For two decades, the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) has dedicated itself to ensuring residents in West Michigan have an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, and as the organization approaches its 20th anniversary, Founder and Executive Director Gail Harrison pauses to reflect on how far the organization has come.
What began as a two-person team has grown to a nine-member staff with a board of directors, dozens of community volunteers and multiple partnerships with local and national institutions focused on advancing racial equity.
“We would not be here if it was not for the community embracing our work,” said Harrison, who founded the organization after an African-American family left Grand Haven in West Michigan because they did not feel welcome. “The fact that there are so many people that support our work, that value our work, that want to advance our work – it’s exciting.”
With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the organization works with business, education, faith, government and health sectors to advance equitable and inclusive institutions and communities in West Michigan, with particular focus on Ottawa County.
Ninety-three percent of Ottawa County’s 272,877 residents are white, according to 2013 U.S. Census. 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,” Harrison said. “This work will cultivate environments that eliminate roadblocks for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.”
To reduce these roadblocks, structural barriers for people of color must be removed, said LEDA Program Director Sarah Salguera.
Salguera said the organization’s Racial Equity Diversity & Inclusion (R.E.D.I.) workshops offer custom training for employers seeking to advance workplace equity and inclusion. Workshop presenters outline understanding how racial biases are internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural, while participants learn how systems of inequity are reinforced, often unconsciously.
The research-based workshops are interactive and “create safe, constructive space for people to lean into their discomfort in a way that’s positive … 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 found the diversity workshop was valuable to their organization or community.
The organization’s Consulting Model assesses institutional barriers to inclusion in order to develop strategies that create and sustain diversity and inclusion programming. Staff review organizational readiness, the role of leadership, hiring practices and systems to measure and evaluate progress toward diversity and inclusion goals.
LEDA offers additional programs, like the unique “Talk to Kids About Race” workshop. Parents, childcare providers and early childhood educators across the state are given resources and techniques to better discuss race with children.
“It’s important to talk with your children about [race],” said Salguera, who adds that children develop perceptions about race as early as 3 years old. “Effective discussions help children develop positive concepts around racial identity and those positive perceptions can last a lifetime.”
Volunteers also participate in the Calling All Colors year-long program for middle and high school students, serve as mentors to children of migrant agricultural workers, participate in the Migrant Reading Program and frequently enroll in Spanish language classes provided by LEDA.
The organization’s biggest event is its annual Summit on Race & Inclusion, which explores strategies for eliminating racial inequities.
Jonathan Lawrence, of Grand Haven, attended the summit last year 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.
Rachel Godsil, a 2015 summit keynote speaker and director of research at the Perception Institute, a think tank that explores remedies and solutions to reduce bias and discrimination, 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,” she said.
Harrison added she’s enjoyed helping communities evolve into more equitable places for families. She believes LEDA is creating a pipeline of constituents with the knowledge and skills to achieve high levels of racial equity and inclusion for years to come.
“I think there are a lot of people now that see diversity and inclusion as desirable,” Harrison said. “I think the fact that we have engaged so many community members also builds a strong base of not only volunteers, but people who are advocating for racial inclusion in all of their various institutions.”