Diversity advocate reflects on 30 years of women’s rights
By: Patrick Revere
Grand Haven Tribune
Women in the Workplace: Gail Harrison
The executive director for the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance in Grand Haven has spent a lifetime looking out for the rights of others. Yet Gail Harrison says she has a hard time qualifying herself as having been a victim of gender bias.
During the early 1970s as a student at Central Michigan University, Harrison was a lifeguard at one of several pools in a “posh” Mount Pleasant apartment complex. She noticed the male guards were getting assignments at the “easier pools,” then came to find out they also were getting paid more.
“When I found out about that, I went to the bosses and complained,” she said. “I was fired for it.”
For personal reasons Harrison opted not to press the issue in the courts or otherwise.
Sine then, Harrison has heard and seen discrimination in many forms. There have been assaults, burning crosses, bricks through windows, mutilated animals, abusive language and cold shoulders.
Discrimination in general is “the invisible disease,” Harrison said, because many people fail to realize it exists unless they’re directly affected. Biases against women often are among the most covert, and dealing with identifying the problem has to come before a resolution can be found.
Harrison said the most common inequity for women in business today appears to be in how they are promoted for the work they do, and the fact that women are expected to compete on a high level at the office while continuing to do the brunt of the
work at home.
“Mothers still are the primary people responsible for the psychological well being of our children,” Harrison said. “Until that changes in the home, not much is gong to change in the work place.
“If I’m given the choice between providing at the job or providing at home, of course I’m going to choose the home,” she said.
Thirty years ago a common rallying cry was “I am woman, hear me roar.” Since then America has seen Title IX provide women equal access to higher education, the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade, and Sandra Day
O’Connor appointed as the first woman Supreme Court justice.
Harrison, who worked for seven years with the non-profit Child and Family Services of West Michigan, said she has difficulties pigeon-holding herself as a victim of gender bias primarily because of her upbringing.
“I came from a history of strong women,” she said. “I come from a history of strong single-parents women who have worked really hard in education and employment realms in time that were a lot tougher than these.
“The most important thing for women to have if they’re going to achieve is to have good role models,” said Harrison, herself a single-parent. “That’s what happened for me. We need to have good role models in all aspects of life.”
This image, which she tries to pass to her teen-age daughters, was reinforced during her college days. Harrison said she and other female students thought of themselves as the first generation of women with full access to education and business.
“We thought the barriers would come down with us,” she said. “I don’t think that happened. I’m not naïve.” Harrison appears dismayed that women in business – whether as a police officer, doctor, or athlete – remains an issue.
“Why is it such a novelty?” she asks. “It’s really the same as it was. There have been changes, but how far have we come if we’re still studying it?”
It was 1981 when Harrison had the itch to leave the Midwest. She and her twin sister headed to the Florida Keys with no particular plan. They camped and made their way. Harrison ended up working as a deck hand on a fishing boat, cleaning the holds, scraping barnacles. She said Cuban families, mostly women and their children, used to come to the docks. In amazement, they would watch her work.
“They asked me why I would even think of doing this work,” Harrison said. “I came back here and felt largely the same way. Not to the same extent, but I was still a novelty. People don’t understand why I would want to work.”
In 1994, Harrison began what would become Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which recently changed its name from North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance.
What started as little more than a group of friend gathering to support people living with racism culminated in February’s gathering of more than 600 community leaders and residents in Holland for the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism.
Harrison and other summit organizers continue to concentrate on eliminating the politicized rhetoric in attempts to improve race relations. The goal is to invoke action through education. For the summit nationally known civil rights leaders were brought in to speak as a preparation for workshops to develop strategies for overcoming racial barriers.
With the weight of her full-time career in social services coupled with caring for her children, Harrison nearly walked away from running the diversity alliance. In 1998, she felt the alliance needed a full-time director, and put out a call for people to take the position.
“We were hiring on the condition that the person be in charge of doing fundraising to pay their own salary,” Harrison said with a wry smile. “I’m still here.”
Harrison talks about her job, and the accomplishments of the alliance with a content expression and a sense of pride.
“I’ve invested too many years, and too much time to this effort to let it flounder,” Harrison said.
“I’m supporting my family, and we’re (the alliance) looking to expand,” she said. “We’re looking to hire more people.”
And of course they always could use a few more volunteers. The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, at 120 S. Fifth St., can be reached by phone at 846-9074, or online at www.ethnicdiversity.org