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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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City of Madison's equity data team intent on tracking progress on racial disparities
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Russell: 'We need to have a solid benchmark to measure our progress over time.'
Credit:Meghan Chua

For a city of Madison team charged with finding ways to promote racial equity in the city, there's one clear path -- follow the numbers.

"Data is integral to the success of our equity work," says Angela Russell, a member of the city's equity data team. The team is part of Madison's Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative, which Mayor Paul Soglin unveiled at a Tuesday press conference as a way for the city to commit to equity in city operations, including budgeting and policy decisions.

Russell says data is what brought "the really atrocious inequalities in our community" to light. And, going forward, it is a way to keep the city accountable in its efforts to move toward racial equity.

"In order to ensure that Madison is a great place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and to live up to their full potential, we need to have a solid benchmark to measure our progress over time," Russell says.

The equity data team presented some of the statistics they have already gathered relevant to racial equity to city staff and community members Thursday afternoon. One of its goals is to improve inter-departmental communication about data to make that information more accessible to city staff and the public.

Russell says the initiative is a way for the city to involve itself in the conversation that has heated up in Dane County since October, when the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families published its "Race to Equity" report highlighting extreme racial disparities between blacks and whites.

But because that report focuses primarily on Dane County, the city wanted to zero in on the data for Madison, data equity team member Heather Allen said at the presentation. The team found disparities on certain measures in Madison to be even more profound than in the county or state as a whole.

For example, from 2008 to 2012, Madison's African American unemployment rate was 21.3%, compared to 19.5% in Dane County overall, according to an American Community Survey, which Allen cited during the presentation. Both stand in stark contrast to the non-Hispanic white unemployment rate, respectively 5.3% and 4.9%.

"Unemployment has tremendous poverty implications," Allen said, adding that while roughly 7% of white children in Madison are living in poverty, almost half of African American children and about a quarter of Hispanic children live under such conditions.

Team member Dan Kennelly also pointed to what he called "stark differences in how our kids are performing based on race." While around 70% of both white and Asian high school graduates of Madison schools plan on attending a four-year or two-year college, only 38% of African Americans and 48% of Hispanics and Latinos indicated the same post-graduation plans.

And city demographics are changing. Allen said Madison on the whole is about three-quarters Caucasian, while almost half of those younger than 18 are minorities.

But the team members agreed the city lacks coordination between departments where data is concerned, which decreases efficiency and accessibility. To help city staff utilize existing data in creating policies, the team plans on creating a "city data warehouse" as a platform where the information will be more easily available to the public. A few city resources currently exist, including a city study on different neighborhoods and the data portion of the city of Madison website, but individuals' requests for specific reports within departments do not always make it online in an interactive form for others' use.

The team is also working with the city to include funding for a data project coordinator position beginning in 2015.

"We're not going to see changes overnight, but there's a lot of great energy that's going into this right now and [a commitment] to making Madison a better place for everyone," Russell says.

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