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Washtenaw United: Building community power & practicing democracy in Washtenaw County

Eleanore Ablan-Owen
Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice
Eleanore Ablan-Owen

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Eleanore (Eleanore@icpj.org) has served numerous community nonprofits and resident groups in Detroit, emphasizing community ownership of land, community wealth-building, and resident-led decision-making regarding land use and neighborhood planning. Eleanore has a BA in Sociology from the University of Michigan and a Masters of Urban Planning from Wayne State University. As an activist Eleanore has worked on a variety of social justice issues -- from prisoners’ rights, anti-militarism, police accountability, and worker rights, to environmental justice. In her downtime, Eleanore organizes tree plantings, builds community gardens, and loves to hike and bike ride with her two sons.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. This is our weekly look at equity and opportunity in our community. I'm David Fair, and as we explore the systemic policies and practices that lead to oppression of opportunity in the community of Black, indigenous and people of color, we find it often perpetuated by decision makers that don't fall into any of those categories. The Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice in Washtenaw County centers its efforts on racial and economic justice, and our guest today is Eleanore Ablan-Owen. She is co-director of the ICPJ and is here to talk about building community power and practicing democracy in Washtenaw County. Thank you so much for the time today, Eleanore.

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm excited to talk to you.

David Fair: Now, I've painted some rather broad strokes in describing what our conversation is going to be today. So, let's break it down just a bit. When you talk about building community power, what does that look like?

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: Yeah, you know, I'm relatively new to Washtenaw County, but one of the things that ICPJ has been involved in developing over the last six months or so is a process to build the Washtenaw County People's Budget for Dignity and Justice. And this is a process where we want to impact the county budget so that more of the money is being spent on housing and community programs and things that people need and also are decided by people in community. Right now, more than 70% of the budget is spent on policing and incarceration and courts. And, really, the way that we're building this is having conversations with folks in the community about what it is that we need. So, when we talk to people on house community, we talk to them about what they know about the budget, what they see as the future of the county, and what's really needed to serve their interests. So, part of it is changing the budget. Part of it is changing the outcome and having an impact. But also, part of it is building the process of our own involvement and engagement in democratic decision-making.

David Fair: So, in practicing democracy and creating the opportunity for those kinds of decisions, how do you bring all of those diverse opinions and answers to your questions into some sort of consensus?

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: Well, I think that what I've observed at the Washtenaw Board of Commissioners meeting, the commissioners, you know, they're well-intentioned. They're also limited in resources in their ability to reach out to different communities. And the folks that go to those meetings are already people that are engaged. They're people that see themselves as part of the decision-making process. But there's a whole other community. There are many other communities that are not engaged in that process, partially because they don't have hope that it will it will be something that they can impact. And so, our goal--we're a small organization, but working with other organizations and many individuals--our goal is to have small group conversations and just get to know one another through our relationships and understand what it is that the critical needs are in different communities that has been marginalized historically. And then, as we have these conversations, things bubble up. So, for instance, when, you know, I was with Sherri Wunder at the warming shelter during the winter, people were talking about needing an emergency shelter specifically in the eastern part of Washtenaw County and talking about all of the difficulties that folks have day-to-day. Like, you can really only understand that in longer conversations, not in two-minute conversations at a Board of Commissioners meeting. And so, from these conversations, we start to understand what the priorities are. And what we envision is in community meetings, aside from the small conversations, larger community meetings, where people can come together and learn about the different projects and priorities that the community has. We're working with people in houseless community, people in labor, tenants, communities facing gun violence--really, folks that don't typically go to the commissioner meetings. And, from there, folks will learn about priorities and then advocate for those priorities in more of a collective voice. And even if things don't change immediately, we do see that that these conversations will lead to change in the longer term.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Eleanore Ablan-Owen. She is co-director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice in Washtenaw County. And you talked about some have a lack of hope, but there's also lack of trust. We're living in a time where voter suppression is increasing and may get worse. Women are losing rights to self-determination and reproductive health in a country that's never come seriously close to passing an equal rights amendment. And we live in a time of heightened polarization and increased violence. So, what about any of that would lead to trust in the democratic process you're trying to build?

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: I think that there, as I said, it really starts with relationships. So, in Washtenaw County, you know, it's a small community. And we're able to build relationships by hearing one another's stories, but by being in community with one another and by learning how to build communities of belonging. And in that process of growing with one another, understanding history, and also healing with one another from the violence that is all around us that we swim in on a daily basis, that's how we can learn to trust one another. And then, as we work together, we can advocate for our collective needs and priorities.

David Fair: We've touched on some serious social issues and some of the barriers that creates and trying to move forward on issues of equity and opportunity. Have some of these issues touched your personal life?

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: Yeah. Back in 2020, when so much was going on at the national level, you know, I went on Facebook, and a nephew of mine posted that Trump would not leave office except over his well-armed dead body. And that was my nephew. And I've never known him to be violent. In fact, he's an incredibly, very soft-spoken person. But he was very, very serious. And what got me thinking more and more about the conversations that we need to have is that experience. Like, how we just accept violence. We are brought up with it. We experience it in so many different levels. And so, in that moment, you know, I thought about what do we need to do?And it's not social media memes. It's not, you know, academic conversations where we're trying to debate and decide who won the conversation, who won the debate. It is really trying to take a step back and understand one another, build empathy, and relearn how to communicate with one another. We learn how to resolve conflict and learn how to build empathy between folks that don't have the same opinions. And so, for me, I mean, I see violence in many, many different ways. I'm also a parent of children with complex trauma histories. And I see how violence that we experience is is held within our bodies. It limits us in our interactions with other people. It limits us in terms of our ability to be open and to learn. And so, we have to heal from this violence. And the only way that we can do that is by building relationships, building compassionate community conversations across differences and around conversations that are really difficult to have in spaces where we can actually hear one another.

David Fair: We're talking with the co-director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Her name is Eleanoer Ablan-Owen. And, Eleanore, we're now less than a month away from the August 2nd primary elections, and, beyond that, the November general election is on the horizon. As you build these relationships in the community and try and establish some trust and more depth and conversation, do you trust in the election process to support the mission and goals you've described today?

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: This has been a country that has not been representative of everyone. It has not been a country that's had freedom for everyone, and that is embedded in our systems, our processes, including our election processes. The violence that we have seen growing over the last several years is on top of that. It comes out of the foundations of our country, foundations of white supremacy, foundations of greed and patriarchy. And what we see in the heightened violence and the threats toward the ability of folks to vote freely is something that, you know, we have to continue to organize against. We have to make sure that people are protected at the polls. And we also need to make sure that people have the information that they need and vote for people that represent their interests.

David Fair: So, regardless of outcomes in the elections, there is a lot of work ahead. Are you optimistic or cynical that truly meaningful change is in the near future?

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: Well, change happens at a lot of different levels. The change that happens within our community--that's change that can happen a little bit more quickly. And that has to be across our society. We can't just have, you know, Washtenaw County be a bubble of equality, equity, and and justice. And so, what we're doing, I think, is plant seeds of hope. And it just takes generations. It took a very long time for us to get to where we are, where people feel that it is okay to storm the Capitol, to kill Black people. And I think that, you know, it takes a very long time to undo that injustice.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you for taking time to share your vision with us today, Eleanore.

Eleanore Ablan-Owen: Thank you so much.

David Fair: That is Eleanore Ablan-Owen, the co-director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice in Washtenaw County and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on our guest and topic, visit our web page at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is presented in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ)


United Way of Washtenaw County most recently invested in the work of ICPJ through a $25,000 Justice Fund Grant in June 2022 to support their ability to:

  • Create stronger grassroots networks to observe, analyze, and share information about local decision-making.
  • Increase participation in local decision-making by empowering and tooling community members to know how to make genuine impacts to move the county toward greater equity and justice.
  • Bring about a shift in culture – toward a culture where residents have the expectation that we are well-informed about local decision-making, that we know how to effect the change we seek, and that community members are not merely the recipients of programs designed elsewhere but are empowered to be leaders designing our own community solutions.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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