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Washtenaw United: The state of "The Dream" in Washtenaw County in 2024 as we celebrate MLK Day

Washtenaw County racial equity officer Alize Asberry Payne
Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County racial equity officer Alize Asberry Payne


Alize serves as the Racial Equity Officer for Washtenaw County government where she is responsible for the strategic design and implementation of the County holistic equity framework. As a senior member of the Executive Leadership team, she supports the overall operation of county government services through the lens of equity. The Racial Equity Office is currently managing the County American Rescue Plan investments, reporting, and evaluation process. Alize has more than two decades of experience in DEI and transformational justice spaces and was recently recognized as a 2023 Notable in DEI by Crain’s Detroit.


Washtenaw County Racial Equity Office

Washtenaw County Racial Equity Office on Facebook

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David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to a Doctor Martin Luther King Junior Day edition of Washtenaw United. This national holiday is an annual reflection on where we've come, where we are and the progress that still needs to be made. It is an assessment on the state of the dream, so eloquently and emphatically oriented by Doctor King at the National Mall in August of 1963. In the ongoing quest for racial equity and equality, where do we stand in Washtenaw County? What progress has been made here? And what advancements may come in 2024? Our guest today is most qualified to help us explore the answers to those questions. Alize Asberry Payne is Washtenaw County's racial equity officer. And thank you so much for joining us on the day in which we honor Doctor King.

Alize Asberry Payne: Thank you so much for having me, David. Happy to join.

David Fair: What does this day mean to you?

Alize Asberry Payne: This is a day of sacred reflection and service. And I can think of no better way to honor the memory of Doctor King than by committing to our continued work towards his dream our collective dream of creating a community where neither your race nor your place determines your opportunity or your outcomes. And I'm proud to work with and serve with the community in Washtenaw County in that effort.

David Fair: The year after Doctor King's "I Have a Dream" speech, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That was in July of 1964. So, this summer, we're going to mark that landmark 60th anniversary. Is that something we might formally acknowledge in Washtenaw County?

Alize Asberry Payne: I don't see how we could move past such a momentous occasion without formally acknowledging it. You know, we have come so far from that moment, and we still have a long way to go.

David Fair: The Civil Rights Act paved the way for another landmark decision that came in 1967. In the Loving versus Virginia ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that laws banning interracial marriage were a violation of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Is it fair to say that, in a way, is the beginning of your story?

Alize Asberry Payne: I wouldn't be here without that decision. I am a product of the very first generation after that decision was made. My mother, a white woman from the state of Texas, moved to California and met my father, a Black man from the west side of Detroit. They met and married and had me. And that that was the start of my journey, I think, in this kind of work, being part of a generation that is acutely aware of how recent so much of that history is.

David Fair: So, how did that upbringing ultimately inform the manner in which you go about your work and career path that has led you to become the racial equity officer in Washtenaw County?

Alize Asberry Payne: I was raised with a deep sense of responsibility to the world in which we live, the sense that we all have a duty and a privilege, really, to help make the world a more just and fair place. And those don't have to be big, grand gestures. That's how we treat our neighbors. That's how we we interact with people who are different than us and continuing to live out the spirit of that inclusion, that sense of belonging, in every action that we take. I think that's how I view how we need to create policy in our community, how we ensure that every person in the county feels that they belong and that we are working together to foster a sense of true inclusion and hope and opportunity and prosperity for all of the people of our community.

David Fair: Our MLK day edition of Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Washtenaw County racial equity officer Alize Asberry Payne. Once again, we're approaching the 61st anniversary of Doctor King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall. So, as you reflect on where we've come over these past six decades, how do you assess the state of the dream in 2024?

Alize Asberry Payne: I believe that we are capable of living up to the highest principles that were communicated in that speech and that the state of the world today makes it very challenging often to see our way on that path, but that each individual person has the opportunity and the ability to foster and to co-create a just and fair world. I think that we have generational disparities in our community, but I also believe that we are at a unique time, not just in the history of Washtenaw County or the history of America, but globally in a sense of we are all collectively responsible for each other. And as we think about things like climate justice, it really does have to be a collective push towards solutions in ways that ensure all people have access to resources and opportunity.

David Fair: You know, I think in our day-to-day lives, sometimes it's easy to kind of not take note of progress that is being made. Sometimes, progress is very slow. Nonetheless, it is taking place. You were the first ever racial equity officer in Washtenaw County, hired in 2019. Now, that was four short years ago. But there has been progress. What have been some of the impactful changes that have taken place since you arrived?

Alize Asberry Payne: I think the county's pandemic response is a shining example of what it means for government, in particular, to acknowledge where we see disparity and where we see harm and respond appropriately. I'm incredibly proud of that work of not just the Washtenaw County team and the local units of government, but our broad community in terms of how we all pulled together. Washtenaw County, in our response, was able to eliminate the disparate rates of death between Black and white residents. That's phenomenal! 20 years ago, we were not having conversations about impacts of public health, social determinants of health, in ways that we're having today. Those kinds of tangible impacts are things that we should all be incredibly proud of. When I think about when I first started at the county and the conversations we were having about race and equity and disparity and how we really moved into equity 2.0, right? It's not just about the discussions about what communities don't have, right? It's also the conversations about the resources and the assets and how do we create a universal baseline, so that all people in our community know that they have access to opportunity, the resources and support to utilize and make full use of those opportunities and that our systems and our structures are targeting into our needs in ways that create a universal baseline of health and wellbeing for all of our residents. I think that when we are, as a government entity, being driven by a community response to start conversations about reparations, that is phenomenal progress. And I'm incredibly proud of our community and the work that we are able to do here.

David Fair: Our conversation with Washtenaw County racial equity officer Alize Asberry Payne continues on an MLK day edition of 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. We continue to deal with the impacts of systemic racism. Overt acts of expressions of racism are on the rise. Since the pandemic, members of the Asian community have been subject to increasing levels of violence and discrimination. Antisemitism and Islamophobia are on high. It seems to me advancing the concepts and reality of equity and equality for all are increasingly difficult. How are you going to approach these challenges in 2024?

Alize Asberry Payne: So, I think there's the big question of our institutional and systemic response and what that means for the future of our communities. And then, there are the day-to-day interactions that people have. One thing about policy that is incredibly impactful is that it creates generational impact. But when you're a person who is dealing with hard things in the moment, that policy may be something that is too far in the future to reach or too far in the future to really feel that impact right now. One of the things that the county is deeply committed to is in fostering a sense of universal belonging, that every member of our community understands that this is a safe place where they are wanted and welcome and that every person who is here is what makes up the incredible fabric and diversity of our region. And it is necessary to have that--to have the amazing community that we have here. Things like creating and fostering cultural acknowledgment, so that people see themselves reflected in the day-to-day, encouraging those hard conversations and creating those bridges. You know, some bridges are short, right? The people that you're able to easily agree with, maybe we have some differences, but it's not hard to get to a place of center. Some bridges are longer and require more in-depth work to come to a place of center. What is important to understand is that, universally, we have so much more in common than we do have things that are different.

David Fair: Our time together is winding down. But I do want to pose a final question. With MLK day acknowledged as a day of service, we also recognize the service work needed and required every day moving forward, as you so eloquently pointed out. Regardless of race, religion, and political affiliation, what would you like each of us to consider today and through the rest of the year, as we try and advance and improve the state of Doctor King's dream?

Alize Asberry Payne: One of my favorite quotes of all time, is "Justice is what love looks like in public." And if you are a person who subscribes to the framework of loving your neighbor as you love yourself, it is important to understand that it means that you have an obligation to help create a just and fair world. That means if you see something that is wrong in your community, be the person who speaks out against it. If you see something where you have a neighbor or a person you don't know, a stranger, is struggling, be that hand to reach out and say that you are welcome, and I support you. So much of the work that we have to do together, at the individual level, is about that acknowledgment of the things that we have in common. Be the change that you want to see. You know, engage in your neighborhood block club. And if you don't have one, start one. You know, if you are a person who sees a problem in your community, we are the ones that we have been waiting for. You know, be the person who steps up to help make that change. The changes that we all want to see are not based upon someone out in the world who's going to come and save us. These are our communities. These are our neighborhoods. This is our Washtenaw County. And in order to have the kind of community that we want to see, each one of us has a responsibility to say, "Hey, I see something that could be different here, and I'm going to be the person to step up and help make that change happen."

David Fair: I thank you for spending a portion of your MLK day with us, and I truly thank you for sharing your perspective and insights.

Alize Asberry Payne: Thank you so much for having me. It is always a pleasure to talk to you, David.

David Fair: That is Washtenaw County racial equity officer Alize Asberry Payne, our guest on Washtenaw United as the nation and our community celebrates Doctor Martin Luther King Day. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


United Way for Southeastern Michigan is committed to deconstructing systemic racism and institutional bias while promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion as a core value in every aspect of our work. We will consciously work to eliminate injustice and inequity in all our roles. One of the ways United Way is prioritizing the lived experiences of our Washtenaw County community, is by introducing the Racial Equity Fund to our Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) leaders.

The Racial Equity Fund will provide financial support and technical assistance to BIPOC-led organizations through operational unrestricted grants, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. The fund is designed to empower BIPOC-led organizations to provide programs and projects that work toward eliminating racial disparities in pursuit of more equitable and just communities across Washtenaw County.

The objective is to empower BIPOC and people most harmed by systemic oppression. Our efforts seek to ensure all people experience authentic inclusion and have equitable access to resources and opportunities to thrive and reach their full potential.

Applications are now open for the Racial Equity Fund until 5 p.m. on Thursday, January 18.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to 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.'

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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