At a Holland Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast a few years back, Gail Harrison stood before the nearly all-white gathering of business men and women and asked those who wished to be treated like an African-American person to stand.
Nobody arose. And no one needed to have her explain what she meant.
In the moment of awkwardness that settled over the room, Harrison proceeded to ask the audience why any of them would allow a friend, neighbor, co-worker or employee who was African American to be treated in a manner they didn’t want for themselves.
It was Harrison’s way of immediately making race relations and racism a very personal issue for each of the individuals in the audience; an issue that she says is “everybody’s problem” and everybody’s responsibility to resolve.
“It brings it home,” Harrison said recently as she recalled the chamber of commerce event in 2000.
“When it gets down to ‘do I want that experience for myself,’ the answer is an unequivocal ‘no,’” said Harrison, the executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which works to eliminate racism and celebrate diversity.
The way to do so, she said, is to create an awareness of the issue in the community and get people comfortable talking about it.
“If you don’t have that conversation about race and open up the dialog, you’ll never know where you are,” Harrison said.
In the seven years since she founded the nonprofit organization, the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance has become a growing voice in Ottawa County for racial equality and justice. The alliance’s marquee initiative, the annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, has received support from numerous corporations in the area and brought together several hundred people over the past four years to discuss racism and ways to eliminate racial barriers and stereotypes.
The alliance also offers a myriad of programs designed to promote a greater understanding of racism and cultural differences. That includes a kit for employers to use in promoting diversity in the workplace and recruiting and retaining a more diverse work force.
In addressing the issue with business, Harrison argues that embracing diversity is both morally right and makes good business sense.
In an increasingly global economy and marketplace, some large firms are looking to do business with suppliers and vendors that demonstrate diversity themselves, Harrison said. Companies may also find it hard to ignore the growing buying power of minorities, particularly Hispanics.
“People of color now control a greater amount of wealth in this nation,” she said. “You can look at this as not only morally correct, but it can make you money.”
And as society becomes more racially diverse, employers will have to follow suit with a more diverse work force, she said. Those that embrace diversity will need to put in place practices to retain people, Harrison said.
“You’ve got to have a workplace that is comfortable for the diversity you want to bring in, or you’re going to be spending a lot of money every year to recruit,” said Harrison, whose venture into the issue stems from her experiences at a young age.
A native of Royal Oak in suburban Detroit, she recalls the 1967 riots that split the city and led to an extended period of white flight from Detroit. Harrison’s mother did her graduate studies at Wayne State University, helping to develop a multi-cultural curriculum.
While at college, Harrison saw the issue more starkly.
During a summer in Mt. Pleasant, between semesters at Central Michigan University, she worked in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentoring program with the Chippewa Indian reservation. The summer “became an immersion experience. It really helped me understand the beauty of other cultures,” Harrison said.
The summer also showed the other side: prejudice and racist behavior toward tribal members.
“To bond with people and watch them be treated differently because they are not white is very painful,” Harrison said. “I want people to be motivated to eliminate those barriers.”
A stay-at-home mom for years, Harrison’s professional background is in social work. The impetus to form the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance stems from an experience in the mid-1990s when she was working for West Michigan Child & Family Services as program coordinator for Higher Horizons, a mentoring program similar to Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
A director on the Child and Family Services board spoke at a meeting one day about how she and her family, who are African Americans, didn’t feel welcome in the community. They had moved to the area for her husband’s job as a middle manager.
The woman spoke of the racial insults her children were subjected to on the school bus and how the family planned to move away from the area, Harrison recalled.
“I thought, ‘This is the 1990s — this shouldn’t be happening,’” Harrison said.
The incident prompted her to begin looking for an advocacy group in the community that works to address racial issues. When she didn’t find one, Harrison recruited a group of 18 people to form the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance in Grand Haven in June 1996.
The group came about at a time when Ottawa County’s minority population was growing rapidly. The alliance’s goal was to do something about racism and race relations, not just talk about it.
“We weren’t going to intellectualize it, we were going to do something,” she said. “We wanted to actually do something.”
The organization secured a grant of $20,000 per year for three years from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation to help cover start-up costs and initial programming. Harrison, while employed at Child & Family Services, served as the alliance’s volunteer president for three years.
One of the first programs the alliance created was Calling All Colors, an initiative for middle schools that brings students together to create an understanding of diverse cultures and eliminate stereotyping and racism.
Student participants design their own materials for the program. Since it started in 1997, more than 1,000 students have participated in Calling All Colors.
By 1999, as the alliance began to gain momentum and grow, and after expanding into Holland and being renamed the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, the organization’s board decided to hire a full-time director. The board chose Harrison for the position.
The alliance has secured much of its financial support from local corporations — Herman Miller, Haworth, Macatawa Bank and D&W Food Centers among them — and local foundations. Directors are now beginning to shift their emphasis to a more “business approach” and organizing fund-raising events to generate financial support, Harrison said.
Name: Gail Harrison
Organization: Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance www.ethnicdiver sity.org
Position: Executive director
Hometown: Royal Oak
Residence: West Olive
Community Involvement: Spent seven years as program coordinator for Higher Horizons, a mentoring program offered by West Michigan Child & Family Services, before becoming the Ethnic Diversity Alliance full-time director in 1999.
Biggest Career Break: Forming the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance in 1996.