Holland Human Relations director receives Excellence in Equity Award

Esther Fifelski is always willing to put in the work to “help just one more person,” says Holland Human Relations Commission member Catherine Ristola Bass who was one of two people to nominate Fifelski for the 2020 Ottawa County Excellence in Equity Award.

“I’m honored,” says Fifelski, who has been the city of Holland’s human relations director for seven years, “but by the same token I feel there’s so much work to be done that I haven’t even touched it.”

The award was announced at the fifth annual Ottawa County Diversity Forum this week. Because the forum was a virtual event this year, the award committee surprised Fifelski with the announcement on Monday, Oct. 12.

Virtual forum

The virtual forum brought together government and community leaders in a virtual setting to discuss equity and inclusion, says one organizer Judy Kettring, a community health worker with Ottawa Pathways to Better Health, a county program that works with community partners for health promotion and planning.

Kettring is also chair of the county’s Cultural Intelligence Committee.

With the ever-changing world, organizers decided to ask what topics people wanted the forum to cover. With more than 200 responses, the answer was clear: racial disparity, systematic racism, police brutality, and health equity.

“Because we did it in a virtual setting, I think people felt more comfortable voicing their concerns,” Kettring says. “People were able to express themselves in a way they weren’t before.”

Racism is an ongoing problem; it’s not something that can be solved overnight, she says.

“Ottawa County does have a problem even though it’s not on the forefront of everybody’s mind,” Kettring says.

Tuesday’s forum included sessions from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity as well as health equity.

“We were able to supply our attendees with some stepping stones to have the next conversation,” Kettring says.

The Excellence in Equity Award recognizes individuals who affect the public sector field in Ottawa County and focus on the importance of equity through their practices, programs, policies, and decision making.  

Focus on equity

“We are very proud of Esther and the work she does in our organization on behalf of the residents of Holland,” says Holland City Manager Keith Van Beek. "Esther personifies so well the city commitment to equity and inclusion work; being approachable and kind to citizens and yet committed and persistent in pursuing work to make our community a great place for everyone.”

As the human relations director, Fifelski has led and participated in a number of cross-cultural activities to promote the awareness of the Hispanic and Latinx people, heritage, and culture. The Holland human relations department includes civil rights and fair housing, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

Advocate for the underserved

Fifelski advocates for the underserved and normalizes conversations on race, equity, and inclusion, officials say.

She is quick to credit the many people who “work quietly behind the scenes,” and says government officials should always be working together to figure out how they can best serve each and every resident.

“The equity work always needs to start with reflection: What have we done? How can we do better? What can we do now?” Fifelski says. “It’s government ‘for the people by the people.’ I hear that all the time, but sometimes I wonder who is not at the table?”

Following this week’s Ottawa County Diversity Forum, city officials will meet to determine next steps and proactive strategies, she says.

This is the second year for the award. Reyna Masko was the 2019 Excellence in Equity Award recipient.

Learn more about the award at miottawa.org/Departments/Diversity/equity.htm.