Shelia Stubbs is tired of hearing about the Race to Equity report.
The report, released by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families in October, validated what Stubbs and most of Dane County’s African-American community have known for years: Living in Dane County and Madison isn’t the same for people of color. The report confirmed the disparities are, in some cases, the worst in the nation.
“Since the report came out, people — especially people not of color — are saying, ‘I can’t believe Madison is a tale of two cities,’” Stubbs said. “Well it is. But I’m done talking about it. It’s time to take action.”
In February, Stubbs, one of three minority members of the Dane County Board and its only African-American member, introduced a resolution that requires top-down review of each county department to weed out programs or policies that contribute to racial inequities.
“Fund it, sustain it and then start to do things differently,” Stubbs said. “You can’t do the same things and think you’re going to get different results.”
Raised in Beloit, Stubbs, 43, has a degrees in political science and criminal justice administration from Tougaloo College in Mississippi and Mount Senario College in Ladysmith, respectively, as well as a master's in management from Cardinal Stritch University.
She worked for eight years as a senior probation and parole agent with the state Department of Corrections before first being elected to the Dane County Board eight years ago.
She sat down recently to talk race and Dane County-related issues with the Cap Times.
The Capital Times: Sharon Corrigan was recently elected the new chair of the Dane County Board, the second woman to hold the position ever. Is this a positive for women on the council?
Shelia Stubbs: She recognizes the important of being a parent, of being a mother. That’s critical because oftentimes women have not been given an equal opportunity. At the same time, I’m still in another class because I’m a woman of color. That’s a class within a class.
Have you talked to her about the need for minorities in leadership roles?
I have. This is 2014 and I am quite concerned with racial disparities if we don’t have people of color in leadership positions.
We have three county board members that are people of color. Myself, Patrick Miles who is Japanese and Leland Pan who is Asian. The county board should reflect what the people look like.
Your resolution is unique in that it aims to address institutional racism by looking at programs and policies in each county agency. Staff members make up a task force to recommend ideas. You’ve already found out there are no minority contractors with the county. Are there other things you’ve found out that have surprised you?
The minority hiring process hasn’t surprised me, but we can change some policy language to address the problem. For example, it uses the phrase “alternative hiring.” And I don’t think anybody should be an alternative.
That’s something this work group can look at. Are there provisions, policies, language that we can change so we get a different outcome? What about the interview process? Are the members of the interview panels reflective of Dane County?
Give me an example of how to tackle other disparities.
Look at public health. We have a black infant mortality rate that’s huge right now. Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health for Madison and Dane County, recognizes that’s a problem. She has a subcommittee working on an initiative to teach parents about the dangers of co-sleeping. Through my resolution, departments, including public health, will complete an equity impact statement at budget time. It will detail how the money they are asking for impacts minorities by addressing identified problems.
How do you decide what issue is number one to tackle?
It’s very complex. But I think of it as RESTT: residence, employment, support, treatment and transportation. If a person doesn’t have a place to stay, nothing else matters. If you can stabilize them in housing, all the other services can be interconnected.
That’s what I did with inmates from prison. Let’s get you a residence. Then let’s get you employment. Let’s get you some treatment.
Do you feel your story resonates with other members of the county board?
I think it depends on who I’m speaking to. I think they understand it, but I think we need some sensitivity and diversity training, even at the county level. I don’t know if people really understand the complexities.
I know you’re tired of talking about the report. But did that report change anything?
I think that report made people on the county board gasp. I feel I haven’t had to advocate for racial disparities, and money to address it, like I used to. Now, people know we need to do something.
There are huge disparities in the criminal justice system. Why is it so bad?
One of the problems we have is most of the people have less than a third grade education. They don’t even understand what they’re signing for a plea bargain. They are scared. If they see their life is about to be limited, they’ll sign anything just to get out.
They sign conditions that they really can’t do. Which is worse, because then they get revoked. They think, “I don’t want to go to prison. This will prevent me from going to prison.”
And once you’re in the system, it tends to be a revolving door. Then they’re stuck in a system that has never been friendly to people of color.
You have a pilot program that is being funded with $7,000 from the county to create a neighborhood community court. How can this court, which will serve 17-25 year old, low-risk, first-time offenders, help keep minorities out of the criminal justice system?
This court isn’t for people caught dealing drugs. To be clear, we are looking at low-level offenses, criminal damage to property or shoplifting. The police would write the report and send it to the district attorney to make sure the offender was suitable for the court.
I know it can work if the community buys in on it. Anything is better than nothing. And right now, we’re not doing anything.
You’ve had a long association with the Madison Chapter of the NAACP. What do you know about the new Dane County NAACP?
They want it to focus on the report. That’s what I’ve been told. I’m not one of its members and I’m not sure how the Madison branch will transfer over (to this new branch). I’ve not been asked to join and I know they were calling people asking them to join.
Will you join or work with them?
They are a group we need to reach out to. I’ll reach out to anybody to help me. But honestly, the work I’m doing with the county will keep me quite busy.
Even with all these groups, someone needs to be able to make policy. And that’s where I’m going to be different. That’s what I can do for all of Dane County.
Do you think the gap can be closed?
Here in Dane County, we’re creative. It just takes a lot of people to sit down and say, “We have a problem.” Now when people tell me they feel bad about racial disparities, I say “Don’t feel bad. Help me.”