2004-03-21 Holland Sentinel "Speakers: Diversity good for business"

Speakers: Diversity good for business

The Holland Sentinel

It not only makes ethical sense to celebrate racial and ethnic diversity and to fight racism, it makes economic sense as well, according to both keynote speakers at the fourth Ottawa Area Summit on Racism Saturday.

"Even if you don't do it for love, there is a good reason to do it for your profits," Paul Courant, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, said about valuing diversity in the workplace.

The event was sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and was held at Hope College's Dimnent Chapel.

After his presentation, Courant explained a diverse workplace can attract a broader range of people. Being part of a varied group lets an individual hear different viewpoints, Courant said, and having different backgrounds strengthens the team.

"Teamwork is how the corporate world has figured out how to get things done," Courant said.

Last year, the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions methods were taken to the Supreme Court for its law school and undergraduate schools.

The University of Michigan argued that a diverse student body helps each student's educational experience. The Supreme Court upheld the law school process but disallowed the undergraduate admissions approach of awarding points for an applicant's race.

Courant said that a homogeneous group limits what can be accomplished.

"There is nothing duller than a class that is all alike," Courant said, who also is a professor of economics.

Racial harmony improves an area's overall economy, said Sylvester Murray, a professor of urban students and director of the Urban Center's public management program at Cleveland State University. Murray has also worked in numerous local government jobs including city manager in San Diego, Cincinnati, and Ann Arbor.

"Racial polarization is an impediment to economic development," Murray said, defining economic development as creating jobs.

Murray said racial minorities need the same chances at jobs, with the same pay.

If a community's racial minorities cannot get jobs, the area's tax base suffers too.

Both speakers emphasized they believe the moral thing to do is celebrate racial unity, but not everybody will change with that approach.

"Our focus for inclusion, our focus for racial inclusion...it should take an economic development track," Murray said. "We have taken an ethical track. We have taken a social track. It appears we have not achieved as much as we should."

Murray argued that improving racial minority's economic standpoint can decrease discrimination.

"Money has a way of eliminating discrimination in America," he said.

Saturday's event also included a number of workshops looking at racial issues in business, community, education, faith, government and health care, plus strategic sessions.

Conference attendee Sharon Netto said the summit was worthwhile, adding she agreed with Murray's discussion on job growth.

Netto said English language services programs are one way to reach different ethnic groups and improve the economy. When a community offers English to a non-native speaker, the participant can be better equipped to give back.

Thomas Puleo Jr., a Grand Haven High School teacher, said the event gives him a chance to be an environment where topics are openly discussed and debated.

Puleo, 42, and a lifelong Grand Haven resident, said he wishes there was more racial diversity in the city. Students suffer from not being around different people, he said.

"They don't have that global experience," he said.

Saturday's event drew about 300 people, according to Gail Harrison, event organizer and executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. That is down from about 500 people attending last year. The event has always been held on Tuesdays.

"That was a chance we took moving it from the weekday to a Saturday. We wanted the opportunity for all community members to (attend)," Harrison said.

Despite the attendance drop, Harrison said she was happy with the schedule shift. People who could not take work off on weekdays could attend this year, Harrison said, including more than 50 teachers.

Harrison said she is excited to see what suggestions members had to improve the racial environment in the area.

"It's not the numbers, it's the message and the involvement that will be the outcome of this," she said.

LISTENING: Mike Zhang, right, of Grand Rapids, takes part in a discussion during the Summit on Racism as Carol Boeve, center, and Melody Washington listen on the campus of Hope College Saturday afternoon.