Inside the auditorium at Grand Haven High School in Grand Haven, Michigan, the spotlight was on Rachel Godsil, director of research at the Perception Institute – a national consortium which explores the implications of the mind sciences on policy, culture and institutions.
Speaking at Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance’s (LEDA) 2015 Summit on Race & Inclusion, Godsil discussed the ramifications of implicit bias, using a thought-provoking and interactive exercise that challenged audience members to examine their own biases.
“Even though our explicit values and expectations will tell us that we’re post-racial, we’re not yet done,” Godsil told the audience of more than 700 people. “We all have work to do, collectively.”
It’s a message that LEDA has advanced for nearly two decades. Founded by Executive Director Gail Harrison after an African American family left Grand Haven because they did not feel welcome, the organization works to ensure people of all ethnic backgrounds have equal access to participate fully in the community.
Harrison and LEDA believe most people are offended by overt racism and many would support its elimination, but understanding unintentional biases and the far-reaching impacts is more complex. With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the organization works with business, education, faith, government and health sectors to increase capacity for advancing equitable and inclusive institutions and communities in West Michigan, with particular focus on Ottawa County.
Ottawa County has 272,877 residents, of whom 93 percent are white, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data. Latinos make up the next largest portion of the population at 9.3 percent, followed by African Americans at 1.8 percent. Through a variety of programs and resources, LEDA hopes to equip residents with the knowledge and tools to help communities and organizations to achieve their diversity goals.
“To create more inclusive communities, people who have traditionally been part of the dominant culture need to understand the benefits of inclusion and learn best practices that will result in welcoming, inclusive and equitable institutions and communities. This work will cultivate environments that eliminate roadblocks for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.” Harrison said.
To reduce these roadblocks, structural barriers for people of color must be removed, said Sarah Salguera, LEDA program director.
Salguera said the organization’s Racial Equity Diversity & Inclusion (R.E.D.I.) workshops offer custom training for employers seeking to advance equity and inclusion in the workplace. Workshop presenters outline the four dimensional framework for understanding how racial biases are manifested (internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural). Participants learn how systems of inequity are perpetuated and reinforced at each level, often unintentionally.
The research-based workshops are interactive and “create safe, constructive space for people to lean into their discomfort in a way that’s positive,” Salguera said. “The workshops help to normalize the conversation [on race], and engage productive discussions that people find impactful.”
Salguera said 97 percent of the R.E.D.I. participants surveyed reported the diversity workshop was valuable to their organization or community. Ottawa County officials recently invited LEDA to conduct racial equity workshops for all 1,200 employees. The county is also embarking on a systems review of their organization with LEDA, to ensure any impediments to racial equity and inclusion are identified and eliminated.
LEDA provides many other programs, including the unique Talk to Kids About Race workshop. Parents, childcare providers and early childhood educators across the state are being provided with resources and techniques on how to discuss race with children through this research-based workshop.
“It’s important to talk with your children about [race],” said Salguera, who adds that children develop perceptions about race as early as three years of age. “Effective discussions help children develop positive concepts around racial identity and those positive perceptions can last a lifetime.”
Volunteers can participate in the Calling All Colors year-long program for middle and high school students; serve as a mentor to children of migrant agricultural workers; participate in the Migrant Reading Program at local migrant camps reading to the kids; or even enroll in a Spanish language class provided by LEDA.
The organization’s annual Summit on Race & Inclusion, where Godsil delivered her keynote address, explores strategies for eliminating racial inequities and is another method of programming LEDA uses to meet its mission.
Jonathan Lawrence, of Grand Haven, attended the summit and said it inspired him to recognize the full humanity in others. “It encouraged me to see people as people rather than what they look like or what they do or don’t have,” he said.
Godsil said LEDA is doing a phenomenal job of helping residents to realize the importance of having a diverse and inclusive community.
“I think there’s an enormous amount to gain by having a group that focuses on helping predominately white communities realize that they will benefit and be able to grow and thrive if they’re able to let go of homogeneity,” said Godsil.