2003-02-02 Grand Rapids Press Summit on Racism set for Feb. 11

Summit on Racism set for Feb. 11
Grand Rapids Press

It’s been a busy morning for the rental manager of a large housing complex. She has made her sales pitch to three parties of apartment hunters: a newly married Caucasian couple, a single Hispanic mother with three young children and a 50-something African-American man on long-term disability.

The young Caucasian couple is shown the two available apartments and is told about a special “no security deposit” move-in option today only. The single Hispanic mother is told the complex is currently full, but is encouraged to fill out a rental application. The African-American man is asked to submit seven personal references along with his rental application.

Does discrimination like this happen on the Lakeshore, despite fair housing laws?

“We don’t really know because so much of it can happen with a smile and a handshake,” said Al Serrano, the city of Holland’s community and human relations coordinator. “The city hasn’t had the capacity to test fair housing practices. Who knows what privileges and promotions are being pitched outside the city limits, and if everybody’s getting them?”

That will begin to change over the next few months as the first fair housing office opens in Ottawa County. Eighteen volunteers of different races, ages and family circumstances were trained last summer to “test the waters” of the Lakeshore’s housing market. As they compare their treatment, a true picture of whether there is housing discrimination locally will emerge, Serrano said.

He credits the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism for making a fair housing office a reality in Ottawa County.

Through the summit’s chief organizers, the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity alliance, a fair housing action team was able to recently obtain a two-year matching grant work $21,000 from the Steelcase Foundation to help bring fair housing services to Ottawa county.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissars had twice denied the action team start-up funds because a majority of the commissioners were not convinced it is necessary.

“The beauty of the summit is that it has brought together a lot of people throughout the area who feel very strongly about building unity,” said Serrano, who is active on the fair housing action team. “There has been a real synergy as we come together and make a commitment to working on certain issues.”

The summit is a five-year effort to involve people from many walks of life across Ottawa County to address issues of racism and build unity. This the project’s third year. So far, 200 people have registered. Online registration concludes the day before the summit.

The Summit includes a choice of four learning workshops: understanding racism; exploring racism and poverty; the influence of media in understanding race relations; and understanding the Arab world.

Participants also may choose to participate in the following action team workshops: business, community, education, faith communities, government, health care, media or fine arts.

Eleanor Lopez, who works in the medical and consumer health libraries at Holland Community Hospital, says work of the summit’s health-care action team dovetails nicely with the work of the hospital’s diversity steering committee.

Several initiatives are emerging which will help the hospital and its services be more effective with non-English speaking patients. New signs have been ordered, which label all hospital offices by their English and Spanish names. All hospital forms and brochures are being translated into Spanish. The consumer health library has increased its Spanish-language holdings by 50 percent, Lopez said.

But that’s not all.

Holland Community Hospital has hired a bilingual lactation consultant to coach new mothers who don’t speak English, so they can be successful in breast-feeding their newborns. The hospital’s “Growth Connections” program also has hired a bilingual health educator to work with non-English-speaking parents who have questions about early child development.

Five workshops have been held over the past year to explore ways to recruit and retain health-care professionals of color, said Lopez, who serves on both the health-care action team and hospital steering committee.

A cultural awareness component also is being infused into the hospital’s new-employee training program. This training also will be offered to established employees beginning this spring, she said.

“Sensitivity is important in health care because people of many cultures try folk remedies first,” Lopez said. “Medical staff may assume something is wrong because the patient did not come in sooner.”

Lopez, for example, was raised by a Mexican mother who treated her earaches with a folk remedy that may sound frightening to modern sensibilities.

The mother rolled newsprint into a tight cone and inserted it into her daughter’s hurting ear as she laid her head on a table. Then, her mother would touch a lighted match to the exposed end of the cone and let it burn into the cone was just about to singe her hair.

“With folk medicine, you may not know if there’s a medical explanation or if it just works for them because they believe it will,” Lopez said.

The important thing, Lopez said, is that doctors not rush to judge patients’’ intelligence or compassion solely on cultural practices for treating illnesses.

The education action team has coordinated a verity of “breakfast links” meetings for people representing K-12 and higher education so they can network on issues regarding recruiting and retaining diverse staff.

Participants have had many discussions on how to eliminate subtle biases in the interviewing process, said Diane Talo, assistant principal at Holland’s East Middle School. They also have developed a rubric administrators can use to ascertain how well they are embracing diversity issues.

It’s unfortunate, Talo said, that the state’s sluggish economy is diminishing the teachers’ ability to participate in the Feb 11 conference.

Last year, local districts hired more than 100 substitute teachers so classroom teachers could attend the conference. With significant cuts anticipated in state school funding, few principals feel they can afford to hire subs unless a teacher is too ill to teach. Only 1 percent of those who have reigsrted are educators, Talo said.

“We understand, but it’s too bad,” she said. “If our breakout session at the summit becomes a dialogue of administrators and managers, we know the dialogue is incomplete.”

Erin Kauth, an employee of the Michigan Works! Job service, said the business action team’s efforts focused on updating and expanding a “took kit” they developed a year ago to help human resource directors recruit, retain, and advance a diverse workforce.

The tool kit features local, regional, state, federal, and international contacts when available.

They made the tool kit available online at the LEDA website, www.ethnicdiversity.org and are planning to make the rounds to various Holland Area Chamber of Commerce functions to spread the word among business leaders that it’s available to download.

Kauth said the action team hadn’t thought to request feedback from businesses that had used the tool kit, so members were delighted when some very kind words came in.

“The guy at Perrigo got pretty excited,” Kauth said. “he said, ‘Thank you. This is just what we need.’”