The Municipal Equality Index is the only nationwide assessment of LGBTQ+ inclusion in municipal law, policy, and services. It measures a city’s non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, its services, law enforcement, and the city leadership's public position on equality. In its eighth year, the Human Rights Campaign in partnership with the Equality Federation Institute, announced 2019 as a record-setting year, with 88 cities across the United States earning the highest possible score of 100. Although Grand Rapids did not receive a perfect score, it was recognized as one of the most improved cities, scoring 92, a 16-point increase from 2018.
In an open letter addressing the purpose and results of the 2019 Municipal Equality Index Report, president of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Alphonso David wrote, “The MEI underscores the critical importance of LGBTQ+ liaisons as vital connectors between LGBTQ+ people and their community’s town hall or police department. All too often, David writes, “a lack of expertise and cultural competence means that the needs of LGBTQ+ people remain invisible to leadership, and serious issues facing LGBTQ+ people remain inadequately or improperly addressed.” A liaison, he continues, “can help build trust, clarity, and communication to help a municipality address everything from everyday concerns to urgent crises.”
Based in Washington DC, The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation together serve as America's largest civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ+ equality.
Racine, WI was among the top four most improved cities during 2019. It improved its equality index score by 45 points. A key to its success came from the ability to collaborate with the city's advocates, allies, and leaders; whereas, those involved in the work set out to earn a score that more accurately reflected Racine's inclusive environment.
“Ensuring that cities work with their community partners and leaders is key. No city council can do this work alone,” says Xavier Persad, senior legislative counsel for HRC. “Areas that benefit most from city government and community collaboration are in Part III of the scorecard, Municipal Services because this section assesses the city government's public services,” says Persad. “For Racine, the city appointed an LGBTQ liaison in its executive's office and an LGBTQ police liaison.” Also, he adds, “Racine worked closely with the LGBTQ Community Center to address policies; and the city also worked with the Center and HRC to help mobilize people to turn out for hearings."
Community connectors and collaborators are key
2019 was a record-setting year with 88 cities across the country receiving a perfect score of 100. Notably, for the third year in a row, every 100-point city had LGBTQ+ police liaisons – and cities with LGBTQ+ liaisons scored nearly twice as high as cities without these positions.
During 2019, Grand Rapids improved its equality index score with the addition of its own police liaison. Lieutenant Maureen O’Brien is an LGBTQ+ liaison for the Grand Rapids Police Department. O’Brien’s appointment took effect October 2019 with two goals in mind: educate and train GRPD staff and build relationships within the LGBTQ+ community.
“My hope is to help foster an inclusive environment both internally and externally so all members of the LGBTQ+ community feel safe in reporting issues that may be impacting them.” Through ongoing community-driven initiatives and engagement, says Lt. O’Brien, “I hope to serve as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and strengthen trust between the Grand Rapids Police Department and the community we serve.” I may be the point of contact, she adds, “however, we would encourage our community to feel comfortable approaching any officer to assist them – whether it is reporting a crime or seeking out resources.”
Lieutenant O’Brien commands GRPD’s Community Engagement Unit. The CEU was formed in 2017 to oversee all recruiting and hiring efforts for the department’s sworn personnel and those in the intern program. Additionally, the CEU looks at various ways to strengthen trust and build relationships with the community, says Lt. O’Brien. “We believe strengthening trust and building relationships within our community will have a positive impact on future recruiting to ensure that we have a workforce that is reflective of our community.” One of our goals, she says, is to “Grow our own."
While GRPD’s LGBTQ+ police liaison role is new, there are other municipalities in the state whose efforts have created a framework for new liaisons to model and build upon. Detroit, for instance, appointed its first LGBTQ+ police liaison in 2013. Corporal Officer Danielle Woods is an LGBTQ+ police liaison for the Detroit Police Department. She has been active in the role for over six years and reports to the Chief’s Neighborhood Liaison Unit. When asked what advice she has for someone new in an LGBTQ+ community liaison role, she says, “Be honest and open. Be willing to absorb with an active listening ear and have compassion for the issues community members will bring to you,” she says. “It can be heartbreaking, draining, and at times – you will feel helpless; but it can also be fulfilling and rewarding to genuinely be able to help and possibly create change.”
Equity in action – doing the work
In 2018, the City of Grand Rapids acknowledged the formation of an employee resource group, Prism GR, whose mission, among other things, is to promote an inclusive community for LGBTQIA+ employees. “Prism GR began informally in spring of 2018 by a convening of interested employees, the Office of Equity and Engagement (formerly known as the Diversity and Inclusion Office), and Tommy Allen from the city's Community Relations Commission in a support role,” says Hank Kelley, transportation planning and programs supervisor for the City of Grand Rapids. “The purpose was to create an outlet and sounding board for LGBTQIA+ employees and allies to improve workplace equality and inclusion.”
While the formation of the employee resource group was cited as an improvement that helped Grand Rapids increase its MEI score, it is important to highlight the work done on the ground to improve the lived experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community. Our overarching accomplishment, in my opinion, says Kelley, "is moving the City as an organization toward greater awareness and understanding of LGBTQIA+ issues. Prism has begun to visibilize conversations, but also connect the community to itself – within the City." This connector role, they say, “is important in an age when phobias are still ever-present, and folks are not always comfortable being 'out' at work.”
Some examples of Prism’s work include consulting internally to add gender-neutral facilities during rehab projects for City offices, hosting lunch and learn events, and creating content to expand City training and awareness programs to better represent LGBTQIA+ needs. The group meets monthly.
The Human Rights Campaign makes it clear that the municipal equality index itself does not measure the enforcement of laws, policies, and services included on the scorecard, nor is it a measure of LGBTQ+ people's lived experiences. However, it is lived experiences that often prompt individuals to become active in equity work. Often in our society, those most vulnerable to matters of inequality, are also the ones who lead the effort to make their environment more equitable for all. So, what the MEI can do, is serve as a framework by which a municipality, its leaders, and its employees can collaborate and connect with allies to move the needle even further toward equity and inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community.
As for Grand Rapids, the City is currently working on policy documents to formalize and grow the employee resource groups available. Prism GR members, says Kelley, “are participating in this important policy development work and are excited for the projects that we will be able to accomplish in 2020.”
Photos by Kristin Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.