Gail Harrison was the original member of the group of concerned citizens that founded the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance in 1996.
Nineteen years later, the nonprofit operation has grown from a one-employee show to a thriving and influential community organization run by a staff of nine. As executive director, Harrison guides the Diversity Alliance as it offers a variety of outreach programs, hosts conferences, provides workshops, and furnishes support to our region—all with the mission of dismantling barriers to ensure that people of all ethnic backgrounds have equal access and opportunity to participate fully in the life of the community.
Harrison’s awareness and understanding of the realities of racial inequities has evolved over the years. She grew up in a Detroit suburb, and the 1967 riots influenced her awareness of racial tensions and started her journey. While attending college at CMU, she was involved in a mentoring program on the Isabella Reservation near Mt. Pleasant. She recalls that her Native American mentee was picked up by police while walking home from karate class and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. (His karate nunchucks were tucked inside his coat pocket.) Although his mother was unable to secure his release, Harrison, a college student with no legal connection to the young man, was given permission to take him home. “I began to realize that people who looked like me often made life difficult for people who didn’t look like me,” she recalled.
The impetus behind the founding of the Diversity Alliance came as Harrison learned of negative experiences some families of color encountered in the Tri-Cities community. Through her work coordinating a mentoring program, she became aware of an African-American family that moved away because they did not feel welcome in the life of the community. She reached out to local churches and found others who felt compelled to action; eighteen people attended the first meeting in 1996 to address the community need for racial inclusion. Harrison’s concerns were further reinforced when just days prior to the initial meeting, a cross was burned on a local African-American pastor’s front lawn in what Harrison calls “an individual act of hate.” Many in the community were outraged by the violent act and rallied to support the work to create a more welcoming place for people of diverse backgrounds. Since that time, the Diversity Alliance has grown through funding from local and national foundations, corporations, and individuals; active support from community leaders; and the invaluable time and efforts of a multitude of volunteers supporting its various programs.
Economic loss due to racial inequity affects the economy in a big way, so much that Michigan’s economy would have been $29 billion larger in 2012 if racial gaps in income and employment didn’t exist, according to the National Equity Atlas. “Racial equity is critical to sustainability. It’s about future prosperity. The business sector recognizes this, and is very supportive.” Currently, the Diversity Alliance’s advisory council includes CEOs, presidents, and elected officials representing local government, colleges, community foundations, and many local businesses, including Haworth, IPA, JSJ Corp, and Herman Miller, among others. With programming influenced by racial equity dialogue and research at the national level, the Diversity Alliance forms a bridge between leaders (both formal and informal) and individuals throughout the community and region. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which provides funding to racial equity programs throughout the nation, has called the Diversity Alliance “exemplary.”
Harrison notes that the great majority of people believe in egalitarian ideals and racial justice, but we all have been exposed to repetitive negative social messages concerning race that lead to unintentional biases. Although the conscious mind does not recognize these unconscious biases, they influence behavior in ways that affect people of color in significant and life-influencing ways. Recognizing and deconstructing these unintended and unwanted attitudes is a major goal.
Reaching children with the message of racial equity is also imperative. Harrison says research indicates that children begin to exhibit racial bias as early as eighteen months of age, and by age six have significant racial attitudes. “We need to intervene early,” she said. “Having the tools to talk to children about race, as well as dismantle our own biases, can help to change the landscape.”
To that end, the Diversity Alliance offers a range of programs, including:
- Racial Equity Diversity & Inclusion (REDI) Workshops offer customized training solutions designed to build clients’ capacity to advance diversity and inclusion. Workshops are tailored to address specific organizational needs.
- Calling All Colors is a school-year-long program for middle and high school students that fosters inclusive school communities by providing safe space to talk about race, tools for increasing inclusion, and two conferences.
- Migrant Programs reduce social and cultural isolation while improving academic outcomes for children of migrant farmworkers. The programs also provide opportunities for cross-cultural interaction.
- Talking to Kids about Race offers workshops to empower parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators with an understanding of racial attitude development and techniques for discussing race with young children.
- The Language Academy offers tailored language courses for business and organizations, with several courses each year that are open to the community.
- The Diversity Alliance also provides Inclusion and Diversity Consulting, which guides organizations through a comprehensive, research-based assessment to identify organizational barriers and develop customized solutions that advance inclusion.
- The Diversity Alliance’s Summit on Race and Inclusion, a hands-on racial equity conference that has experienced significant growth, will be held March 27, 2015, at Grand Haven High School. Keynote speakers include Rachel Godsil, director of research at the Perception Institute, and Reverend Alvin Herring, director of training for PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network. The Summit will also feature five more experts on race who will lead sector-specific breakout sessions on the topics of business, community, education, faith, government and public policy, and health.
Following the close of the Summit, attendees from northwest Ottawa County will have the opportunity to participate in action teams to develop effective racial equity strategies for the local community. “It’s practical and tactical,” Harrison said. “What are the greatest barriers? What are the strategies for breaking down those barriers?”
By providing a range of training, conferences, and opportunities for interaction, the Diversity Alliance works to continually raise awareness, deconstruct obstacles, and foster a sense of community to support racial equity and inclusion. Harrison believes that most people want to do the right thing. “I believe every community would benefit from an organization to help people negotiate the racial landscape and advance the process. The fantastic news is that we have the research, training, and tools to make significant advancements!”
For more information about the Diversity Alliance, including the March 27 Summit on Race and Inclusion, click here.
Written by Jennifer Reynolds, West Michigan Woman staff writer.