Opinion: Get serious about equity or punt on progress

Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga City Council member Demetrus Coonrod speaks at an event in 2021. Coonrod, who is running for a state legislative seat next year, proposed the city council pay for a comprehensive equity study, which the council approved last week.
Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga City Council member Demetrus Coonrod speaks at an event in 2021. Coonrod, who is running for a state legislative seat next year, proposed the city council pay for a comprehensive equity study, which the council approved last week.

In all of the challenges facing our city — affordable housing, education, health care and living wage jobs — the lack of equity underpins them all. Disparities among class and racial groups are well-documented.

What we need now is action — concrete, specific strategies to narrow the gaps, and the City Council has plans to create a framework to do just that. On Tuesday, council members approved a $20,000 equity study pitched by Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod.

Among the study's goals is an analysis of disparities in areas such as education, employment, housing, health care, food security and the criminal justice system.

Marcus Mauldin, associate professor of public policy and administration at UTC, will conduct the survey.

"It doesn't just have a racial component to it," Mauldin said in a Nov. 27 Times Free Press report. "There's race, there's gender, there's socioeconomic things that go into that. We'll be looking at it from a broad sense."

A framework for action

This won't be the first study examining equity issues: the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Chattanooga 2.0 and the Urban League, among others, have underwritten studies.

But this one just might be the one that leads to tangible results.

"We've had so many studies throughout the years, and the goal has been to uncloth the different disparities in Black and brown communities but that's it," Coonrod said in an interview last Wednesday. "The reports come out and nothing is ever done. They sit on a shelf."

This study, Coonrod says, will provide policy recommendations and implementation strategies that will be used as a framework that Mayor Tim Kelly and council can use.

This framework can be helpful to the mayor's One Chattanooga Plan.

The One Chattanooga Plan includes seven goal areas the city hopes to move forward in: early learning, growing the Black middle class, housing, infrastructure, regional economy, public health and responsive government.

"As many, including this paper, have noted, I don't think we suffer in Chattanooga for lack of studies or analyses," Kelly said in a statement Thursday. "In fact, the whole idea for the One Chattanooga Plan came out of a desire to draw from the robust body of work that already exists and to coalesce those findings into a unifying framework with a bias toward action."

Another study, he said, "can't hurt if that's the will of the council. Perhaps this study will take a new angle or drill down into more specific policy obstacles to produce some new insight."

Coonrod said the One Chattanooga Plan is a "work in progress," and hopes the study offers another resource for it to be successful.

To be sure, this study likely will remind us of what we already know about the disparities in our city, and that should be disappointing. We know what they are and yet they persist.

If the City Council is serious about using this study as a framework to address chronic disparities, then council members must shift into action mode. They would be wise to remember that.

This study will have to result in action — measurable and observable — or it will be on its way to collecting dust with the rest of the studies. Chattanooga doesn't need anymore five-pound, paper doorstops.

The case for equity

The biggest challenge the city and City Council faces in this quest to pursue equity for all is buy-in from all communities. That is a tall order.

A recent survey by the Regional Planning Agency showed that equity was near the bottom in a list of residents' concerns.

That is worrisome, considering how equity connects all of us.

If we're worried about gentrification, about the traffic down East Brainerd Road, about the supply of family-wage jobs or the need for better public schools, then we must understand that equity is at the center of it all.

Coonrod predicts this survey will reveal inequities not only in Black communities but also in other communities struggling with poverty.

Equity is not just about one race. Acknowledging disparities and investing in solutions isn't part of a "woke" agenda; it's about pushing everyone forward. For example, putting a bus stop in a struggling, marginalized neighborhood could mean children have reliable transportation to school, where they will learn, be challenged, see opportunities, perhaps go to college and become the first in their family to do so.

That is not "woke." That is equity, and it's only possible when we start to look beyond our inner circle and see how the collective decisions we make affect everyone.

Increasingly, people talk about the "two Chattanoogas." Equity is how Chattanooga becomes one.

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