1999-Summer Synapse "Diversity in the Community: Out of Hatred, Comes Love"

Diversity in the Community: Out of Hatred, Comes Love ...

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The North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance

West Michigan is magnificent with its tall pines, rolling sand dunes, and refreshing Lake Michigan waters.

Nestled among these gifts of nature are the Tri-Cities of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. Although we are surrounded by a variety of natural beauty, our community is lacking in the diversity of its human inhabitants.

Demographic statistics for 1999 show that our geographic area is predominantly Caucasian (98%) The racially diverse communities of Muskegon, Holland and Grand Rapids surround the North Ottawa area, and many people of color come into the community daily for employment purposes. Yet, the North Ottawa area remains racially isolated.

After learning that an African-American family had moved out of the community because they did not feel connected or accepted, a small group of concerned individuals agreed to get together to brainstorm ways to welcome and support
minority families that were moving to our area. Ironically, three days before that meeting an act of violence rocked our comfortable community. Ad African-American minister and his family, new residents of the Tri-Cities, were victims of a cross burning at their home. The shock of this incident of intolerance changed our brainstorming session into a call for action and a public response opposing such hatred.

Simultaneously, it became apparent that due to the homogeneous racial make-up of the area, there was very little opportunity for local citizens to interact with or develop relationships with people of diverse racial or ethnic groups, thus limiting the opportunity for cultural exchange and appreciation. This need instigated a second focus of the Alliance,
which was to provide diversity education and opportunities for inter-racial dialogue and exchange.

That is how the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance was formed.

Reports from people of color as to the barriers to inclusion include housing discrimination, racial profiling, being followed around stores while shopping, an absence of minority staff in the schools, and other subtle gestures of prejudice.

Other reported instances of bias are more overt. These anecdotal reports of discrimination are supported by recent studies completed by Michigan State University (MSU) and the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR).

The Ottawa County Study on the Over-representation of Minorities and Females in the juvenile justice System
, completed by MSU, indicated grossly disparate treatment of youth of color as compared to Caucasian youth. In one glaring example, for youth charged with a felony with no priors, Caucasian youth were detained 3.3% of the time. Hispanic youth, under the same circumstances were detained 37.5% of the time. Additionally, a 1998 report completed by the USCCR, Race Relations in the Grand Rapids Area, included Ottawa County in it's Metropolitan Statistical Area.
This report indicated similar disparities in the opportunities of people of color in employment, housing, and education.

Finally, KIan Watch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, identifies West Michigan as having one of the highest numbers of white-supremacy/ hate groups in the country.

Conversely, many Caucasian residents in the area purport to be supportive of racial equality, although the aura of the community as being racially selective is acknowledged. These individuals must become visible in the life of the community if racial tolerance is to be achieved. Consequently, the need for an organization designed to engage these individuals in efforts to heal racism appears evident. Another segment of the population reluctantly acknowledges an absence of comfort with different races and ethnic groups, not out of maliciousness, but rather due to a lack of exposure and consequent absence of understanding of cultural norms and expectations. The need for interracial dialogue,  education and positive interactions appear paramount.

Statistics from the Seidman School of Business,G rand Valley State University, project the Hispanic and Asian  population in the North Ottawa area to grow by 4% by the year 2003. The Grand Haven Area School District has seen the percentage of minority students increase 56% from 214 students in 1993 to 377 students in 1999. The growth is expected to continue, with the percentage of minority students increasing from the current level of 6% of the student population to 10%, by the year 2003. The need to foster an environment comfortable with racial diversity is imperative if
the changing community is to thrive.

The mission of the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance is:

To foster an environment in the North Ottawa area where people of all ethnic backgrounds will have equal opportunity to live, work and lead a quality life.

The Diversity Alliance provides a variety of services to our community, all of which are designed to create ethnic harmony.

Advocacy - The Diversity Alliance acts as an advocate for racial equality within our community.

Celebration - The Diversity Alliance sponsors events that celebrate the diversity within our community.

Support Network - The Diversity Alliance offers support to people living, working or considering moving into the community.

Education - The Diversity Alliance provides a variety of educational opportunity such as workshops and "Calling All Colors", a race unity conference for children.

The CaIIing all Colors-Race Unity Conference is held annually and brings together 185 middle school age students from a mixture of racial, economic and academic backgrounds. They are provided with a safe environment to dialogue about race issues and to experience other cultures. The purpose of the conference is to promote racial harmony among area youth by providing an opportunity for participants to:

1. Increase their awareness of points of view that are different than their own.
2. Become aware of stereotyping and it's effects.
3. Discuss feelings about race and race relations.
4. Work closely with a diverse group of people.
5. Be exposed to a college campus.

A second focus in the area of education is working in partnership with the Institute for Healing Racism to expand the Institute to the North Ottawa area. The first Institute is being held in the fall of 1999, and the expansion of those workshops to various sectors of the community is a goal of the Alliance. Several Alliance members are trained facilitators for the Institute, and others have been through the basic training. Another major effort of the Alliance is programming designed to build a functional comfort level between migrant families and local residents. Barriers to this effort include the absence of a shared language, lack of understanding of cultural norms, racial polarization, geographic isolation of the migrant camps and income disparity. The need to develop a sense of community and inclusiveness for the migrant families that come to work in the area each year has economic as well as social implications. Ottawa
County ranks third in the number of farms in the state, and the largest demand for labor in Michigan is the seasonal migrant worker. According to Gerry Deere, Michigan Employment and Securities Analyst. The supply of migrant workers has diminished as many are moving to higher paying industries. The demand for seasonal migrant workers will substantially outnumber the supply without a change in immigration policy. The need to develop a functional comfort level for the migrant families is both morally and economically sound.

The Alliance, with assistance from local organizations, has worked to provide supports to the returning migrant families. English/Spanish Language classes designed to reduce the language barrier between migrant workers and local
residents, were piloted in the Spring of 1996. St. Anthony,s Church, Grand Haven Area public Schools and the Alliance, working in partnership, were pleased with the results of the classes. Due to the success of the pilot, Grand Haven Community Education has adopted the program. Welcoming packages filled with basic items needed to establish reentry, such as winter clothing, blankets and food staples, were provided to migrant families upon request. Donated sports equipment, including basketball hoops and volleyball nets, were placed at area camps for the migrant children.

The Alliance is coordinating an effort to build cement courts at three area camps, to be used for basketball, four-square, roller skating, etc. Day passes to the YMCA and swim lessons are being organized, along with recruiting volunteers to transport the migrant children while their parents are in the fields. Mentors, volunteer readers, recreation leaders and other volunteer opportunities at the migrant camps have been identified and often filled by Diversity Alliance members. Expansion of these efforts is anticipated.

Advocating for the removal of barriers to inclusion is a third identified area of activity for the Alliance. The Executive
Director sits on the Ottawa County Juvenile Court Citizens Review Board, the Grand Haven Area Public Schools
Futuring Committee and is the Chairperson of the Minority Issues Committee of the North Ottawa Area Community
Coalition. Reports of racial discrimination in housing have been referred to the Grand Rapids Fair Housing Center for
investigation. The Alliance is working with the Fair Housing Center to establish housing testing in the North Ottawa area and provide testers. A new initiative is the pursuit of an Ottawa County Fair Housing policy.

As our community continues to grow, the members of the Diversity Alliance will actively promote an atmosphere where the differences among us will not only be accepted, but will be regarded as an advantage ... a reason to celebrate!

It is my privilege to be an active member of the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance. Often with small steps, and occasionally significant strides, this organization is working to create a human rainbow to match nature's beauty that is here in West Michigan.

Terry Donahue-Cousins lives and works in West Michigan. She is an active member of the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance and has begun the Facilitator Training process.

1 The Michigan Department of Agriculture 1995-1996 Labor Market Analyst Report

2 Area churches,  the Ottawa/Allegan Migrant Resource Council, Robinson School, The Neighborhood Centers, the North Ottawa Area Community Coalition and Grand Haven Area Community Education have provided assistance.