2001-02-16 Grand Haven Tribune Community ready to stamp out intolerance

Community ready to stamp out intolerance
Grand Haven Tribune

We can make a difference in the fight against racism in Ottawa County.

That was the central theme at Wednesday’s first all-day Ottawa Area Summit on Racism held at Hope College.

More than 600 county residents came together to listen to speakers and to share ideas on how to combat racism.

Even Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which sponsored the event, was overwhelmed by the large turnout. “I was expecting about 400 people,” Harrison said.

She received 106 registration slips on Monday alone, necessitating the need to cut off registration. Still, the calls came from people asking how they could become involved.

While Harrison expected Ottawa County to be well-represented at the summit, the numbers exceeded her expectations. Racism is a front-burner issue in the Holland area, so she knew that Holland would be well-represented. Yet, the turnout from the Tri-Cities says a lot about our community, she said. “This is a powerful message that there are a lot of people who care.”

The gathering, which was modeled after a Grand Rapids summit, was the culmination of many months of hard work. Town meetings were held last fall in Holland and Grand Haven, asking residents to relate their experiences with intolerance. Comments from the town meeting were used to help set up strategies to fight intolerance at this week’s summit.

Harrison, Ethnic Diversity Alliance board members and many other volunteers did an excellent job of coordinating the Holland summit. All indications are that everything went along smoothly. Harrison said she has received numerous phone calls and e-mail messages praising the summit. What has impressed Harrison even more is the number of people who are willing to become involved with action groups to implement strategies against racism.

“There is an incredible amount of enthusiasm. We have a wonderful opportunity to built a community culture of tolerance and acceptance,” Harrison said.

The summit began with a talk from keynote speaker 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.” Williams, who appears white, related to the audience how he ended up living in a black neighborhood with his grandmother, who was black. Recognizing his racial heritage subsequently altered his own sense of identity.

Following his stirring talk, audience members broke into 19 different groups to develop strategies in seven strategic areas.

Tribune reporter Gena Kaiser and I were assigned to the media break-out group, of course.

We spent most of the day discussing ways newspapers, radio and television stations can do a better job of covering diversity issues in our community and how to be more sensitive to issues related to minority groups.

It was an eye-opening experience for all of us.

The media group wasn’t just comprised of reporters and editors. Students, parents, storekeepers and others offered suggestions to the media.

After we discussed a number of ways to improve coverage of minorities, we narrowed the focus to having action groups working with the media in establishing dialogue on diversity issues.

Similar groups were formed for education, religious leaders, government officials, health care workers, business owners and members of the community.

The session concluded with a talk by Juan Andrade Jr., president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago, who implored people to become involved with the effort.

Harrison said the summit was just the beginning of a five-year plan to create better tolerance and acceptance of people of color.

One year from now, another summit will be held to discuss actions that were taken to fight racism. Then attendees will be asked to take the next step in the struggle.

Harrison is no newcomer to this effort. She has been involved with the diversity alliance since it was created. Her biggest challenge has been trying to gain the trust of minorities in the community. Harrison attended numerous meetings and events to do just that.

She believes she has accomplished that goal.

The summit, indeed, was a great start in the effort to overcome racial barriers. I know that Harrison is confident that much will be accomplished during the next year. There is a lot to be done, but if Monday’s turnout is any indication, the goal can be reached.