2008-05-10 Holland Sentinel "My Take - Eliminating racism in our community"


My Take - Eliminating racism in our community
By GAIL HARRISON
The Holland Sentinel

Holland, MI —

The last Summit on Racism was held in Holland in 2005. It was the culmination of six years of intense work by literally hundreds of individuals. It was to be the final summit.

We had given eliminating racism our best shot. We began in 2000 with two town meetings on racism, one in Holland and one in Grand Haven. We asked community members to come together to identify ways in which racism existed in our towns and to share what was needed to create a comfortable environment for all residents.

For further details on the Lakeshore Region Summit on Racism, visit www.ethnicdiversity.org or call (616) 846-9074.

The Holland town meeting was held at St. Francis de Sales Church, long a haven for forums to cry out against injustice and plead for equality. We were stunned when 350 area residents showed up to share their stories, experiences and frustrations with racism and articulate their desire for change.

A leadership conference was held the next month. Invited were the CEOs of our businesses, the clergy from our pulpits, the superintendents of our schools and the officials we elected to run our local governments. They came to hear the concerns raised at the town meetings. Then we asked our leaders: “What is your role in eliminating racism in our community?”

We took all the information gathered over the three months. We designed vision statements for each sector: what people wanted our community to look and feel like with an absence of racism. We took those vision statements and asked the entire community to join us for the first Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, where we would learn about the causes of racism, identify the barriers to racial inclusion, develop strategies for eliminating those barriers and then ask people to help us put those strategies in place.

To my total amazement, we had an outpouring of response from our communities. Hundreds of people were signing up to come. We worked frantically to accommodate such large numbers until finally, when we could not dance any faster, we shut down registration for that first summit. Six hundred fifty people had signed up to help us root out the causes of racism in our communities.

Years later, as we finished the fifth and final summit, incredible things had been accomplished. We had actually launched a fair housing center. Monthly educational workshops had been held for superintendents and leaders of our schools on topics including improving minority graduation rates, hiring diverse staff and creating multicultural curriculum. A Business Tool Kit on best practices for hiring and retaining a diverse workforce was researched, written, published and disseminated. The Institutes for the Healing of Racism were expanded to our churches and our chamber of commerce. Our health-care providers now had a library of diversity resources, cultural competency training and tools for increasing minority and bilingual suppliers. There were community forums that taught the history of racism and current practices, media forums to encourage balanced reporting and film festivals in the Tri-Cities to learn and explore issues of race.

The work that took place over those six years, in addition to the important lessons learned in each of the summit conferences themselves, generated excitement, discussion and activity in every public arena.

We were asked to not end this important process. So, after two years of preparing and expanding, we are back. The organizers of this conference — the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and over 25 churches, businesses and community organizations — have been working since last July to bring the Summit on Racism back to our community. We are ready to resume the work that clearly is not finished.

We have a deeper understanding of the cause of many of our social ills: job losses, housing price declines, cuts in school funding. These issues tug at the fabric of our community. We believe racial segregation is not a symptom of this decline, but rather a root cause. We also believe we still have time to make sure our community does not fall the way of so many other highly segregated cities in this most segregated state — cities that are failing economically and socially.

We believe it is our charge to foster a community built on inclusion, a community where we do not warehouse segments of our population but rather develop a new social compact based on inclusion. A place where we weave a community that includes all of us in meaningful ways.

Please join us Tuesday, May 20, wherever you are in this journey and gain the tools you need to take the next step. We need you. The region needs you. Our very humanity needs your voice and your presence. Our future depends on inclusion, and inclusion depends on all of us.

The new and improved Summit on Racism returns. Will you?

— Gail Harrison is executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.
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