2000-12-09 Grand Haven Tribune Organizers for racism summit ask leaders to take action against biases

Organizers for racism summit ask leaders to take action against biases
Grand Haven Tribune


Area leaders attended a conference at Hope College Friday morning in preparation for February’s Summit on Racism, and listened to a speaker who had prevailed in achieving diversity in the face of adversity.

Rachelle Hood-Phillips, chief diversity officer of Advantica Restaurant Group Inc., spoke to the auditorium of about 140 people for more than an hour on how the Denny’s Restaurant Organization overhauled its practices and revived its image after a pair of 1993 civil lawsuits.

When executives for the restaurant company began to realize the ethnic markets that were being ignored, changes were made and profits soared. Though increased sales were not the intent, Hood-Phillips said she feels the acceptance gained by the maligned restaurant can be achieve in society as a whole.

“Your biases, your preferences, your prejudices are not at the top of the mind,” she said. “But they drive the things you say and what you do.”

“If it’s there, it comes out. It just does,” she said.

Government, like companies, can eliminate policies that discriminate simply by how they’re structured Hood-Phillips said. Denny’s set up a toll-free telephone number to its ‘Office of the Civil Rights Monitor” that took complaints of discrimination and reported them directly to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We didn’t find out about the complaints until the results were released,” she said.

Denny’s soon began to recruit from colleges that have a history of educating people of color, it adopted a zero tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind. If an employee was found to have discriminated against someone, she said they were fired immediately. If a franchise was found to have discriminated, the franchise rights were revoked.

“In a very short period of time we began to see the complexion of the company change, and it started from the top,” Hood-Phillips said.

This year, Fortune magazine ranked Advantica as the best company in the nation for minority employees, and the transformation of Denny’s has been featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and a CNBC documentary, “The Denny’s Turnaround.”

Hood-Phillips called the United States one of the most segregated in the world, but is hopeful people can come to realize that and work to turn it around.

Organizers of the conference, who say at the Feb. 13 Ottawa Aera Summit on Racism are looking to end the “intellectualizing” on diversity and begin a movement of real change, also showed video clips of personal testimonials from people who have been subjected to racism. The conference participants then were organized into groups of about 12 to discuss two questions: What do you think a racism free Ottawa area would look/feel like, and what can be done to hold leadership responsible for making the change?

Responses included not being afraid to hold everyone accountable for discriminatory activites, overt or covert; making a manual, or manuals, to develop skills for thinking/acting in nondiscriminatory ways, and to encourage others to do the same; instituting a bias-free and historically correct curriculums in the schools; sharing and celebrating past accomplishment; to structure all organizations as a reflection of the community.

The Rev. David May, a Baptist minister from Grand Rapids, said he felt the conference and summit had a head start on his hometown projects from which these were modeled.

“I think this went very well,” May said. “one of the things I thought was nice here, that we didn’t have at our summit, was such a diverse leadership. It’s good to see there are more people of color in leadership positions here, and that they included some young voices,” he said.

May said having leaders at the top levels of organizations involved in such a movement is invaluable to its progress

“I think what people need to understand is that embracing racism isn’t a risk, it’s a challenge,” May said. “The risk is not embracing it.”