From the Desk of the President: Doing the Work for a More Equitable Future

October 25, 2022

To say it is an interesting time for Columbia is an understatement. In the past month, WalletHub named Columbia the “Safest City in America” and the “Best City for People with Disabilities in Maryland.” As most residents likely know, Columbia was also recently recognized as the “Best Place to Live in Maryland” and the sixth most desirable community in the nation by Money Magazine. The kinds of factors that are measured and assessed for these rankings include economy, residential market, cost of living, health care, crime, quality of schools, racial diversity, and safety.

All of these accolades are ones to be proud of and celebrated. I have heard many residents reference these recognitions as proof positive that everything is right in Columbia today. I have even heard some claim these awards as evidence that any criticisms simply can not be accurate since we continue to rank so high on these kinds of lists. But I do not believe these awards to be the full story of Columbia. They certainly deserve to be valued, but they are more so a snapshot and method of comparison, not a full and robust representation of all the parts and pieces that make up the lived experience of being in our community.

Howard County Library System President Tonya Aikens announces the release of its "Inequity Within: Issues of Inequity Across Communities" report.
Howard County Library System President Tonya Aikens announces the release of its "Inequity Within: Issues of Inequity Across Communities" report.

In fact, within two weeks of the Money Magazine recognition being announced, the Howard County Library System, in collaboration with Morgan State University, released Inequity Within: Issues of Inequity Across Communities. This report includes some data that other local organizations have attempted to platform in recent years and highlights additional factors. The report examines racial and ethnic disparities across the multiple systems of education, health, economics, housing, and the legal system. It notes, “As one of the wealthiest, healthiest and most diverse communities in the state and the US, the perception or belief that racial inequity does not exist here can be a hindrance to advancing issues of equity within the county.” I have not seen nearly the same coverage nor have I heard much commentary about these rankings.

Both the accolades and the reality of inequities are true of Columbia today. This means we are at a crossroads. One path means that you take a pause, reflect on this information, and then go about your day and week and life and do not really consider it again, until another report is published with “concerning” data. The other path means that you take a pause and reflect on this information within the context of the special community that Columbia was built to be. And in the reflection back to why Columbia was created, I hope you feel the responsibility and hear the call to connect, collaborate, and take action to make impactful and equitable changes here. This is not to say that dedicated and diligent work has not been done in our community. Yet these rankings are indications we need to do more – and do more in a coordinated and collaborative fashion.

Over the course of this year, Columbia turned 55 years old. Many of its villages have also been celebrating milestone anniversaries. We often use these kinds of celebrations to look back, which certainly has value. But I believe we have to view these milestones as opportunities to set our sights forward. 

Whether looking back or forward, we end up thinking a lot about change. Have we lived up to the hope embedded in the Rouse vision? While robust diversity exists here, has there been meaningful movement towards inclusion and belonging over the decades? What more can we do today so we leave a better legacy for tomorrow? This is also the right time to remember that Columbia and all ten of its villages were built with intention and purpose, all in the spirit of innovation and progress. Now is the time when we need to convene and connect, an act that has the potential to propel us toward an even better, brighter, more equitable future that aligns with our founding that is so celebrated.

I recently met with some up-and-coming leaders that are truly “doing the work” in our community. They’re committed to having honest conversations about what is working and what kind of change they hope to see and are working towards. I was inspired and energized by their insight, reassured by their passion and, frankly, challenged by their outlook. Across America, the realization has been steady, but slow, that the disparate outcomes and sometimes massive chasms between people’s lived experiences are the results of systems that were either built without consideration of all people or were built explicitly to exclude some people. My lived experience has involved being lost to, outside of or harmed by some of these systems, so I do not question the validity of the data or the endless stories that the data represents. The data has been reported and discussed time and again, often with little systemic change or waning willingness to sustain ongoing changes. Why? Because this kind of change is uncomfortable for some, challenging to many, and often just plain hard work.

At 55 years old, we have many organizational systems at Columbia Association (CA). These systems were largely built decades ago by people that are not fully reflective of the community we serve. That’s not to say they were not well intentioned or purposefully harmful, but they do not deliver for all people equally. We have been working vigilantly inside our organization to improve our connection to our community and our mission over this past year. We have made progress on process improvement, expanding our feedback cycle with opportunities for direct interaction, and realigning our operations to become more nimble and responsive. We have more participatory change management processes, adaptations to increase accessibility, and revamped communications strategies that address what CA does and how to engage. 

These are all ways to simply say this: I am committed to leading in the direction of better serving the entire community that we were explicitly created to serve. As proud as I am of our team in moving toward this goal, it only works with community engagement, your engagement. The only way to change systems to better serve all people is to have diverse representatives participate in a variety of engagement methods. We need everyone in Columbia to help make CA better, not just for the few who know the way it used to be done or for the most vocal individuals or for those who have more resources or more time. It needs to include everyone. 

I encourage all Columbians to seek out opportunities to give CA feedback and to talk about how we can improve our community and work towards impactful and equitable change for the next 50 years and beyond. I think that includes returning to Columbia’s origin story of being built on purpose for a purpose. It also means recognizing that community evolution is built into the fabric of Columbia.

I know I am not comfortable with Black, Hispanic, and Asian residents of Howard County consistently faring worse than White residents as is clearly laid out in the Inequity Within report. I know that I must be vigilant and connected to the community to ensure that I am able to find ways I can be part of impactful change, whether as a neighbor, parent, or worker.

I know that I hear the clear call to leadership from Tonya Aikens at the Howard County Library System with the Brave Voices, Brave Choices initiative and her statements at the recent report launch. I know I hear the loud call to leadership from Dr. Daria Willis at Howard Community College, who during her installation speech as HCC’s first Black President, indicated we have work to do to realize an equitable future for all Howard County residents. And I know I hear the call to collaboration and allyship from so many leaders of grassroots organizations across Columbia who are doing this work every day.

Dr. Daria Willis during her inauguration ceremony at Howard Community College.

I commit to answering that call as the leader of CA. This organization is here to be a resource as you connect and engage with one another, to work toward that positive change in the future. 

Columbia’s founder James Rouse believed that “planning out from the needs of people produces a community.” That is the kind of work we are doing more of at CA. I hope you see the positive changes being lived out by our team members and the entire Columbia community we so proudly serve. I hope you can hear the urgent call to action, connection, and leadership to improve our systems here. I encourage you to think back to the call many of you first heard when choosing Columbia as your home. I also ask that you open yourself to seeing what has been unseen and finding ways to take action for positive change, whether that be by connecting with CA, volunteering, voting, donating, or becoming a leader yourself. Please join us in the magic of community because we are truly better together. Just as the start of Columbia originally promised. 

#WeAreColumbia

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