Highlights from the 2022 Ottawa County Diversity Forum

Community stakeholders who attended a recent diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) forum took a deep dive into how the effort to live up to Ottawa County’s motto, “Where You Belong,” has fulfilled key justice goals, while providing a focus for work to achieve new ones.

The county-sponsored forum focused on DEI as the cornerstone of a productive workforce and thriving economy; the county’s Welcoming Plan; businesses’ “triple bottom line”; and the vital role nonprofits and businesses play.

Here are 16 highlights from the conference that demonstrate the county’s commitment to DEI:

No. 1: A positive model. It’s easy to get snared in a “deficit model” that focuses too much on the DEI goals that have not been achieved. Keith Van Beek, Holland city manager, says there’s a better approach. “A model we try to follow is a positive model in how we can move forward,” Van Beek says. “This is something that lifts everyone up and is why I do this work.”

No. 2: Diversity workforce. It’s still a work in progress, but intentional steps must be taken to diversify a workforce that reflects the community it serves, according to David Koster, general manager Holland Board of Public Works. “We can do better by having a workforce that’s reflective of the community, (a workforce) that brings solutions to the table,” Koster says. “It’s not the easiest conversation at first. It’s an opportunity for continuous improvement or maybe some missed opportunities.”

Andrew Boatright, general manager of the Zeeland Board of Public Works, agrees that grappling with DEI initiatives can be heartfelt and difficult, but must be done. “Our leadership team in the spring of 2020 had devoted time to sharing insights with each other on what was happening in the nation,” says Boatright. “We’re trying to determine what level of commitment to DEI there should be. I remember those meetings were very emotional. We learned a lot about each other. We learned even though we were all white, mostly male with one white woman, we all have diversity in our background. We have things we don’t know about each other. Our city charter still refers to the utility manager as a ‘he.’ Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at.”

Philip Kuyers, Ottawa County commissioner, says county employees are
trained to interact with community customers inspired by the customer service training developed for Cast Members (employees) at the Walt Disney parks. “We train our
employees through customer service to have the DEI in education, so when the
employees encounter people, they treat them in a Disney way and then it makes
it where you belong, which is where the county is.” 

No. 3: Library funding. Some communities have looked at defunding public libraries because some books are considered objectionable. This can harm people who live in rural areas where access to the Internet is only through their local libraries. Steve Currie, executive director of the Michigan Association of Counties, said a democracy relies on its people getting involved. “Have the right folks provide the message,” says Currie. “Get groups together that think the same way as you do.”

No. 4: Create a DEI council. A good way to get serious about advancing DEI initiatives is to establish a DEI council or government-funded office, Currie says. It’s something employers need to add to their hiring criteria. “It’s something you have to address to attract quality talent,” says Currie.

No. 5: Try to persuade the curious, not the hostile. A forum participant asked what more can be done to nudge those who don’t embrace DEI principles. Ophelia Bitanga-Isreal, senior program director for DEI for the National Association of Counties, says it’s better to devote one’s energy to those who are already advancing diversity. “Some folks are never going to change, and it’s really not worth the energy,” she says. “What you need to do is strengthen the folks who are curious, the folks who are already trying to do the work and need support doing it. I think (when you do), the work is advanced, and you don’t have to educate those who are not open to it at all.”

No. 6: Diverse rural communities. The long-held stereotype that rural communities are racially monolithic needs to change. “The demographic of rural counties has been changing to more diversity,” Bitanga-Isreal says. “That should be looked at as a positive. As demographics change, other aspects of diversity need to be considered. Diversity will increase as time goes on. We can make policies and do program services in rural counties.”

No. 7 Economic base. Ottawa County’s economic base is growing tremendously, says Paul Sachs, director of strategic impact for Ottawa County. New Americans and immigrants play an important role in keeping that economic train chugging, but attracting and retaining a workforce requires concerted solutions. The results are worth the effort – in 2019, more than 700 immigrants helped to fill local manufacturing jobs that otherwise could have vanished or moved elsewhere.

Paul Sachs

No. 8: Welcoming Plan. It’s still a work in progress, but expect to hear more about the county’s Welcoming Plan in 2023, Sachs says. Early ideas for it include helping new residents navigate community resources, expanding school resources, and expanding English as a second language opportunities, all of which contribute to upward mobility. 

“This is not work we’re doing just in West Michigan,” Sachs says. “This welcoming work is happening across the country. This is why it’s competitive. We need to build that skilled labor force and attract that talent. 

“What goes into the Welcoming Plan?” Sachs says of its development. “Then, what are the opportunities we can pursue to make that plan into a vibrant community? We’ll launch a survey to learn and engage and inform the Welcoming Plan so we can activate it.”

Gloria Lara is the Executive Director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

No. 9: Nonprofits are a force for change. In Michigan, 11% of the workforce is employed by nonprofits, says Gloria Lara, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. “This work cannot be done by itself,” Lara says. “This is not something the government or businesses do alone, but also with nonprofits. We help expand the reach of government and businesses and deal with so many of the issues immigrants and new people do. That’s why it requires a three-prong approach for this whole effort. We planted the seeds, it’s starting to take root, and
we hope it will blossom in 2023.”

No. 10: Focus on the triple bottom line. “Businesses are always focusing on improving shareholders’ value, and to do that you minimize costs and expand your pricing,” says Lara. “By lowering costs, you have layoffs, so of course stock prices go up. Now, corporations focus on the triple bottom line: people, plant, and profit. When people stay, companies don’t have to rehire more people, which costs more in training. The more diversity of thought you have with your organizations needs to be foremost.”

No. 11: How to create a welcoming workplace. It takes a concerted effort to understand what the barriers are to attracting people to work for a company and to make workers want to stay there, says Daniel Quintanilla, director of talent acquisition at Gentex. “In 2018, we found out really quickly that there were actually a lot of barriers to help people get employment,” he says. “In 2020 and the end of 2021, we created a program for our Spanish-speaking employees to let them work online (with Spanish documents and speak Spanish while working).  You can hire anybody, but if that person doesn’t feel like they belong, they’re not going to stay.” Gentex now has more than 140 people who speak Spanish who work multiple shifts. “We’re basically a two-language company,” says Quintanilla, adding Gentex now has better retention efficiency and work attendance.

Danielle Smith

No. 12: Leadership buy-in. Good intentions only go so far if a company’s leadership is not behind DEI strategies, says Danielle Smith, vice president of global human resources for Shape Corp. “We know it (DEI) is the right thing to do and a smart business decision,” Smith says. “For us, it’s about the right thing to do, smart business cohesion and, on a daily basis, we see the power of creativity. It’s the experiences we have that ask us what we are that are leading us to be a more innovative organization.”

No. 13: DEI requires intentional steps. Some of the pictures of chamber members taken 30 years ago showed mostly white, middle-aged men, notes Jodi Owczarski, president of the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce. Today’s demographic of business leaders and entrepreneurs is much more diverse. “We need to ensure we provide DEI opportunities, form new collaborations and build more bridges to be more inclusive and provide support for those who may have a language barrier,” Owczarski says.

No. 14: Immigrants have spending power. One in five entrepreneurs are immigrants. “A lot of our manufacturers were start-up businesses, and they have grown,” says Sachs. “Holland in particular has a tremendous entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Penny Shuff

No. 15: Promote peace. People and conflict go hand-in-hand. The pandemic caused even more turmoil due to food insecurity, inflation, mask-wearing debates, and domestic violence. Penny Shuff, director of development and communications for the nonprofit Mediation Services, says volunteers trained by her organization promote peaceful resolution of disputes. “We ensure people have a safe place to handle conflict,” says Shuff. “We provide two impartial mediators because we find co-mediation works best. Mediators lead discussions that are confidential.” And the nonprofit’s mediators are more diverse. “Thirty percent are people of color,” says Shuff.

No. 16: Listen up. A solution has more power when people feel they’ve been listened to as opposed to being ordered by a judge to do something. “We’re striving for a sweet spot so people feel it’s a win-win,” says Shuff. “People feel valued and validated when everyone’s point of view gets to be spoken. Through the process, trust is built. People start to feel safe. Every agreement is collaborative. When you have a stake in an agreement, you’re more likely to abide by it.”
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