2005-02-06 Holland Sentinel "Ottawa Area Summit on Racism set for Feb. 15"

Ottawa Area Summit on Racism set for Feb. 15
The Holland Sentinel

Five years ago, Gail Harrison believed that there were people in the community who wanted to help eliminate racism -- people who just needed an opportunity -- so she helped organize the first Ottawa Area Summit on Racism in 2001.

"The summit provided the vehicle for inviting all members of the community to identify racism as a pressing community issue and to work for its elimination," said Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, the summit sponsor.

Diversity and the high school minority dropout rate in Michigan are two main topics of this year's summit, which is Feb. 15 at Hope College. The keynote speaker Frank H. Wu, dean of Wayne State University Law School, will discuss building coalitions across racial boundaries.

"Race, more than any other factor, continues to influence the life prospects of all individuals in our great nation," Wu said in an email. "It is crucial if we want to flourish as a diverse democracy for us to build bridges across the divides of race, ethnicity, color and creed."

"The reality is for people of color, experiencing discrimination is their reality, on various levels," Harrison said. "If you asked people of color if they have experienced racism, overwhelmingly the answer would be 'yes.' For some it is unintentional, for others it is overt. The impact is the same -- racism limits opportunity and access for people of color regardless of the motivation."

Sharon Netto agreed.

"If you have to live it everyday, if you have to live as a person of color in a white community everyday, I don't think I have a choice but to keep dialoging it," said Netto, manager of leadership development at Haworth Inc. "Because if you don't keep that agenda on the table you're not going to get rid of the systemic issue around racism."

And as Holland continues to grow more diverse, Harrison said, many residents are asking themselves the question, "How can we live together comfortably?"

Netto, who will share her experience joining the Holland community, said understanding the issues is not as complicated as people think. Sometimes it's as simple as trying a new food.

"It's not so much about violence, or violent crimes against people of color, but the insular lifestyle, not wanting to try something new," Netto said. "I wonder what we are doing or what we could be doing to educate the next generation about diversity and inclusion."

This is the conference's last year -- the summit was only designed to be a five-year project, Harrison said.

"We asked people in the community to work on this project for five years and we will honor that promise, but there are projects that have taken on a life of their own because of this summit and will continue," Harrison said.

How to register

What: Fifth Ottawa Area Summit on Racism

When: Tuesday, Feb. 15, 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.

Where: Hope College's Dimnent Memorial Chapel and other campus sites. To register, email LEDA@ethnicdiversity.org. Registration deadline is Tuesday

Contact Olivia Cobiskey at olivia.cobiskey@hollandsentinel.com or (616) 546-4264.