Skala seeks budget to bring racial equity initiative to town

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Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala wants Columbia to get REAL.

Karl Skala Karl Skala

REAL, which stands for Race, Equity and Leadership, is a program of the National League of Cities that aims to promote racial equity in American cities.

Skala wants REAL to help Columbia reduce racial disparities or, at the very least, lead discussions on race problems in the city.

Skala intends to introduce an amendment to the proposed budget for fiscal 2019 at the City Council’s Tuesday meeting that would set aside $50,000 for the city to bring REAL to town.

Skala said he’s unsure what a REAL initiative might cost in the end because he’s just beginning negotiations with his contacts there. The $50,000 would at least guarantee some money for the program.

Skala introduced the REAL idea to the council during an Aug. 20 work session. He thinks the council will support his amendment, based on his colleagues’ positive reaction to his report.

“It was very warmly received,” Skala said.

The city’s issues with race are wide ranging. A 2017 report showed that black drivers were stopped by police at a higher rate than white drivers, and recently the city’s Human Services Commission sent a letter to the council that showed poverty among black families is 27 percent, as opposed to 7 percent among white families.

In addition, average household income for white people in Columbia is nearly double that of black people.

Skala has attended National League of Cities meetings since 2007 and acts as Columbia’s representative to the organization. The league formed REAL after the events in Ferguson in 2014.

If Columbia were to enter a contract, the REAL Tactical Team would work with the city and help educate elected officials. One of REAL’s goals, according to its website, is to train officials on analyzing policy “through the lens of racial equity.”

REAL Director Leon Andrews said it’s a multi-step program. He emphasized that one size does not fit all when it comes to implementing a plan to combat inequity, but getting the conversation going is the way to start.

Andrews said it’s hard to get anything done if people have a difficult time talking about race.

“Normalizing (the topic) is a really important foundation,” Andrews said. “You create spaces for elected officials to talk about issues they normally wouldn’t talk about.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas favors Skala’s pitch and believes Columbia and REAL could benefit each other.

“Our strategic plan would probably be a benefit to the national group,” Thomas said.

Columbia’s strategic plan for 2016-2019 does mention the city’s plan to evaluate systemic problems. The plan seeks to reduce or even eliminate socioeconomic disparities between white and minority residents, and for now is focused on three specific neighborhoods where those disparities are greatest.

Thomas has attended REAL workshops with Skala and said he really likes the program. He’s eager to make a dent in racial inequity.

“This is a hugely important national issue that needs to be solved,” Thomas said. “I want to do everything we can to solve this.”

REAL could provide more tools to solve it. Andrews said the organization aims to provide tools to cities that help deal with racial inequity, but that the onus is on the cities to make things happen.

“They have to initiate with us,” Andrews said.

No one on the council disapproved of the idea. Mayor Brian Treece is interested.

“I would certainly have no problem with getting an extra set of eyes on our initiatives,” he said during the Aug. 20 work session.

Skala, Thomas and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Betsy Peters will attend the League of Cities summit in Los Angeles in November.

Would REAL actually be able to promote understanding and awareness of systemic racial issues? Skala certainly believes so and hopes the city is willing to spend money to make it happen.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford: swaffords@missouri.edu, 884-5366.

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