2005-02-16 Grand Rapids Press "Summit renews struggle against racism"

Summit renews struggle against racism
Grand Rapids Press

Holland - A grassroots effort to envision and create a community where diversity is embraced, power is shared, justice is equally administered and opportunities are open to all people culminated Tuesday with the fifth Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, and many vow to continue working together to build racial unity.

About 350 people attended the day long summit hosted by Hope College. Participation peaked at 650 the first year, but averaged about 400 annually, numbers organizers did not consider disappointing. “I think it speaks a great deal about the conscience of this community that there are people who have been working together to build racial inclusion for five years,” said Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity alliance, the summit’s chief organizer. “It’s my great hope that we can continue to move forward. This is an issue which will not end.”

Written input from participants will shape future activities, which could range from workshops tailored to people serving the community to an annual one-day community seminar, such as the Challenge of Children parenting conference. Members of some action teams will continue to meet, such as an interfaith dialogue group that blossomed out of the summit’s faith committee. The summit also forged informal networks among government and business leaders that will continue to benefit members in their efforts to strengthen diversity, Harrison said.

The first half of the morning was devoted to celebrating the event’s enduring successes: opening of the first fair housing office in Ottawa County, expansion of the Institute of Racial Healing to almost 20 eight-week classes each year, and production and distribution of the “tool kits” to promote recruitment and retention of diverse work forces.

Superintendent Rosemary Ervine credited the summit with inspiring West Ottawa Public Schools to improve its diversity training for staff and extend diversity training to students. Grand Haven High School won an award last year for the efforts of a student-run group to build multicultural awareness and unity.

Harrison recognized six people for their leadership roles in the summit: Ann Weller (media); Eleanor Lopez (health care); David Rhem (Summit program design); Diane Talo (education facilitator and program design); the Rev. Andres Fierro (south county town meeting facilitator) and Paula Kendra (marketing).

Percy Bates, an education professor who directs the Program for Educational Opportunity at the University of Michigan, addressed more than 50 educators on improving minority dropout rates, praised the summit’s non-confrontational approach to addressing racism. “It has to be a non-threatening model where people arrive individually at an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” Bates said. “This is how you create new perceptions and achieve real change.”

Statewide, about half of minority students don’t graduate from high school, which represents a waste of human potential too great not to impact the state, Bates said. Frank H. Wu, dean of the Wayne State University Law School, said modern racism is usually subtle, sometimes ambiguous and often embedded in society’s structures, but individuals must continue to address it to preserve both diversity and democracy, Wu said.

When strangers greet the Chinese American on the street with martial arts moves, it is physically harmless if they don’t connect. Nevertheless, it suggests an attitude that could spell big trouble for Asian Americans if that stranger does the hiring for a local company. “Eliminating racism is a process, not an outcome that was achieved with the Civil Rights Act,” Wu said.

“If you’re sick and tired of hearing about racism, think of how sick and tired the people are who are living with these provlems.”