Editor’s note: This story is the fifth in a series of in-depth reporting by ELi on the City of East Lansing’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24). The four previous articles were on FY24 plans for the Department of Public Works, environmental management, the fire department, and the police department.
By Mya Gregory
Prior to presenting her department’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal to East Lansing City Council, Cathy DeShambo, director of East Lansing Parks, Recreation and Arts (ELPRA), began by introducing her staff members present at the meeting and expressed gratitude towards them.
“I want to recognize them publicly because, while I get to present the story tonight, the story exists because of their tremendous work, their thoughtful problem solving, and their dedication to our goals and objectives of being grounded in diversity, equity and inclusion,” DeShambo said during the Tuesday, May 2, presentation (beginning at slide 52).
She provided two examples from this past year that exemplify the “dedication of this team and talent of this team.” She lauded her staff for their organization of Winterfest in December at the Hannah Community Center, which was attended by over 2,000 members of the community, and the way staff showed up to support the community following the Feb. 13 shooting at Michigan State University.
Over the past year, ELPRA has offered both indoor and outdoor facilities and programs to encourage active, healthy, creative and environmentally friendly lifestyles, according to its website.
“I like to say that we’re human services and we’re infrastructure combined,” DeShambo said. “Which is kind of a weird combination, but it works for us.”
Full-time and contingent staff keep ELPRA programs and facilities running.
In addition to their full-time staff, ELPRA has 120 contingent staff who help the department run programs in the community, including the East Lansing Family Aquatic Center (ELFAC), Before and After School Care Program and more.
Apart from the multiple programs provided by ELPRA to the community, DeShambo told Council the department also supports groups financially. For example, the department provides a $10,000 grant to Active Living For All (ALFA), which is housed in the Valley Court Community Center and offers day respite care for families who need a place to take care of their loved ones. The Primetime Seniors program, housed in the Hannah Center, is supported with a $7,000 grant. ELPRA also has an ongoing partnership with East Lansing Public Schools, which includes allowing the soccer and cross country teams to utilize city complexes and parks.
DeShambo proceeded to reflect on projects the department has been working on in FY23 and the projects ELPRA plans to work on in FY24 (July 2023-June 2024). The proposed FY24 budget is just under $5.5 million.
“We’re looking at changes in activities that are driven with an equity lens,” DeShambo said. “[These changes] are really aligned with City Council’s strategic priorities, but they’re really focused on removing barriers to participation.”
The department has focused on many activities that center on mental and physical disabilities.
Among these is the partnership with Able Eyes, a Lansing-based organization that provides visual, state of the art experiences and teaching tools to children and adults with disabilities, to create a virtual tour of the Hannah Center. The goal of this virtual tour is to make people with disabilities more comfortable attending the center, as they can see what the center looks like before they come in. ELPRA has budgeted to create another virtual tour of the aquatic center.
Parks and Rec also hopes to expand the Youth & Adult Mental Health First Aid Training program. The department currently has 70 staff certified with a three-year certification from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, but hopes to receive funds to increase that number in the years to come.
The department held its first Disability Friendly Swim in partnership with the Mid-Michigan Autism Association at the aquatic center. More swimming events are planned for the coming year.
Additional steps to improve accessibility have been taken, including powered door openers at the fitness center, improvements to the existing door opener at Hannah Community Center and an aquatic wheelchair being added for the ELFAC.
The department is working to remove barriers for community members and creating a staff focused on equity.
In an effort to remove barriers, DeShambo said ELPRA has contracted with Michigan State University Translation Services to have the school age forms and the school age child care handbook translated into Hindi, Spanish and Chinese (common languages in the East Lansing area). Further funds are being requested in FY24 for additional translations of community used documents.
ELPRA has also been working to establish all-gender restrooms and changing rooms. There are currently two all-gender restrooms in the Hannah Center, one at Patriarche Park and two at the aquatic center. The FY24 budget includes conversion of two restrooms at City Hall into all-gender and ADA accessible restrooms.
DeShambo told Council the department also hopes to provide its staff with the right tools to create an equitable environment.
ELPRA implemented the Anti-Racist Toolkit in FY23 at the Farmers Market and hopes to continue in FY24. This toolkit aims to help managers of farmers markets think about messaging, vendor support and product availability. By identifying the needs of the community, ELPRA hopes to implement learning programs that will enhance cultural awareness.
ELPRA is also being provided with de-escalation training through the East Lansing Police Department. The FY24 fund focuses on restorative justice and restorative practice training. These trainings would aim to improve and repair relationships between businesses and communities through focusing on inclusive processes.
“We just want to make sure we have the tools to deal with people in situations that arise in a very fair, equitable and ultimately peaceful way, as best as we can,” DeShambo said. “So, I want to make sure that our staff has those tools as well.”
ELPRA hopes to provide grants to community members.
Lastly, the department hopes to provide grants to the community in an effort to help community members pay program fees
ELPRA launched the Round Up for Scholarship fund, an idea that emerged from the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission equity lens review of the fee schedule. This fund allows community members to round up to the next dollar after paying for a class at the Hannah Center with the additional money going towards scholarships.
The implementation of the Michigan Department of Education Child Care Stabilization Grant was also accomplished in FY23. This grant focuses on “relief and equity for our school-age care participants,” DeShambo said.
The department has had this grant for three years, resulting in about $1.5 million, and hopes to continue receiving the funds in order to give credits back to families for child care costs.
In order to accomplish the goals DeShambo laid out to Council, the department is looking at a budget of $5,359,855 for FY24, which is an increase of $189,330 from FY23.
Due to an increase in participation in parks and recreation programs, the department has to increase wages as well as make improvements to facilities and operating supplies, resulting in an increase in the majority of the sub-budgets.
DeShambo also presented the FY24 fee schedule, which focused mainly on eliminating the resident/non-resident fee structure for all programming.
The FY23 fee schedule eliminated the resident/non-resident fee difference for all youth programming. ELPRA hopes to continue to eliminate this differentiation for all programs in order to provide access to people from communities outside East Lansing.
After the “human services” portion of DeShambo’s presentation, she focused on “infrastructure” and parks capital projects.
The Parks Capital Improvement Fund includes revenues and expenditures related to the parks capital improvement projects, which anticipates expenses of $1,730,450.
DeShambo presented the projects ELPRA is wrapping up in FY23 (ending June 30, 2023). These projects include the Northern Tier Trail Relocation (a small diversion of the trail); the Patriarche Park Sports Court, which includes the replacement of the pickleball, tennis and basketball courts, as well as the installation of accessible walkways, a shade structure, and picnic amenities; the Bailey Park Fitness Equipment project; and Phase I of Emerson Park renovations, which include replacing play equipment, constructing a pavilion and improving park walkways.
Moving forward, DeShambo told Council ELPRA hopes to fund many more projects. On the list are improvements at Stoddard Park, including replacement of play equipment, installation of an urban dog agility park and improving walkways; the Northern Tier Trail Extension, which would extend the trial from the soccer complex to Coolidge Road; and Phase II of the Emerson Park renovations, which would add walkway improvements, safety surfacing under outdoor fitness equipment and native, pollinator friendly landscaping.
ELPRA Advisory Commission hears a presentation on diversity, equity and inclusion.
With many of their budget projects for FY24 focusing on improvements through an equity lens, the East Lansing Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission continued the conversation of inclusivity and equity at their Wednesday, May 17, meeting.
Elaine Hardy, the City of East Lansing’s Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, presented to the commission her presentation on the role of government in advancing equity.
Hardy is presenting the slideshow to all City of East Lansing departments. She said the goal is to begin the conversation among people in government as to how “we can flip our frame of mind” and utilize government as a “constituent of equity.”
“Our objectives in this presentation are to explore the role government plays in advancing racial inequity, explore the government’s role in promoting equity and discuss how we, the City of East Lansing, are working to promote equity,” Hardy said.
Hardy began by talking about how to create a safe space for people to learn and engage, and presenting community agreements with statements such as “What is said here, stays here; What is learned here, leaves here; This is a brave space, etc.”
Focusing chiefly on racial inequity, particularly as it has impacted African Americans, she introduced the history of the role of government throughout the years in terms of equality and equity, comparing what was said (“All men are created equal,” “With liberty and justice for all,” “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”) to what was done (enslaved Africans, prohibiting Black people from owning property, Jim Crow Era).
In order to provide a framework, Hardy played the video “Race affects everything – housing segregation and redlining in America: A Short History” from NPR, which highlighted racial profiling in America along with the idea of redlining. Redlining is a race-based practice of denying an applicant a loan for housing in a certain neighborhood, even though the applicant may be eligible, as these residents are classified as “hazardous” to investment.
Following the video, she asked for reactions.
“What strikes and frustrates me is, I know the basic information, as many others do,” said Charles Overbey, vice-chair of the advisory commission. “But I feel like we have so far to go, and I don’t know how to get there and I don’t know what I can do to help us get there. But I would like to get there.”
Hardy highlighted that many people in power feel this way. But she added, “Government has an immense power to do a lot of good things, and individuals, people, make up the government, and can do those good things.”
When asking the question of “What can the government do?” Hardy said, “We have to be intentional about the voices we include in the discussion.
“These mundane decisions we are making have immense impacts,” Hardy said. “We have to look at our decisions through a lens of equity, questioning the ‘Why?’ of our decisions.”
Hardy went on to present the Institutional Change Approach government can take. She said steps include normalizing the conversation through frequency, organizing available resources and putting into operation the skills learned.
Hardy also acknowledged the opening that the Parks & Rec Advisory Commission presents at the beginning of every meeting. This opening states:
“The City of East Lansing occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabek Three Fires Confederacy, the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Bodewadmi (Potawatomi) ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw. The East Lansing Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission recognizes historic Indigenous communities in Michigan and those forcibly removed from their homelands. We further recognize the ongoing relationship of dependence upon, and respect for, all living beings of earth, sky, and water. In offering this land acknowledgement, we affirm Indigenous sovereignty, history, and experiences, and commit to the sustainability and stewardship of our shared spaces.”
“It’s incremental steps like this that we really need to celebrate and be practicing,” Hardy said, praising the commission for initiating this statement. “Because these small steps get us there.”
Hardy concluded her presentation saying that if the commission is to take away anything from this presentation at all, it be the last slide she presented (slide 39) providing bullet points of intentional inclusive strategies.