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Mecklenburg County Begins Racial Equity Action Plan

WFAE/Steve Harrison
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio

Mecklenburg County officials say it will take about two years or more for all of the county’s 5,000 employees to complete required racial equity training. It’s the first goal of the county’s Equity Action Plan, spearheaded by County Manager Dena Diorio. 

The plan was launched in 2016, following the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott that sparked days of protests, sometimes violent. Diorio says they want to ensure that policies, officials and services that the county provides are accessible to all residents and are bias-free—a real issue in various aspects of the county government.

Diorio: We have disproportionality in our criminal justice system in terms of those who are incarcerated, which are disproportionately African American. We also know that women of color are lagging behind in health care in Mecklenburg County. We also find in our child protective services, our child welfare system that children of color are in custody more frequently and disproportionately than white children. So I think we know that exists.

But I think we're also finding that we have disproportionality within our workforce in terms of pay. We have issues around pay equity that we need to address. We have issues around equity around different levels of manager, supervisor, you know, line worker and sort of how that all plays out within our county. So there's a lot of opportunities for us to take a good look at what we're doing and to make some changes.

Glenn: That's a long list of things to tackle.

Diorio: Well, you know, it's not a sprint it's a marathon. We didn't get here in a week, a month or a day and it'll take us longer to fix it.

Glenn: In reading your plan it's employee-based. What about the community. What role is the community going to play in this?

Diorio: Well, we have a few goals around community, so one, like I mentioned earlier, is inclusive engagement so wanting to make sure that the community has access to the Board of County Commissioners and that they're able to access their government and their elected officials. And we want to make sure we're doing a better job of doing our outreach and our community engagement with the community to make sure that we have all the voices at the table that we need when we make policy decisions.

So there's that piece of it. And we're also working around minority contracting trying to make sure that we have better access by minority businesses to contracting opportunities in Mecklenburg County. In terms of the capital piece, actually, we're getting ready to launch a revolving loan fund, microloan fund where small businesses will be able to access capital through the county in smaller amounts that will help them move their business to the next level. So while we weren't able to do a lot with traditional financial institutions we are going to actually take that on and we're going to try to be able to move the needle with that. 

Glenn: How large is that fund and how much can people possibly get through it?

Diorio: So, the fund in total is about $2.5 million. And I think the maximum they can get is $50,000. 

Glenn: Now part of this, too, is about employee training in terms of racial and equity. How is that going? How many people have participated, how long is it, is this a day thing or longer?

Diorio: The training is one day for each employee and the training is actually going to take us probably two years to get everybody trained. You know we have 5,000 employees. Every employee has to get trained. They can go online and they can sign up for a session. So again this is not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's going to take us a long time. The trainings have started so we're really at the beginning of that process. 

Glenn: What is the training focused on because this is a lot of issues that you have listed in the plan. What are they going to be doing and to make things better, to make this plan happen?

Diorio: Well, the training is really designed to have you look at yourself and really look internally and really understand, you know, where how you approach these issues and to really you know take away some of the myths that people may have and I think there are tough conversations. I've been through it twice and I can tell you that when you have these conversations and you're getting trained on this material you start to look back at your own experience and how you were raised and recognize that it existed in your life but you didn't even know it. I think the most important takeaway is that it really forces you to take a look at yourself and how these biases may be part of your thinking and you don't even realize it.

Glenn: But is one day enough, because I know with a lot of other trainers around the country people say sometimes it brings up a lot of things that you might not have known about yourself but then that one day it's over and you don't know where to go from there. Will they have to go through it again or is it just a one-shot deal?

Diorio: Well, it's a one-day training and so the first goal is to get everybody trained but, you know, it'll be ongoing after that. So I think if people want to participate again they'll be able to do that. The other thing that I would say is we're not just going to send you to training and not do anything else. We're gonna have continued learning, we're gonna have countywide book reads that we can all read a book and have facilitated conversations around that, Lunch and Learns to talk about these issues. So we really want to keep it as part of our culture and part of our conversation over the long term. So, it's certainly not a one and done.

Glenn: Some who might look at this and say okay we've heard this before. How do you convince them that this time they're going to see tangible results?

Diorio: Well, you know, we're really trying to do this from a top-down approach and we're really trying to make people understand that this is an important county initiative. And, you know, while you can only bring people the water you can't make them drink. We just think that all the conversations and the changes that we're gonna be making around this will help people want to get engaged and want to participate. 

Glenn: Well, thanks so much for your time. 

Diorio: Well, thank you, Gwendolyn. It was nice to speak with you. 

Glenn: That’s Dena Diorio. County Manager of Mecklenburg County.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.