1997-07-05 Grand Haven Tribune "Ethnic group grows"

Ethnic group grows
Grand Haven Tribune

What a difference a year makes.

Last summer, the Tri-Cities Diversity Task Force was in the stages of infancy, rounding up prospective members and kicking around ideas tat would help further its cause of promoting ethnic diversity in the area.

This summer, the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance - the name change itself suggests just how much the program has grown -- is a full-fledged program with increasing membership, a successful endeavor under its belt, and more on the horizon.

THE ALLIANCE has grown from 19 volunteers last summer to 30 this summer and has tackled topics concerning education and migrant issues, among others, said alliance founder Gail Harrison, program coordinate for Higher Horizons, a program at Child and Family Services of Michigan.

One of those volunteers, Ben Lawrence, who has been instrumental in he development of the alliance's Migrant Issues Committee, said the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance is an organization that takes an active role in the welfare of the community's race relations.

"The people here (on the alliance) are very pro-active," said Lawrence, who teachers an English as a second language class at Grand Haven High School. "They're not just about talking .. they're about doing."

The alliance's crowning achievement thus far has been organizing Calling All Colors, a May conference at Grand Valley State University attended by more than 100 students from area middle schools. The purpose of the event was to allow students to discuss the racial climate in their hometowns in a comfortable setting, opening up dialogue between races and dispelling common stereotypes in the process.

A REQUIREMENT for the conference was that the total number of students at the conference included a 51 percent ethnic minority population. Students representing Grand Haven, West Ottawa, Holland, Muskegon and Muskegon Heights middle schools attended the event.

Later this month, the alliance will be hsoting Fiesta '97 in Grand Haven Township to honor the county's migrant works, a group often overlooked in the community, Harrison said.

"I don't think people really appreciate what migrant workers do," Harrison said. "They tend to be pushed in the background because of language barriers. many children (who are migrant workers) go to school during the day, o home and work until sundown."

Ottawa County has the third highest population of migrant workers in the state, Harrison.

The idea to start a task force to promote diversity in the area came after Harrison visited a similar program in Holland just over a year ago.

HARRISON learned there was one black women in the group living in Grand Haven who was "feeling alone" in her neighborhood. After numerous attempts to reach her failed, Harrison discovered the woman had moved her family back to the Muskegon area, where she felt more comfortable.

Harrison said problematic situations like that can be commonplace in communities such as the Tri-Cirities, where the population is upwards of 95 percent white.

"I think that before we are going to see our society truly change, we need to develop personal relationships with people from other races," she said. "I think it's very difficult to turn your back on a group of people once you have those personal relationships."

The alliance's first meeting took place three days after an incident in Ferrysburg in which a cross was burned in the front yard of a black minister's home. Harrison said the meeting didn't come as a result of the incident, but berified that the problem of racism did exist in the Tri-Cities.

"I THINK most people were saddened by it and it did leave a mark on the community," she said. "It was a blow to those who believe in race unity, but I don't think it altered where (the alliance) was heading. I think it merely reinforced the fact that we needed to be here."

Since its inception, the alliance has grown tenfold. Although the membership has only grown by 11 people, it has spawned a host of subcommittees to address various topics in the community.

The alliance meets just once a month North Ottawa Community Hospital and is open to anybody who is interested. However, it is common for the subcommittees to meet more frequently, Harrison said.

Harrison said the alliance's growth and progress is a pleasant surprise.

"OH, I'M very pleased," she said. "To see so many people committed to the same cause makes this very special."

However, the work of the alliance is not finished, she said.

"I think when we can get to the point where people of difference ethnicities can come here and live comfortably, that's when we know we've reached out goal."