By KATERIE PRIOR
OTTAWA COUNTY —
In the mid-1990s, hundreds of families moved into the North Ottawa County area, attracted by good jobs, affordable housing, friendly communities and beautiful beaches. Like many West Michigan residents, Gail Harrison was pleased to see the community grow. That was until one day in 1995 when a family she knew that had recently moved to the area announced that they were moving away. The family was African-American and they found North Ottawa County to be a very unfriendly, unwelcoming place.
The announcement had a huge impact on Harrison.
“They were frustrated by the lack of diversity in the area,” she told MiBiz. “You wouldn’t have thought something like this would happen in 1995, but it did.”
As she talked to her friends and others in the community, Harrison found that many people were also saddened and frustrated by the cold reception the African-American family received.
“Many people who support diversity just don’t know how to be visible,” she said. “That should not have happened.”
Determined to change that attitude, Harrison and 17 lakeshore residents met to discuss how they could end racial intolerance, dismantle racial barriers and empower diversity-accepting residents in the area. From this initial meeting, the group founded the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance (NOEDA), a Grand Haven-area organization focused on providing programs that promoted diversity in the community.
Run entirely by volunteers like Harrison, NOEDA flourished, eventually adding programs to support Holland, Muskegon, and rural communities outside the Grand Haven area. In 1999, NOEDA became the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA). After Harrison’s involvement and commitment for several years, she was appointed full-time executive director.
Today, more than a decade later, LEDA has over 200 volunteers working on racial healing initiatives throughout Ottawa County. “We have a very diverse board and staff working in our office,” Harrison said. “We have a number of accomplishments that we’re proud of.”
One of these accomplishments is Calling All Colors, a program for middle school students that examines racial intolerance and helps kids develop action plans for creating a more diverse environment at school. Students attend the Calling All Colors conference in the fall at Grand Valley State University to create their action plan and then return in the spring to share the results. Since the program began in 1996, more than 3,000 middle schoolers from 14 districts have been involved.
Another LEDA supported program is the Migrant Mentoring Program. The program reaches out to the more than 6,000 migrant workers who annually come to work on farms in Ottawa County. Research shows that the children of these workers often face significant developmental and educational obstacles. The Migrant Mentoring Program matches children in these families with volunteers who provide educational and social support.
While these programs teach the next generation about the benefits of diversity, LEDA also offers a number of programs to help adults learn about breaking down racial barriers. In 2004, the group launched the Lakeshore Fair Housing Center. The center’s goal is to help people who may have experienced discrimination while attempting to rent an apartment, purchase a house, or acquire a loan or homeowner’s insurance. In addition to helping renters or potential homeowners, the Lakeshore Fair Housing Center also provides educational sessions on fair housing and lending practices.
But LEDA doesn’t stop at helping people with fair housing. The group also offers the LEDA Advocacy Committee, a program that provides a forum for people who feel they have experienced discrimination. Promising that all concerns will be heard and investigated, the committee has listened to numerous accounts of racial discrimination and through their advocacy, enforced and even affected public policy.
Perhaps LEDA’s most renowned program is the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism. Hosted by Hope College, this summit attracts over 2,000 community members, and more than 20 community organizations collaborate at the summit. Like the Calling All Colors program, participants create a five-year action plan to stop racial discrimination and foster diversity in businesses, schools, hospitals and churches throughout the community. Every year, summit participants meet to assess their progress and identify new strategies.
One initiative of the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism is LEDA’s Lakeshore Institute for Healing Racism. Grounded in the writings of Nathan Rutstein, author of the book Healing Racism in America, the institute provides a 10-week course in which members of public, private and nonprofit organizations share their thoughts and experiences on racism among a diverse group of people. By the end of the course, participants understand the history of racism, can identify its current manifestations, and have strategies to eliminate racism within their organization.
Since LEDA started offering this program, volunteers have given hundreds of lectures on healing racism and provided educational materials for distribution throughout the county. There also been significant interest in lectures and classes, such as conversational Spanish.
As LEDA looks to the future, Harrison feels there is still so much work to do.
“Everyone needs to get involved,” she said. “We have the power to create a world where there is no racism. I believe that’s important work.”