Cook County unveils racial equity action planMaudlyne Ihejirikaon September 13, 2021 at 11:00 am

Cook County government Monday will unveil a new racial equity action plan that, among other measures, will implement a Latinx agenda to better represent the county’s largest racial or ethnic group in county hiring and promotion.

Other significant prongs include ensuring all county services are made accessible in diverse languages for the now 20% of Cook County residents who are non-native English speakers.

And all employees under the board president’s purview will be required to undergo mandatory racial equity and cultural competency training by next year.

Drawing on racial equity work begun in November 2018 with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s five-year road map to “combat historic inequality, institutional racism and indifference,” the plan launches the county’s third annual Racial Equity Week.

“From the very beginning, in terms of priorities set, I’ve been focused on racial justice,” said Preckwinkle, sitting down with the Chicago Sun-Times to talk racial reckoning in a post-George Floyd America. She was joined by Denise Barreto, Cook County’s director of equity and inclusion, who came on board May 2020 as part of that road map.

“It’s one of the reasons I made criminal justice reform critical from the onset and tried to get all the actors in the criminal justice arena to work together. We know that system disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people in profoundly negative ways,” she said.

“The road map and equity efforts grow out of not only my personal conviction, but on work my staff along with our external partners have done, to laser our focus on racial equity.”

Cook County’s 2021 budget of $6.94 billion includes $100 million set aside in a Cook County Equity Fund targeting historical disparities and disinvestment in Black and Latinx communities — primarily through the Bureau of Economic Development and the Justice Advisory Council.

The county’s week-long series of equity focused events include conversations between Preckwinkle and folks ranging from Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi to LaSaia Wade, founder of Brave Space Alliance.

Other highlights include an event with Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. and immigration advocates celebrating legislation Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed last month, allowing public defenders to represent immigrants, refugees and other non-citizens in immigration court in Cook County.

For Wednesday’s conversation, Barreto joins peers from Chicago and the state of Illinois to discuss their roles as the architects of government equity efforts.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (right) and Director of Equity and Inclusion Denise Barreto prepare for the county’s third annual Racial Equity Week. “I see a lot of people speaking to the issue, and I’m not sure they’re doing anything,” Preckwinkle said.Provided/Nick Shields

Pritzker’s July appointment of Chief Equity Officer Sekile Nzinga meant that for the first time, all three units of government have personnel dedicated to advancing racial equity.

The city’s chief equity officer, Candace Moore, was appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in July 2019.

“Our racial equity action plan is really pulling together some strategies that have already been happening, and some that are brand new, under a cohesive policy,” said Barreto.

Barreto previously spent 10 years as an equity consultant to government, philanthropic and corporate entities. Before that, she served six years as an elected trustee for suburban Lake in the Hills — the town’s first elected Black official.

Cook County, Barreto said, has implemented a “racial equity assessment tool” to ensure conformity with the county’s racial equity policy, which covers contract compliance. That means looking at how much of that county work goes to businesses owned by minorities or women. In the 2019 fiscal year, figures show, the county spent some $74 million with minority- or women-owned contractors: $25 million with Black-owned businesses, $18 million with Latinx-owned, $15 million with Asian-owned, and $14 million with women-owned.

Between 2016 and 2019, county spending with businesses owned by Black women jumped by 75%; with businesses owned by Asian women, it was up 150%.

In that same period, spending with Latinx-owned firms and professional services was up 95%.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (right) and Denise Barreto, the county’s director of equity and inclusion, discuss the county’s third annual Racial Equity Week.Provided/Nick Shields

“Money we would be spending, we’re spending on folks who need it most, connecting them to our systems. The idea is, that gives them a chance to be seen by other entities. Because that’s half the battle with minority businesses — people giving you a chance. You can’t do racial equity without betting on somebody you don’t know,” Barreto said.

The county’s Latinx Agenda perhaps speaks to the 2020 U.S. Census, where Latinos became the largest racial or ethnic group in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois.

In Chicago, the racial make-up now is 7% Asian, 29% Black, 30% white and 31% Latino.

Racial Equity Week events also will help kick off Hispanic Heritage Month — celebrated Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 — with another conversation, this one between young Latinx leaders in government and the civic sector on strategies for growing Latinx leadership in those spaces.

“We want to ensure we retain and build career pathways for the Latinx folks in our midst. Then we want to up the ante, ensure we have a robust recruiting strategy,” Barreto said.

“This reflects county policies that have always been Latinx- and immigrant-friendly.”

This historic moment, with Illinois’ three largest units of government unified in targeting racial inequity, is linked to the May 25, 2020, murder of Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer.

The tragedy reverberated across the globe, triggering America’s reckoning with systemic racism across all sectors.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (r) and County Director of Equity and Inclusion Denise Barreto discuss the county’s new Racial Equity Action Plan, which includes racial equity training for all employees. The plan grew out of work “to if not re-direct our focus, then sort of laser it on racial equity,” Preckwinkle said.Provided/Nick Shields

Preckwinkle is quick to note her five-year road map, which for the first time acknowledged county government’s role in creating inequities, meant that Cook County — second-most-populous in the United States behind only Los Angeles County — had begun its racial reckoning a year and a half earlier.

Still, neither she nor Barreto believe the needle has moved much since Floyd’s murder.

“We have a lot of equity theater going on in our country,” said the 49-year-old Barreto.

“Last year, I think something like $50 billion supposedly was dedicated across lots of different industries to rectifying racial equity. And outcomes are the same or worse. However, you can’t un-know things. So yes, we as a country are taking a step, and I’m proud to be where I’m at in this moment. I’m on the ground, and we’re doing this work.”

Preckwinkle points to voter suppression laws across the nation as the clearest evidence of opposition to that reckoning.

“African Americans were brought to this country in 1619. That’s 400 years — 250 years of slavery, 150 years of serfdom and fourth-class citizenship. That’s a big tanker to turn around,” said Preckwinkle, 74, a former history teacher.

“Black and Brown people were instrumental in the election of President Joseph Biden. The reaction to that by political opponents has been to do everything they can to keep Black and Brown people from voting — particularly in what was the old Confederacy, which has never been happy about Black folks being equal,” she said.

“I’m always cautious about saying a moment is transformative. I see a lot of people speaking to the issue. I’m not sure they’re doing anything. This is hard work that takes a long-term commitment. Achieving racial equity in our country will be the work of our lifetimes.”

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