Agustin Arbulu


Agustin Arbulu’s job often keeps him up at night. No, he doesn’t work the night shift and he’s not on call. But as the executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights he’s constantly thinking about ways to make sure everyone in Michigan can achieve the American dream and that there are fair outcomes for all. Even when he should be sleeping.

“A lot of times (if) you know a person’s zip code you can almost predict what their outcomes will be,” said Arbulu, a Birmingham resident for almost 30 years. “We want to change that narrative.”

Doing that type of work is what drew Arbulu to the job in the first place. After serving on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission – he was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder in 2013 – he began talks with the then executive director of MDCR in 2015, who was set to retire.

His colleagues asked him to consider submitting for the job, which he did, and the rest is history.

During his tenure thus far the department has done quite a bit, including issuing a racial equity toolkit to help organizations, government, and communities have really honest discussions about equity, what that means and looks like. They also became the first state agency that has an equity officer, embedding equity in everything they do from top to bottom. Some of the staff is going through high-level training around racial equity as well.

From the compliance perspective, they’ve assigned investigators to different parts of the state, ranging from Grand Rapids to Macomb.

“We want communities who feel they’ve been marginalized, they feel they’ve been discriminated, that they have a place to go,” Arbulu said. “We’re coming out to their area, their communities, and listening to their complaints and their concerns in trying to be responsive. Many times communities feel they’ve been neglected.”

Take Flint for example. Earlier this year the department released a one-year update on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s investigation into the civil rights implications of the Flint water crisis. The original report – titled The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint – got into the issues of structure and systemic racism, which both contributed to Flint’s outcome.

The report had a huge impact not only on the community but on the department as well. Some of the programs actually stemmed from those findings.

“It’s there that we began to recognize the role of implicit bias, the role of equity, the role of trust,” he said.

When Arbulu says, “implicit bias,” he’s referring to something we aren’t even aware of and how that makes us act towards certain individuals.

He said if you were to do a survey, everyone will say that they are committed to treating everyone equally, but the outcomes don’t always represent that. They began to wonder why. Sometimes it’s the environment, other times it’s that implicit bias he mentioned.

But how can people work on those biases if they aren’t fully aware they have them? Naturally, Arbulu had suggestions, which start with taking an implicit bias test and seeing what the results are. After that, you have to be willing to put the work in every day, no matter how difficult the conversation.

Arbulu hopes the MDCR can help folks do that. He also has one other hope.

“You like to eventually put yourself out of business,” Arbulu said. “There’s not a need for a department of civil rights because civil rights is embedded in everything that we do.”

Photo: Laurie Tennent

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