City launches initiative for racial equity


(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss promised in her 2016 State of the City address that she would focus on racial equity, and she intends to keep her word.

Bliss and Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College, sent out invitations this month calling for community leaders to join a group that will address racial disparities in the local workforce.

The pair are co-chairs of Bliss’s brainchild, the Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative, which was born out of feedback Bliss has been hearing from the community about “significant disparities” in access to employment for minority groups.

Bolstered by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the initiative will work to create jobs and increase employment in high-poverty, ethnically diverse neighborhoods, as well as build a framework for immediate and long-term community impact.

Bliss said that while the taskforce has not been solidified yet, she has a picture in her mind of the groups that will be represented.

“The vast majority of the members (will be) from the private sector and business community and also individuals from higher education, philanthropy and a few nonprofit organizations that work on economic development,” she said.

Pink said he believes GRCC has a responsibility, as a major talent pipeline for the workforce, to match underserved populations with employers that need workers.

“I call it ‘the great disconnect.’ On one side, you have employers who need workers, and on the other side, you have very diverse neighborhoods with high, high unemployment rates,” he said.

“There’s not a single industry I talk to in this region (that) does not tell me their talent needs are getting higher. … And in some of our neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, their unemployment rates are upwards of 25 percent.

“I believe this race and equity initiative will help address this issue over the next few years.”

Bliss and Pink said one of the goals of the taskforce will be to create a publicly accessible “racial equity dashboard,” likely a website that will display the data the group is using, to hold them accountable and ensure transparency in the process.

The city said earlier this spring that the W.K. Kellogg grant will cover hiring a facilitator and an evaluation and data partner to track and publish program outcomes.

It also will cover the costs of training, meetings and planning sessions for Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative members, as well as community roundtables and other community outreach.

When the taskforce convenes, Bliss said one of its first steps will be to try to understand the problem and how each entity can contribute to the solution.

“With any initiative, first you have to have a shared understanding of the scope of the problem and identify what each individual organization can do to be a part of the solution,” she said. “I am hopeful and think there is a real opportunity for individuals and organizations to learn from each other.”

She said this initiative is the second major step her administration took toward racial equity. The first was the city’s participation with the National Equity Project to train public administrative employees in how they can close disparities in each department. About 40 employees are participating in that initial training.

“I would say … these are two separate processes,” she said. “The racial equity work we’re doing (at the city level) is very specific to organizational change and public entities. It’s looking at government and how we can identify policies and procedures in place that create a disparate outcome.

“The Racial Equity Initiative is much more of a community collective effort of eliminating racial disparities in employment and workforce opportunities,” she said.

Pink emphasized the role of this taskforce will not be to improve law enforcement practices.

“People see race and equity, and they automatically go to things like policing,” he said. “That’s not what this is about. The mayor is focused on that in a different capacity than what this group will be. This goes more toward the kind of disparities we are seeing as a community in terms of hiring practices and getting more of our community (members) to work who want to be a part of that economy.”

He said one of the goals he and the mayor have for the initiative is to help organizations recognize their biases in hiring practices and work to eliminate them.

“In our organizations, whether specific industries or businesses, we have to make sure that we are open-minded and welcoming of any of our ethnic populations, so that you have that awareness in making sure you have an environment that is not contradictory to any of those populations,” Pink said.

“(It’s so) that a person of color would be able to go to that organization and work there and feel like a vibrant part of it, and that that organization would feel the same way about them.”

Bliss said the taskforce will need to hone in on data about disparity that is specific to Grand Rapids, as there is plenty of regional data available, but the initiative’s scope is only citywide.

The taskforce will need to decide on measurable outcomes, Pink said.

“Some of the metrics will organically happen because of putting these kinds of minds in the room (together),” he said.

Both leaders believe progress is possible if everyone works together.

“The important thing for me, and this is what I’ve heard from the community, is that if we’re going to eliminate racial disparities, we’re going to have to come together to collectively have a communitywide impact,” Bliss said.

Pink said it’s important to set realistic goals.

“In three years, Grand Rapids won’t be perfect on this issue, but in three years, hopefully we have put foundational and structural things together that will lead us down a more inclusive pathway,” Pink said.

“These are issues that, as we are in 2017, as happy and honored as I am to work with (the mayor) … I would rather have us be further down the road as a country and a community. Since we do have to have the conversation, let’s really get it done and in a strong way.”

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