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What is race? It's a single question that elicits hundreds, perhaps thousands, of answers and even more questions.

Peter Hammer has started the discussion in Detroit, asking questions about race and racial equity and getting others to do so with him in a unique setting around the Motor City.

Hammer, a Wayne State University law school professor, readily admits he and his fellow cohorts in the Detroit Equity Action Lab don't have all the answers to the complicated questions they are asking.

And that's why Hammer and nonprofit leaders from across Metro Detroit are doing their work in a laboratory environment — on campus and around sites in the city — where they have the freedom to ask difficult questions, try out new ideas, fail from time to time and make the entire experience about learning.

Hammer is leading the lab, which was established at WSU in 2014 with a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

It works like this: leaders of nonprofit organizations come together to discuss racial equity in health care, education, food security, safety and housing. They then work to address issues of structural racism inside and around these systems and seek solutions.

The entire program is operating under a methodology, Hammer says, focusing on the ways in which these institutions contribute and establish outcomes for all racial groups. Hammer said those in the lab are working to identify and change long-standing problems, as well as create policy recommendations and improve awareness.

"Racial equity is a way to get institutional change. You measure it by looking at outcomes," Hammer said. "It's a pretty innovative experiment and it's brave of Kellogg to undertake it."

Observers say it's also an opportunity to grow the capacity and strength of racial equity work being done in Detroit and across the nation. The first group of DEAL cohorts finished their year in June. Applications to be in a new cohort are being sought this summer, with work beginning in September.

The lab holds facilitated monthly discussions, workshops and projects. Each meeting begins with time in a circle where individual members speak about recent personal experiences or those of the people they serve in the minority community.

Fay Givens, executive director of American Indian Services Inc., a Lincoln Park nonprofit, shared the a story of a Native American elder being harassed by college students wearing face paint and feathers for a party. Givens said part of the work being done at DEAL is analyzing what is happening out in the community in schools, the government and neighborhoods.

Givens said DEAL will be very instrumental in recognizing, "it's not just African-Americans that are experiencing problems. It's Native American, Hispanics and others. We are not in charge. We have no control. It's inherent in the system. We hope that education might make a difference."

Givens said Native Americans are at the bottom of every social economic indicator in America.

"Yet we cannot get the funding at the levels others are funded," she said. "What is it that needs to change? Institutions. It's so built into the institutions themselves it makes it difficult to change. It's one thing to recognize it. We can. It's the people who are in the system that can't recognize it."

Simran Noor, director of policy and strategy with the Center for Social Inclusion in New York, came to Detroit in May to speak to DEAL participants about issues of racial equity. Noor said the conversation about race often turns to the idea that the world is operating in a post-racial society, with a black president.

"We hear we don't need to talk about race anymore. Nothing can be further from the truth. We have to talk about race. It's under the surface of everything. It's motivating peoples' behavior, their voting strategies," Noor said.

Noor said there is power in sharing stories locally and nationally and sharing tools and resources that other groups have found successful. "The issues that affect communities of color affect all of us," she said.

A recent report by the Altarum Institute and Kellogg Foundation detailed the cost of failing to address the legacy of racism in the state.

The report estimates if the average person of color achieved the average income of his or her white counterparts at any age, total Michigan earnings would increase by 7.5 percent, or $16.2 billion (2012 projection). If the earnings gaps were eliminated, the increased earnings would raise the state's economic output by $31.2 billion in state GDP.

Recently members of DEAL came to the Detroit Historical Museum to help with plans it has for a three-year exhibit around what it calls "the unrest of 1967," known as the 1967 Detroit riots.

Tobi Voigt, chief curatorial officer the Detroit Historical Society, said DEAL members helped the museum grow by seeing issues through a racial equity lens.

"It was interesting and good for us to start thinking about strategies for inclusion in moving forward in this exhibit and that we are inclusive in sharing all of our communities stories," Voigt said.

Reflecting on the first year, Hammer sees success.

"One measure of success is the amount of trust that has been built. In our morning session of sharing out in a circle, you can track the depth of openness that is created through the process. Hopefully that gets reproduced in interactions outside the lab, the notion of deepening skills and taking on the big issues," he said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com

Go to law.wayne.edu for more information on the Detroit Equity Action Lab.

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