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Washtenaw United: Uniting Community In Effort To End Poverty In Washtenaw County

Washtenaw County

Many consider Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor in particular, an affluent community. Yet, the truth is that a large number of Washtenaw residents are at, or below the poverty line. Morghan Boydston is the human services manager for the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development. She joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss the harsh realities as to why that is and the current efforts to address racism and its impact on local poverty. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County 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.'




Morghan Boydston has concentrated her academic and professional trajectory on creating, protecting, and guiding equitable spaces for those who identify with disenfranchised and oppressed populations. Her core topics of focus are: housing and homelessness, grant making and funding, senior support services, youth empowerment and self-efficacy, education training on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as well as nonprofit strategic planning, marketing, community outreach, and networking. Via this body of work she places an emphasis on creating, maintaining, and facilitating processes for building equity and system change.


Washtenaw County Office of Economic & Community Development

Opportunity Washtenaw

Opportunity Washtenaw - Opportunity Index

2017 Washtenaw County Assessment of Fair Housing


Home to the most educated city in America, 12% of Washtenaw County people live below the poverty level and an additional 19% struggle to meet their basic needs, meaning 31% of people in our community are living in poverty or struggling to meet basic needs. United Way is fighting poverty bringing people, our resources, and organizations together to fight poverty and ensure everyone, regardless of their income, has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Our fight isn’t over until poverty is no longer a reality for people.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. It is our weekly exploration of issues of equity and opportunity. I'm David Fair, and I learned an unsettling fact. Recently, 31 percent of Washtenaw County residents are living in poverty or struggling to meet basic needs. In the search for equity, we can point to a distinct lack of opportunity for all too many. Much of that injustice can be traced to a system of policy and procedure that both intentionally and unintentionally fosters oppression and injustice. Joining us on Washtenaw United today is a woman dedicated to creating a different kind of future. Morghan Boydston has spent her academic and professional career addressing these issue and now serves as a human services manager for the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development. Morghan, thank you so much for the time today.

Morghan Boydston: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: 31 percent. That's a high number. Given that Washtenaw County is home to Ann Arbor and much of the perception of the area is one of affluence. Do you find that people are surprised when you discuss these kinds of figures with them?

Morghan Boydston: I do. And often it's because we live in silent neighborhoods and communities. So, when you think about the people that are around you, they are normally people like you. And so especially if you have some type of privilege or live in some type of affluency, the people you are around you have that same affluency. And so, it is hard to believe that not everyone has the same experience. So, people are often astonished, and it's troubling.

David Fair: The 31 percent number is countywide. But if you look at a map, you would see that the majority lives on the eastern side of the U.S. 23 divide. And that plays into Washtenaw County's ranking as eighth most segregated county in the nation--a fact, you just touched upon. What are the primary causes locally for such disparity?

Morghan Boydston: Well, historically, we can go back to redlining, right? At one point, especially in downtown Ann Arbor, it used to be a huge, affluent Black neighborhood. And because of redlining, because of racism, all those folks are moved out and had no place to go but the East Side. And the folks that were always in the East Side, then just because of racism in the way that our society changed, especially even now, folks' property values then declined, right? So I think a lot of it is directly tied to racism and injustice in a just system.

David Fair: And as we exist within that system here in the U.S., the governments recognize poverty line for an individual is 12,880 dollars. For a family of four, twenty six thousand five hundred. Now, in much of this area that wouldn't even cover rent. What ramifications do you see as a result of that?

Morghan Boydston: We see huge issues. We call that either housing instability or we see huge numbers of homelessness right, in comparison to the population of what a place like Washtenaw County should have. So, we see folks that are struggling to pay means. They might be paying their rent, but then they're not getting enough food, or they're sacrificing medical care, or they're sacrificing even great educational opportunities for their children or themselves. So, it really puts people in a position to have to pick and choose what is the most valuable in that moment to survive. No one is...those folks are not thriving. They are literally just trying to survive day to day.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. And we're talking poverty with Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development Human Services manager Morghan Boydston. The County Board of Commissioners did officially declare racism a public health crisis. And that, of course, is needed and warranted. But racism is deeply rooted and touches much more than health as you've been addressing. When people say the poor and particularly people of color exist at or near the poverty line because they are uneducated, lazy, or otherwise uninspired to lift themselves out. Is that not a crisis in attitudinal racism in and of itself?

Morghan Boydston: Oh, absolutely. It's this idea that we actually, especially again, those that are privileged, and I am a part of that as a Black woman, right? With that means that I have a certain amount of affordability. There are certain access points that I can have given my education, given my employment, given my economic standing. And so, it is easy when you're in that space to be able to convince yourself that I did it myself. I did it all by myself. And it's really easy then to condemn or to villainize those that cannot do it by themselves. We forget that no one has pulled themselves up by them, but proof that there are many programs, assistance, community that support us all in making us and helping us become who we are. And if you're disenfranchised from those systems, that community, those opportunities, then it's just that much harder in order to be just as successful, to be able to do the work and create the success for yourself and your family generationally.

David Fair: So institutionalized practices, policies, and the attitudes have fomented disparity, inequity, and oppression of opportunity. In exploring where those policies and practices in our county government exist today, what have we discovered?

Morghan Boydston: I think what we've discovered is that, in a lot of ways, the programs that we implement and the funding that we provide to community well can go a long way. It does in many ways create barriers. In most cases, the funding and programs that I directly oversee calls someone to have to be in crisis in order to help them. There's not a lot of funding and resources to prevent that crisis, and we really can be more upstream with the resources that we have. But what it takes is for folks to realize, again, you're not going to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and sometimes you need help, and sometimes that help should come before you're actually literally sleeping on the street, or literally sleeping in your car. Maybe we can help people with rental assistance, as we're seeing a lot now, as a result of the pandemic response, before they ever have to be in eviction. And so, those policies, which are normal, right? It says, I want to make sure you really need it first before I help you. You need to change and not because of a pandemic.

David Fair: So, what then becomes the role of your office as part of the whole in providing those opportunities where it may not otherwise exist?

Morghan Boydston: So that's what's so amazing about the Office of Community and Economic Development is that, every week, everything we do is in partnership with community. We meet with community stakeholder holders or in communities with different walks of community, at community centers, working with other community based organizations. We are often touching in to see, "Hey, what are you experiencing and what can we do differently in order to make you experience different." And so, the tools we have, or the resources we have, might not be that different with the methods we are.

David Fair: And when you say the methods are different, how so?

Morghan Boydston: It's really using that grassroots community organization approach. It's knowing and being in partnership with folks. It's being able to say, "Hey, I have this policy that's coming out that might be dictated to me from the state or the federal government. How will this apply to you and what can we do to get together to make it so that you can serve folks the best way possible?"

David Fair: We're talking in once again with Morghan Boydston from the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development on Eighty-Nine one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And you very accurately pointed out that no one gets to where they ultimately are alone. That successes are standing on the shoulders of others and depending on people to be behind you, beside you, and walking with you. How did your personal journey lead you to dedicate yourself to working for diversity, equity, and inclusion and to combat the issues that disenfranchised and impress...oppressed?

Morghan Boydston: So, I came from a very highly educated family. My grandparents on both sides are college educated. So, I was very fortunate to have a pathway laid out for me. And it was very clear to me, especially as I went to college and understood more about the world, that not everyone was afforded that, especially people who look like me. And, literally, all it took was exposure, generations worth of exposure. And that trickled down to more than just education. It's being able to buy your first home. My father helped my husband and I do that. It's those abilities that, again, someone helping you along the way to be able to do that is what really makes the person and realizing that everyone has that access to do so. And it's not based on their own individual lack of, but is based on the system that contributes to the inability to access those type of resources and opportunities made me dedicate my life to this work.

David Fair: You have said, Morghan--and it is not a unique perspective--that once you know better, it is your responsibility to do better. Do enough people know better?

Morghan Boydston: You know, I think human nature is to see and not do things differently, especially if you don't know what that impact might mean to you. So, I think if I were to be truthful. Yes, I do think people know better. Do they actually want to acknowledge that they know better? I think that's a whole different story. Like, we got a lot of cognitive dissonance going on in our world right now. When you can see it, it might go against your norms or values, but you're just not ready to change it yet.

David Fair: You've discussed the role of your office and government in these issues. But, as for us, on an individual basis, when you conclude that phrase by saying it is your responsibility to do better, what does that look like and what actions are needed from us as individuals to take responsibility and do better?

Morghan Boydston: I think what that means is really being honest with yourself. When you ignore an issue in community, when you ignore the person walking down the street, are you blaming them specifically? Are you saying you could have done better? Are you really thinking about the system in the community in which you live in that didn't serve them well? And it is that difference. It's that tide-changing behavior. It's their own internal behavior and beliefs is what's going to change. And so that's what I think we all first have the responsibility to do. And then those that already know that need to really get in spaces when they can improve and encourage policy change so that while the other folks are catching up, the policy changes are moving along the way, so that we don't have people in that in-between and that gap area waiting for change to happen, because they are every day in crisis and suffering from the barriers that some of us don't have too.

David Fair: Morghan, thank you so much for the time and sharing your perspective. I do appreciate it.

Morghan Boydston: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is Morghan Boydston, human services manager for the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development and our guest on Washtenaw United. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County and is heard every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD1 Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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