How do we know inequity impacts our community?
“It takes a village” to achieve almost anything significant, whether in business, schools, neighborhoods, governments or organizations. When our neighbors are undermined (though usually unintentional and by lack of awareness) or lost to us prematurely, we all feel the impacts and suffer the loss of their perspectives, energy, wisdom and contributions.
In the 2018 Community Health Assessment, Humboldt County’s Department of Health & Human Services shines a spotlight on staggering racialized disparities faced by Native communities: “years life lost” is consistently double, triple or even quadruple that experienced by white communities, whether it be due to diabetes and other diseases or vehicle collisions and other unintentional injuries. Some of the most pronounced health disparities in Humboldt County are experienced by Native Americans. Native Americans in Humboldt County will die an average of 12 years sooner than Caucasians, and their rates of infant mortality, motor vehicle fatalities, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, drug-related deaths and diabetes related deaths are far higher than the total Humboldt County rates.
David Loya has no time for “othering.” The Director of Community Development for the City of Arcata, Loya takes issue with the separation of “town” and “gown.” He recognizes most of us are transplants from elsewhere, and he wonders just when we became “real” community members. He’ll often ask a group who among them is actually “from” the small town, and how many people originally arrived to attend HSU. The number of hands in the air usually speak for themselves: Many or most have had some relationship to HSU at present, over time or in the past. His point is that, contrary to popular myth, students are not just a transitory population, but an integral part of the community.
“There’s no guarantee that any of us are going to live here for any amount of time,” he says. “What we do, it impacts young people. Young people absolutely have an investment in our future. And we need to hear them out.”
In 2015 Loya joined a cohort of community members and institutions that included the City of Arcata, Humboldt State University and Humboldt Area Foundation to take part in the Government Alliance for Racial Equity (GARE) program hosted by HAF. The 18-month program gave Loya and others perspective on how to make institutional shifts to reduce the disparities, such as in housing discrimination, experienced by people of color.
“We have taken that work, primarily with HSU and the Foundation to try and create policy that does invite an equity comparison,” Loya says. “We are working with state and local leaders to develop new policy, and all of these things have to have an equity lens front and center.”
Anecdotal stories from substantial numbers of community members – including students at HSU – were one indicator that racism and inequity are an issue in Arcata, but Loya and his team are also examining data that can indicate systemic problems.
“Economically, if you look at census data, home ownership in the region doesn’t start peaking here until your 40s,” he says. “We’re seeing that wealth is concentrated in older, mostly white folks.” This, while this and most local communities are becoming increasingly diverse.
Loya emphasizes that there’s no direct data to prove the correlation between home ownership and race, but comparing census data for the median age of home ownership against that of racial background does support this theory, especially when national data supports the trend that young America is statistically less white than their predecessors. Those predecessors, however, tend to be those who show up to public meetings.
“Wealth is concentrated in that group,” he says. “The balance of power, the existing power dynamic is held by white people.”
With that in mind, Loya and his staff are making more of a conscious effort to bring in young people to inform policy decisions. He says that he still often feels like he is “fumbling in the dark.”
“The biggest change has been my evolving understanding of inequity,” he says. “My advice for people was always follow your bliss because that’s what I did and I felt successful. But now I’ve had this evolved understanding of white male privilege; it’s been a real eye-opener for me. Now I feel like it’s my job to use that random set of circumstances that allowed me as a white man to succeed and turn that into equity for everyone.”