The City of Madison’s new Race, Equity and Justice Initiative (RESJI) is getting its first test.
According to Tori Pettaway, Racial Equity Coordinator, the RESJI team finished their report on the Brittingham Park playground renovations on December 9 and will be presenting it to the parks department soon.
In an email, Pettaway wrote, “The goal is to continue to work with the parks department and the community for next steps before the end of the year. The next steps is to have the report ready for public review next week. We want to make sure we have adequate time for the Parks Division to review our recommendations first.”
Pettaway leads a core RESJI team of 40-plus people who support four different action teams – data, communication, community and tools and training. The RESJI initiative was launched in 2013 to eliminate racial and social inequities in municipal government by implementing strategies in three main areas: policies and budgets, operations, and the community.
The report is based largely on input from Bayview citizens who were upset when they learned that the popular playground – used primarily by children and families of color – located next to the community garden was slated to be removed and replaced with a natural play area. When Freedom Inc. objected, the project was halted and Pettaway organized the meeting at Bayview Community Center on November 18 to hear their concerns.
About 60 people – Black, Hmong, Hispanic and White – packed the Bayview Community Center. The message was clear, “Don’t take our playground.”
“The only reason we’re here (at the meeting) is because the city started this (equity) process. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a playground. They (parks) were going to remove it in November. Because of this process we still have a playground.” Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom Inc.
Janet Schmidt, Manager, Parks Planning and Development Manager, City of Madison, explained how we got to this point. She talked about the Master Plan process and the need to replace two playgrounds at Brittingham Park: one by the garden and one by the boat house. “Both are nearing the end of their lives,” she said.
The city conducted three public input meetings to create the final plans which includes the large barrier free playground by the main shelter and a smaller playground near the boat house. The playground at the garden would be replaced by a natural play area, now simply called “proposed landforms” on the map (see below). The barrier free playground and the landforms would be the first built-in a city park.*
Several people at the meeting interrupted Schmidt to remind her that the pubic meetings were not well publicized or attended.
“There’s enough natural play everywhere,” said one parent. “The children from Bayview will be sad if you take our playground.”
Schmidt explained that the shelter site was selected for the new playground over the garden site because of existing parking and because they felt that a large play structure near the gardens would make it harder to enlarge the community gardens in the future. Parking is critical because families with kids in wheel chairs would need to park, she explained.
When asked why not have three playgrounds, Schmidt said that parks want to limit the playgrounds to two for maintenance reasons.
Kabzuag Vaj said that “no one mentioned expansion of the gardens until it was needed as a reason to justify taking away our playground.”
Mary Berryman Agard, Bayview Foundation board member said that the Brittingham Garden Placemaking project has raised over $75,000 to install sculpture and benches near the garden which includes a decorative fence around the garden.”
“The garden was built with the intention that it would never get any bigger, so hearing garden expansion used as a justification for moving the playground doesn’t make sense.” Mary Berryman Agard, Bayview Foundation Board Member
M. Adams, Freedom Inc., said, “We fought for the gardens and selected that site because of the playground. Now they want to move the playground.”
After the parks presentation, the group split to discuss what the park means to them and why. All groups stated that they love the park and the playground and do not want to see it taken away. A few mentioned that it was racist to put the playgrounds near the white neighborhoods and give the poor neighbors the landforms. It was also noted that there are very few children that live near the boat house, so in terms of sheer numbers, the best place for a playground is nearest to the garden and Bayview.
It should also be noted that no one opposed the barrier free playground, they just don’t want to lose what they have in the process. The new playground will be a regional draw and be good for the park, but the group worried that non-residents with means were having more say about the park than poor residents who live nearby.
“It’s unfair to spend hundreds of thousands to build new playgrounds for potential-city wide use and downgrade or take away from poor people of color who live across the street…it’s also unfair to create divisiveness (and use) divide and conquer tactics by pinning poor people of color, children and elders against “differently able” communities – as if they aren’t part of this community too. Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom Inc.
A group of Hmong elders and parents spoke, with the assistance of an interpreter. They take their grandchildren and children to the park while they work in the garden. The close proximity of the park makes that possible. Many are disabled.
“I wake up every day and my kids want to go to the garden. Taking away the playground makes us feel like you don’t care. Please be fair to us.”
“We struggle with language. We are poor. If you take this away, what do we have?”
“The new barrier free playground is a good thing, but it is several hundred feet from the garden. This may not seem like much, but it is a long way. The elders do not have good eyesight and they are not going to let small children make the trek.” Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom, Inc.
At the end of the meeting, Vaj asked, “Does it make a difference? This should make a difference. It’s loud and clear what we want. We demand an upgrade to the garden playground – not a tear down of it.”
- Elvehjem Elementary School has the city’s first barrier free playground. This playground would be the first barrier free playground located in a City of Madison park.
- Natural play areas such as the landforms proposed for the park are part of a larger movement to provide alternative play environments in city parks. Plans for the landforms were not available.
- The barrier free playground is being spear-headed by Jason Glozier, Disability Rights and Services Program Coordinator, Department of Civil Rights, City of Madison.
- The city has budgeted $790,000 for the project, of which $540,000 comes from park impact fees from nearby housing projects. The remainder comes from general borrowing. Half the money will be used to reorient and reconstruct the parking lot next to the shelter. Source, Kay Rutledge, Assistant Parks Superintendent.
Toriana Pettaway, Racial Equity Coordinator
Jordan Bingham, Health Equity Coordinator at Public Health Madison & Dane County, (RESJI Team), firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-266-4821
Lara Mainella, Office of City Attorney (RESJI Team)
Sarah Eskrich, District 13 Alder
Janet Schmidt, Manager, Parks Planning and Development Manager