Vop Osili

Vop Osili, Indianapolis City-County Council president. (Photo/John Hurst)

To the Editor: 

We have a wonderful attribute in our part of the country. It is often called “Midwest Nice.” We are known as gracious hosts. Friendly. Polite. Kind. But this attribute can have an unfortunate downside; namely, a tendency to shy away from discussing issues deemed uncomfortable, awkward or distressing. Inequities surrounding race, place and identity are among such issues. Too often we tend to avoid difficult conversations as a way of avoiding conflict. I believe, though, that truly living up to our reputation as a city that is authentically “Midwest Nice”— for all —requires us to address issues that are uncomfortable. Pondering these issues can be distressing. 

Discussing them is awkward. 

For example, today, one in five Indianapolis residents lives in poverty. Unfortunately, although this poverty is widespread, it disproportionately impacts people of color, and the African American community in particular. In Indianapolis, the median income for Black households is $32,000, compared with nearly $54,000 for white households. These same disparate patterns emerge repeatedly for outcomes in education, health care, transportation, food access, criminal justice and other areas. Discussing these disparities can begin to feel awkward and quickly. But we must do it. 

Those that have sought to address these issues speak often of “diversity," “inclusion,” and “equity.” You may have heard people use these terms interchangeably. In truth, though, each idea is a distinct pillar of a vital conversation. 

Diversity is about understanding and valuing individual differences, whether along dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs or other ideologies. Inclusion puts the concept and practice of diversity into action, by creating an environment of engagement, respect, and connection — where the richness of ideas, backgrounds and perspectives are harnessed to create value. If diversity describes our difference, then inclusion offers a way in which we can relate across difference. 

The terms diversity and inclusion speak powerfully to recognizing and harnessing the strength of humanity’s wonderful variety. I believe, as a community, we are ready to embrace the next pillar of this ever-evolving dialogue: “equity.”

Put very simply, equity is about ownership. When a person “has equity” it means they have a stake in the success of an enterprise, whether that enterprise is a home, a business, or a system of government. When we bring the word “equity” into discussions of race and governance, we acknowledge the truth that people of all races own our democracy equally— and, therefore, have an equal stake in its success. 

Generations of Indianapolis leaders from all walks of life and from both sides of the political aisle have worked diligently to rid our community of explicitly racist laws, policies, and practices, but the effects of those now-repudiated ideas still cascade into current conditions in our community. It is important for us to recognize that these racial disparities are not random: they were intentionally created, exacerbated, and sustained over time. We must be even more intentional as we seek to dismantle them. Speaking of diversity and inclusion is a positive step — but addressing pervasive and systemic inequalities requires us to grapple with and work toward equity. 

That is why I am proud to announce that on  Dec. 11, leaders from all three branches of our local Marion County government, its municipal corporations and key stakeholders will gather for the first training session facilitated by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) in Indianapolis. 

GARE is a national network of local and regional governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all. Members of GARE’s network share the common beliefs that 1) good government is impossible without racial equity, 2) equitable outcomes require equitable operations, and that 3) we are positioned to make change here, now, in our cities, with our communities. 

Because no two cities are alike, the shape of this work with GARE has taken different forms across the nearly 200 municipalities that have undertaken it. I will be the first to admit that I do not yet know where this discussion will lead us. What I can say is that I am grateful to my fellow councillors, to Mayor Joe Hogsett and his administration, and to members of our local judiciary for embracing our common responsibility to work proactively to advance racial equity in Indianapolis. I also want to thank Brian Payne and the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) for their leadership in this effort in the nonprofit and philanthropic space along with their generous financial support to the city in this endeavor. 

Now is the time for our public institutions to embed within our DNA a commitment to addressing the historical inequities surrounding race, place and identity throughout our city. I look forward to sharing with our stakeholders in this effort — our constituents — the progress our public institutions make as we move forward together. 

Sincerely, 

Vop Osili, President

City-County Council 

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