When the Bay City Commission interviewed candidates for an open seat, it opened a conversation about diversity in the community.
In October, the City Commission interviewed six applicants for the 3rd Ward Commission seat vacated by Kathleen Zanotti when she was appointed as the Bay County Clerk. A diverse field of men and women from different racial backgrounds applied for the position.
During the search for Zanotti’s replacement, two members of the Bay City Commission say Thomas Baird, a member of the Bay City School Board of Education and a former Bay City Commissioner himself, called them with concerns about the backgrounds of the candidates.
Kristen McDonald Rivet, 2nd Ward Commissioner, and Chris Girard, 6th Ward Commissioner, each say they heard from Baird. Baird did not respond to requests for an interview.
After Rivet posted about Baird's comments on Facebook, calling them “troubling and racist statements he made to me personally,” the Board of Education approved a resolution that states any comments made by individual board members are their own and do not represent the district. The resolution does not name Baird.
While Rivet says she was angered, she also hopes the incident illuminates long-existing challenges in Bay City and across the U.S., bringing the issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity to the forefront of the community. Rivet is especially concerned that closed-door conversations often leave women, as well as people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, out of the dialogue.
The 2020 U.S. Census
shows that 94.6% of people in Bay County identify as white.
“What we really need to do is to have a community conversation about what we allow to be acceptable in private, closed conversations,” Rivet says. “These are the kind of outdated politics that have been prevalent in our community for a long time.”
Ali Smith, Chairman of the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Partnership
, calls for the members of the community to hold each other accountable.
“It’s 2022 almost and we’re trying to make things better for everyone,” Smith says. “Just standing up when no one is around, not letting negativity slide, and underhanded comments that we know are racist. We just have to stand up as a community together.”
Rivet also says the community must hold people, especially elected officials, accountable for biases against people of different races, genders, ethnicities, or sexual orientations. Girard adds that leaders need to recognize that including diverse opinions benefits the community.
“We need diverse perspectives,” Girard says. “Doing what we’ve done, we continue to decline in population. So what do we need to do to reverse that trend? I think we need to be open to diverse opinions and diverse background of folks who have been here, and who have moved here, in order to strategically put together plans to attract new residents.”
The 2020 U.S. Census indicates that Bay County’s population shrunk 4.3% between 2010 and 2019.
Rivet says Baird’s comments show an attitude that is meant to shut off opportunities. This is a problem in communities across the nation as political leaders decide who they will encourage to run for elected offices or to serve in appointed positions.
The Bay Area Chamber of Commerce
is taking a similar stand on the issue. Local leaders need to make it clear that Bay County is an inclusive community, says Ryan Tarrant, Bay Area Chamber of Commerce President & CEO
In a Nov. 1 letter addressed to Gene Rademacher, Chairman of the Bay City Board of Education, the Chamber of Commerce calls on Baird to immediately resign. The letter is signed by Tarrant and Smith, from the Minority Business Partnership.
“We stand behind efforts that promote diversity in our businesses and community and will not sit idly by when issues arise,” the letter states. “Communities that wish to thrive must become more diverse moving forward. It is no longer enough to say we support diversity; we must destroy racism at its core in every form and at every opportunity.”
“The statements made during these calls have been grossly racist and have no place in any setting, public or private. This is made worse when comments are made by an elected or appointed official,” the letter states. “By making these comments, Mr. Baird has provided racism air to breathe in our community. We will not look the other way. As an inclusive community, those of us who do not speak out against racism are complicit in enabling it.”
Tarrant says he felt compelled to write the letter because the Chamber exists to create a better economic climate for all businesses. The Chamber frequently interacts with local, state, and federal officials to create that environment.
The problem also goes much deeper than this incident, agree Rivet, Girard, and Tarrant.
In Bay County, many of our elected and appointed officials are older white men, Rivet points out. Some ran for office. Others were appointed to commissions and committees. People who move into the community don’t even hear about these opportunities before the positions are filled with long-time residents.
“What’s important about this is it’s not any single individual,” Rivet says. “It’s the system as a whole that’s been set up to bring certain voices to the table.”
One step in fixing the problem is inviting new people into the process, and holding all commissioners responsible for respecting their co-workers, applicants, and community members with decency and respect.
Rivet hopes to take that step by exploring the role of the city’s Human Relations Committee. The committee was created years ago to “foster mutual understanding between all racial, religious, nationality, and other minority groups in the city. It shall strive towards discouraging and preventing discriminatory practices toward any such group,” according to a description on the city’s website.
Activating that committee could be a step toward addressing greater equality in the community. For its part, Tarrant says the Chamber will continue to promote the Minority Business Partnership and its efforts to support and recruit minority business owners in the area. Smith encourages people to support organizations such as the NAACP and the Minority Business Partnership that are trying to help the community.
“We do have a growing minority business community here and the Minority Business Partnership is here to help minority businesses that are looking to get established and grow,” Smith says.
Smith also encourages people to attend governmental meetings and speak up when they see a problem. “We just can’t sit back and be idle and continue to let things be swept under the rug,” he says.
Rivet cautions that simply creating committees isn’t enough to change the local climate.
“In these moments when there’s a lot of public attention on issues around racial inequity, a lot of conversations around gender inequity, we react and we name an action,” she says.
That’s not enough. Rivet points out that people also must be willing to speak out when they perceive an injustice. And then be ready to accept the consequences of voicing concerns.
“It’s the long-term commitment of doing these things when the marches in the street are over. Are we in our day-to-day lives acting differently, thinking differently? Are we having the brave conversations?”
Girard adds that this community sometimes resists critical reflections on systemic challenges. “We do have folks in the community who do have the opposite opinion that we need to keep the old guard in charge and that’s not going to grow the community.”
Rivet believes the journey to becoming a diverse community begins with self-reflection.
“What we can do on an individual level first is examination,” she says. “What are we holding on to that is perpetuating stereotypes? What are the lenses that we’ve applied to groups of people that we’ve always just taken for granted as truth? It’s about our own personal journeys around it. And then, when we are really being honest with ourselves, about whether we’re willing to take a stand.”
Taking a stand on any issue can be scary, Rivet says. Those who speak out risk losing friendships, alienating family members, and changing their reputation within the community.
Rivet also stresses it’s important to allow people time and space to grow and learn as the community changes. The challenges facing Bay City are, in many ways, the challenges facing the U.S. as a whole.
“We, as a community, have to sit in that and reckon with one another’s pain,” she says.