2000-12-26 Holland Sentinel Solving racism begins at the top

Solving racism begins at the top
Holland Sentinel

Three weeks ago, on Friday, Dec. 8, I joined 149 other concerned individuals at the DeWitt Center at Hope College to hear Rachelle Hood-Phillips, head of the Diversity Affairs Department at Advantaica, Inc. The name Advantica may not ring a bell, but the restaurant chain owned by Advantica certain will: Denny’s. I’ll say more about Hood-Phillips’ presentation in a moment.

This meeting, which organizers from the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance called a “leadership conference,” was the final major event leading up to the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism that will take place on Feb. 13, also at Hope (thanks are due to the college for hosting these events). According to the conference literature, this is the beginning of a five-year process “to eliminate the barriers that prevent us from moving forward on racial issues.”

What was noteworthy to me about the conference was the fact that the so-called leaders in attendance were mostly not, in fact, the leaders of the organizations they represent. They were second or third tier representatives, or in some cases, I suspect, the very bottom person on the organization totem pole. Several people in the breakout discussion group I attended said they were new to the area.

Quite candidly, these are not the people who are going to make a significant difference when it comes to e problems of racism in our community. If there is one thing Hood-Phillips made clear in her presentation, it is that solving the problems of prejudice and racism has to begin at the top 0 or it won’t begin at all.

Denny’s, as you may recall, was in the national spotlight in the early 1990s, especially after an incident in which several black Secret Service agents were refused service. A flurry of investigations ensued, and the Denny’s name became almost synonymous with racial prejudice. It was at this time that Jim Adamson, the CEO at Advantica, lured Rachelle away from Burger King to begin a turnaround at Denny’s.

Was she successful? Fortune magazine thinks so, recently naming Denny’s “the best place to work in America for minorities.” “60 Minutes” did a feature story earlier this year on the change at Denny’s. Adamson even dedicated his new book, “The Denny’s Story” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000), to Hood-Phillips.

So why weren’t more of our community’s real leaders present to hear about the experience of one of their most capable peers? I wish I knew. I wish everyone in Holland could have heard Rachelle speak about what it takes to root institutional racism out of a major corporation, and the vigilance required to prevent it from creeping back in. I especially wish the CEOs of our manufacturers, the presidents of our banks, the senior pastors of every church, the top person in every unit of government, the publishers and editors of every newspaper, the principal of every school (public and Christian), the owner of every store… well, you get the idea.

I wish every true leader in the community could have been there. They should have been there, because racism is probably the single issue that most plagues our community. Until the leadership accepts this fact, and becomes committed to change, this issue will continue to divide us.

Fortunately, we have another chance. The summit on racism is Tuesday, Feb. 13; the guest speakers are Gregory Williams, dean of Ohio State University College of Law and author of “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He was Black” (tell me you don’t want to hear about that!); and Juan Andrade Jr., president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. Registration information for the summit can be obtained by calling the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance at (616) 846-9074.

Leaders, please don’t farm this out. Make the summit a top priority, and take eh first step in making a lasting difference in our community.

Case Van Kempen can be reached in care of the The Sentinel.