Myth of a Resilient Tulsa: The Problem with the Equality Indicators

by Staff Writer Torrel Miles

Early February of this year, when questioned by a reporter from the Tulsa World on whether  the Equality Indicators were an “accurate representation of police use-of-force incidents within the department,” Major Wendell Franklin, Tulsa’s first Black police chief, responded: “I don’t want to get into whether or not the data is legitimate or not.  I will just say this: There is room for us to improve. We have to take what is given to us and try to redirect, refocus to ensure that we are equally policing in all of our communities.” To the ordinary citizen taking a first glance at the Equality Indicators reports, Franklin’s hesitation to verify the legitimacy of the data on the spot could be understandable. 

The annual reports are each roughly 50 pages long with sprawling graphs, categories and percentiles measured against a scoring system that were all developed by the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance. There are 54 indicators that serve as representation, rather than actual composite data, of social and economic inequalities experienced by many racial groups in Tulsa. The majority of the 54 indicators each denote a comparison between the least and most advantaged of these groups with special mention of Black people and residents of North Tulsa being in the former. Six themes (Economic Opportunity, Education, Housing, Justice, Public Health and Services) unite the indicators under six different umbrellas where they are divided into three topics per theme. Each topic has three  indicators that it covers. For example, the theme of Housing has three topics, one of those  being Homelessness, and one of that topic’s indicators is Race and Homeless Youth. These themes, topics and indicators are measured against a scoring system that reports disparities between the most advantaged and disadvantaged groups by use of ratios. A ratio of 1:1 shows that an indicator shows promise of equality,while a ratio of 3:1 tells us that a group is three times more likely to experience whichever outcome the indicator represents, such as the rates of homelessness for Black and minority youth. 

Launched in June 2018, the Equality Indicator report was headlined by Resilient Tulsa, a grand event that unveiled the strategy of the newly minted Office of Resiliency and Equity. City  officials at the event acknowledged the value of the campaign and the Equality Indicator report as a tool for identifying and addressing Tulsa’s various racial, economic and social disparities. Promises were made about confronting the fallout from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by pursuing four visions that focused on an inclusive future, the ability to overcome barriers and thrive, the advancement for economic opportunity and the transformation of regional and city systems to improve outcomes for all Tulsans. Tulsans were eager to see the outcome of the Resilient Tulsa project and packed the McKeon Center for Creativity from wall to wall.

The Equality Indicator report goes into detail about the validity of the reports with the disclaimer that “they only measure disparities between two comparison groups for each indicator – they do not measure outcomes for all Tulsans overall.” This means that only the comparison groups are measured, giving the city leeway to provide a scattergun approach to addressing inequalities and claim they’ve hit the target. Wendell Franklin’s answer may have been enough if he was an ordinary citizen but he is the chief of police for the city of Tulsa, a position that demands far more than broad answers. It  demands that he utilize the information gathered from these reports to better direct the officers under his charge. In fact, the 2019 report reads that one of the themes, Justice, has taken a negative hit of -1.44 overall since 2018, with indicators such as those concerning racial balance of the police force and arrests of minority juveniles showing worse results than the previous year. 

Since its inception, the City’s actions have been reflective of the same show and spectacle used to introduce Resilient Tulsa and the Equality Indicators to the public rather than focused on the work needed for actual structural systematic change behind closed doors. The upcoming Equity Dialogues scheduled from August 18th to September 4th invites everyone  to “continue the dialogue on normalizing conversations about race, racism, and racial equity,” while “fostering dialogue and engagement with government.” January of this year, Mayor G.T. Bynum sat in a town hall meeting at Rudisill Regional Library with citizens and publicly refused to end the city’s Live PD contract. The television show offered voyeurism into the lives of Tulsa citizens, usually impoverished Blacks and minorities who came from a lineage marked by systemic oppression, facing an entire camera crew on what arguably could be considered the worst day of their lives. It showcased the worst parts of Tulsa as poverty pornography to the rest of the nation and, yet, the mayor endorsed it in the faces of his citizens who pleaded he do otherwise, some of them openly sobbing out of frustration. 

In June, after Tulsa and the rest of the nation saw an outbreak of protests and civil unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the mayor finally relented and called for the cancellation of Live PD. If the catalyst of a change of heart for our mayor involves the disproportionate murders of Black men by police brutality and the uprising of Blacks, other historically marginalized groups and their allies showing up to his doorstep in Tulsa and on streets throughout the country, then what exactly would an Equity Dialogue accomplish? DeVon Douglass, who served as Chief Resilience Officer during the unveiling of Resilient Tulsa, departed from the position around February 2019 and was replaced by Krystal Reyes that following May. Reyes was hired for the Resilient Tulsa project to the tune of $100k per year through funding  from the Rockefeller Foundation. A month before Reyes’ hiring, 100 Resilient Cities, the organization that helmed Tulsa’s involvement with the Resiliency strategy, dissolved into two different organizations and had its funding pulled by the Rockefeller Foundation. The funding was supposed to supplement Reyes’ income until the eventual incorporation of her job into an official position within the mayor’s office, which would be paid for with tax dollars. The meltdown of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative calls into question if Reyes will keep her job whenever the Rockefeller Foundation pulls the plug completely on the project and if Tulsa taxpayers will have to pay for a Resilient strategy that delivers no discernible results. Thankfully for Reyes, Rockefeller is still funding her position. Sadly for us, the city no longer has any incentive to continue with actual work concerning racial equity and equality, instead opting for open forums, such as the Equity Dialogues.

Perhaps the mayor would be open to attending his own Equity Dialogues. Bynum’s recent inability during Donald Trump’s presidential rally to invoke his power in accordance with Title 8, Tulsa Revised Ordinances, Section 200 and the Oklahoma Emergency Management Act, 63 O.S. § 683.3, which allows him to temporarily prohibit large gatherings, was seen by many as pandering to his conservative voter base. It was also seen as a disregard for lives during a worldwide pandemic. Bynum’s campaign as mayor often saw him referencing the eleven-year life differential between communities in the northern and southern areas of Tulsa. This life differential is addressed by the Equality Indicators with hard data but with no concrete resolutions from the administration. 

Promises to increase the lifespan of North Tulsans mean nothing if those remaining eleven years are of insufficient quality. Resilience Tulsa’s focus on conversations reads much like a Diversity and Inclusion initiative that speaks of racial dialogue and direction but lacks actual racial diversity amongst its leaders and action outside of planning conversations about race. Bynum and city officials refuse to take an actual stance on uprooting the fruits of systemic oppression sown in Tulsa almost a century ago, instead opting for performative actions, such as Resilient Tulsa, effectively dangling a carrot that the descendants of victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre may never capture.   

Photo credit: Joseph Rushmore

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