaukee made claims of becoming more equitable and inclusive.

These audits will do just that; identifying what works well and trying to replicate it in other areas of the city and addressing areas in need of improvement.

“This is making sure that we’re not just committing verbally but we are actually holding ourselves accountable by looking at our internal policies,” Purvis said.

Milwaukee has been called the most segregated city in the United States and a UWM Study shows Milwaukee is the worst city in the country for African American well-being.

“It took generations for the city to get as segregated as it is and have the systemic issues that it has,” Ald. Milele Coggs said. “It will probably take many years for us to undo all of that but there must be an intentional, collaborative effort to undo it.”

Coggs sponsored the resolution for the audits. After the resolution passed unanimously Tuesday, Coggs points to this as a symbol of change in the city.

“This audit is one small way the city is demonstrating its desire to make sure we have equity and inclusion moving forward,” Coggs said. “So, whatever the past has been, we’re trying to create a future that’s different. The impacts of which may not be felt for years to come but it’s work worth doing so our future looks a little different than our past. The goal is to try to catch the gaps and biases that may exist from department to department so that some level of change and measurement of accountability can be implemented for long-range change.”

“We have to set the tone,” Ronda Kohlheim, Inspector General for the city of Milwaukee said. “We have to build those internal policies and procedures.”

Kohlheim will be running these audits. She says she will be looking into every department of the city and all of the 7,000 plus employees. From Mayor Tom Barrett to parking enforcement, she says they all will be held to the same standard.

“We all have to be held to that same level of degree,” Kohlheim said. “It doesn't matter if it's the mayor or if it’s the police department or whatever department. They'll be treated the same.”

The questions Kohlheim will be looking to answer will examine both how the city operates externally, for the community, and internally within each department.

“Some of the questions for me that I would like to see answered is, has the city established racial equity as an organizational priority and internal documents with underlining questions,” Ronda Kohlheim, Inspector General for the City of Milwaukee said. “How was racial equity reflected internally in the cities government, their language, communications, policies, the culture, operations and practices. Finally, how does the city further racial equity amongst its members, through its communications and those programs and practices addressing the communities that we serve?”

Information from these audits will be presented every three months to update the Common Council.

“It’s only going to better the City of Milwaukee as an organization,” Kohlheim said. “And in time, hold us accountable for not just saying what we plan to do but this is what the city is actually doing. We are moving forward.”

"This really just gives us an opportunity to mutually understand, across city government, where we are, where our gaps are and what our opportunities are,” Purvis said. “And, to have those honest and truthful conversations about what needs to change.”

The Office of Equity and Inclusion will begin setting the parameters for its audit over the next six months, with the first results likely available by fall. They are framing the audit with the help of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) guidelines. The nonprofit has over 80 jurisdictions doing the same thing across the country.

However, this is just step one. Purvis says pointing out the issues is just half the battle. The next step is what will truly bring Milwaukee forward.

“We just have to put some action behind it,” Purvis said. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to create some change. I am hopeful that this audit will point out some areas for improvement and we can start seeing those shifts in our numbers and how people view us and how we create the narrative so we can start promoting some of the great things that we’re doing so that we all feel better.”

“It’s definitely important to look at what we are doing and what we’re not doing that we need to be doing,” Coggs said. “Looking at what needs to be changed and what needs to be lifted up and replicated.”

“It should be part of daily conversations,” Kohlheim said. “Things that we look at the city’s mission, what we stand for as an organization. It’s inevitable that this becomes a part of it.”

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