2001-02-14 Grand Haven Tribune Summit Plan - Local residents help map strategies to fight racism

Summit Plan - Local residents help map strategies to fight racism
Grand Haven Tribune

One person can make a difference in the fight against racism, and so can 600.

On Tuesday, more than 625 people attended the first-ever Ottawa Area Summit on Racism at Hope College in Holland, where they strategized how to defeat racism and create harmony in every sector from business to education to health care.

“I was thrilled by the level of excitement among the participants here,” said Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which sponsored the day-long event. “(There was) a sense of hope that thought this community effort we can really make a difference.”

Throughout the day, residents hailing mostly from the Tri-Cities, Holland and Zeeland, met in breakout sessions and defined the barriers to racial harmony and then brainstormed how each group will work to overcome those barriers throughout the next year. And education action team planned to increase student involvement in cross-ethnic activities. A government team planned to develop employment criteria to promote volunteer and paid opportunities for minorities. Recruiting and retaining bilingual professionals was one goal for the health care action team.

“This is when the work starts for the people attending this conference,” Harrison said after the summit, explaining that now the teams will be responsible for implementing their strategies during the year. At next year’s summit, they will report on their success, she said. Anyone who was not able to attend the conference, but would like to work on an action team, can contact LEDA at 846-9074.

Everyone at the conference had his or her own reasons for trying o make a difference.

Jeanine Taghon-Olezczuk, Spring Lake resident and member of the North Shore Parent-Teacher Organization, said she attended the conference because she is raising her children in a mostly Caucasian community.

“Diversity needs to be celebrated and as PTAs in our schools, we need to be building a foundation to appreciate and embrace everyone,” she said.

“It must begin in our hearts and our homes,” she added.

Working in the breakout group for the community sector, Taghon-Oleszczuk said her goal was to have more diverse cultures represented in city government and for residents to stop focusing on differences and embrace their similarities.

Laura MacGregor, director of the Volunteer Center in Grand Haven, said she hopes to make education about diversity a priority.

“We need to help people understand there are many forms of prejudice, and we need to educate people about accepting everyone and owning your own social responsibility,” she said.

“I hope we can take action to help them embrace diversity and encourage it,” said April McGrath, prevention coordinator for NOACC Neighborhood Centers, of Grand Haven.

Grand Haven Mayor Ed Lystra, who was also in attendance at the conference, said he was happy to see Grand Haven so well represented.

“I believe that racial barriers can be overcome by people of good will, and I saw a lot of such people at this conference, a lot of them from Grand Haven,” he said.

In addition to the breakout groups, conference participants also heard from two nationally known civil rights leaders.

Dr. Gregory H. Williams, dean of the Ohio State University law school and author of “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy, Who Discovered he was Black,” spoke about growing up as a white child, and then at age 9 suddenly being seen as black. Williams explained that until age 9, he grew up white and attended whites-only schools. But his father’s alcoholism eventually resulting in his mother’s leaving, his father losing everything he owned and Williams and his brother moving to Indiana to live their with grandmother in 1954. In Indiana, Williams and his brother learned that their grandmother was black.

And while he explained that he still looked like he was white in the mirror, a “C” for “Colored” was written on his school records. His views were discounted by his classmates and some teachers, Williams explained. He added that his grandmother showed him and his brother little love.

Then a widowed black woman took in Williams and his brother and gave them a refuge from the racism and showed them love. She volunteered to raise them as her own, despite having no relation to them. He now credits her for everything he has accomplished.

Williams said he always hears about the different one person can make.

“I’ve heard that comment and you might guess what I would say about it,” he said. “I am here today to tell you that one person can make a difference.”

The summit ended with a keynote address from Dr. Juan Andrade Jr., president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute Inc. in Chicago, who informed the crowd that all races are part of one body or one nation. He explained that just as each part of a person’s body cannot survive without the others and is only as healthy as the other parts, each race is only as healthy as the other races.

“The body is a unit. Though it is made up of many parts, all of the parts form one body,” Andrade said. “We are one nation. We are one America.”

Andrade told the crowd that with the summit, a better way of living was being charted. He added that all people must decide if they are going to be part of the problem of racism or part of the solution.

“Boys and girls, fighting racism is not a spectator sport,” Andrade said.

This summit, which was modeled after one held in Grand Rapids, kicked off a five-year plan to hold these Ottawa area conferences.