Ethnic diversity nonprofit celebrates 20 years

For 20 years, Gail Harrison has been fighting for ethnic diversity along the West Michigan lakeshore.

Harrison, executive director and founder of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, created the nonprofit in 1996 after learning an African-American family had left the community because they did not feel welcome.

Twenty years later, she’s still working to make ethnic diversity a reality in West Michigan.

“I wanted to find a way for those of us who valued diversity to be more visible, and I sought out kindred spirits to foster that vision. I learned of the Institute for Racial Healing, being held in Muskegon Heights, the first institute ever held on the lakeshore. The goal of the institute is that you will take your learning and do something to help heal the racial divide,” she said.

“After attending the 10-week institute, I asked 17 community members to attend a meeting to discuss how to move forward. Three days before that first meeting a cross was burned on the lawn of the only black pastor (in the area). It was obviously well past time to undertake this work.”

LEDA celebrated its 20th anniversary this month at the Midtown Center in Holland. Harrison said it was a wonderful time, especially seeing all the people who have been instrumental in the growth of LEDA.

“We began as a small group of concerned individuals intent on finding a way to create a community comfortable for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. This group of 18 volunteers met monthly and wrestled with mission statements and bylaws and all sorts of incredibly detailed conversations, wondering if we would ever get to the important business of developing strategies and programs that would change our world,” she said.

“Now, 20 years later, we provide a plethora of programs. … But as we reflect back on the key ingredient that launched our success in this work, we must look to the literally hundreds of volunteers who have worked on so many initiatives. And that is the beauty of LEDA: A small staff and hundreds of volunteers can become a movement, an effective movement that can change communities.”

The secret to her long-lasting organization has been meeting people where they are, she said.

“Each person, institution and community is in a different place, and tailoring the message to address each audience is critical if we are going to be successful. We must not judge but rather embrace,” she said.

“I also believe that it is important to find opportunities for everyone to get involved in the work. It builds a sense of ownership and increases desire for success.”

Understanding demographic change has been a significant focus for LEDA. The economic imperative for diversity is understood, and the conversations around advancing diversity and inclusion — particularly in the educational and private sectors — are happening at last, she said. The engagement of regional leaders and grassroots community members on a broad scale is profound, she added.

But according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Michigan remains one of the most racially segregated states in the country, Harrison said. Part of what perpetuates racial stereotypes is not having relationships with people to disprove those stereotypes, she said, and business and community leaders must commit to crossing those relational lines.

“If you’re looking to diversify your workforce, first go to a market that has a diverse workforce,” Harrison said. “It’s so critical to ask, ‘What are the processes in place?’ We sit down and review the HR policies and practices so we can explain, ‘OK, here’s what getting in the way that’s keeping you from a diverse workforce.’”

One of the main challenges for West Michigan is to understand unintentional biases and how they affect all aspects of the area’s institutions and communities, Harrison said.

Although she finds people to be receptive to learning about these issues, reaching a critical mass will take time. Undoing the structures built on policies that racially segregated neighborhoods, schools and communities will require sustained attention and intention, she said.

“We still have educational achievement gaps, disparities in health outcomes, incarceration rates, home ownership, most economic indicators,” she said. “There is a great deal of work to be done, and it will take all of us to understand what is getting in the way of our best intentions to achieve racial equity. We have a good deal of research to inform best practices, and there is a high level of interest, but the structural aspects of our inequities require significant attention and investment.”

Although West Michigan communities have many similar challenges, there are differences, Harrison said.

In Grand Rapids, gentrification is growing in ways that disproportionately negatively impact families of color, she said. In Grand Haven, a critical issue is welcoming people of color to consider living in the community.

“Creating a place where people who envision a world without racial divisions can participate, learn and engage is important in growing a movement for change. The Summit on Race and Inclusion is our most visible event, and over 700 participants attend from West Michigan each year,” Harrison said. “While the Summit provides the best research in the country for advancing racial equity in every sector, it also creates a community of advocates who can go back to their institutions with best practices for implementing change.”

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