Diversity Forum: 10 insights about gaps in equity and inclusion

Speakers at the sixth annual Ottawa County Diversity Forum tackled how to close equity and inclusion gaps in education, law enforcement, mental health, local government, immigration, and youth development.

The Oct. 20 online conference was organized by the Ottawa County Cultural Intelligence Committee, in partnership with the city of Holland and the Ottawa County Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office. This year’s topics focused on Safe and Healthy Communities. 

Community leaders, public servants, and other experts showcased the work that is making an impact in the lives of Ottawa County residents, as well as opportunities to improve. The forum included an account from a mother who urges police who encounter people with psychiatric diseases to help them receive medical care instead of sending them to jail.

Here are 10 highlights from the daylong conference designed to support the county’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity.

1. Mental health effects of COVID-19. John Shay, interim Ottawa County administrator, says law enforcement officials have had to step up efforts to establish trust with the residents they’re sworn to protect following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd. Moreover, COVID-19 has brought mental health into a sharper focus.
John Shay
“In some communities, this could lead to a deficit of trust between law enforcement and some members of the community,” Shay says. “It’s the role of law enforcement to provide safe communities in a manner that there’s trust and communication to each citizen. COVID-19 has impacted communities in significant ways and, in many ways, has affected communities of color in a detrimental way. Here on the local level, Ottawa County’s Public Health Department and Community Mental Health Department have worked tirelessly to mitigate the effects of COVID.”

2. Barriers to understanding. Darnell Blackburn, CEO and director of training for Clinton Township-based PRAT (Protecting Resources Awareness and Training), a service consulting company established in 2000, was the keynote speaker.
Darnell Blackburn Blackburn has more than 27 years’ experience in law enforcement as a Michigan State University police officer, a patrol officer for the Auburn Hills Police Department, and service with the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. He says people incorrectly equate unconscious bias with racism, but the two are not the same. The challenge with biases — and we all have them — is they can be a barrier to understanding perspectives different from our own, Blackburn says.

“The very first thing we can do to overcome our biases is to recognize that we have them,” he says. “Then, look from the other person’s lens and not our own, and we’ll be in a better space. We have to overcome bias by recognizing it. That’s a foundation for us.”

3. Community outreach. Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker and Undersheriff Valerie Weiss provided an overview of the services its staff of 244 provides.
Sheriff Steve KempkerThis includes patrol, criminal investigation, corrections, children’s advocacy center, victim services unit, and crisis intervention team. In the presentation, they cite their agency’s reputation and core values (professionalism, respect for all people, and equality and diversity) as key reasons why minorities are drawn to becoming cadets and eventually officers with their department. 
Undersheriff Valerie Weiss

“We explain what our expectations are, ethically and morally, basically line-by-line so they (cadets and new hires) understand it,” says Kempker.

“How we build relationships with the community has a lot to do with community outreach and how we work together,” says Weiss. “There are a lot of collaborative teams we’re involved in. There’s no way we can solve these problems on our own.”

4. Bias thinking. Dr. Joel C. Robertson is the founder of the Robertson Global Health Solutions Corp., aka Robertson Health. His brain health program has made a significant difference with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department and Holland Public Safety Services by helping them lose weight, lower blood pressures, eat healthier, sleep better, find more job satisfaction, and mitigate their stress.
Dr. Joel Robertson
Robertson says the country is in its “fourth wave” of thinking. The first was agrarian, where everybody lived in a like-thought society; then industrial; third was a technology society, and, now, a data-driven society. Too often, people are drawn to statistics that already confirm their preconceived biases and ignore different viewpoints, Robertson notes.

“The problem I have with data-driven thinking is 99% of people don’t know how to interpret good data,” he says. “We can find data to back us on any side you’re on. We only seek information that backs our biases. This is called neuropolarization. Instead of finding out what side you’re on, we need to know how we learn consensus thinking. Our brain chemistry asks, ‘Do I believe what just happened? And what is the expectation of what should happen?’ Once we understand this, we can maybe begin to realize that, when I look in the mirror, I realize I have certain biases. Can I learn to be more open?”

5. Immigrants and the economy. Leani García Torres is associate director of state and local initiatives for New American Economy.

Leani Garci´a TorresThe bipartisan research and advocacy organization, founded about 10 years ago, is working for smart, sensible immigration policies in cities, states, and nationally. Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research for New American Economy, revealed the positive economic impact made by the 15,500 immigrants in Ottawa County.

This includes $446.9 million of total household income in 2019, which equates to paying $38.7 million in state and local taxes; $335.3 million in immigrant spending power in the county; from 2012-18, contributing $51 billion more to Medicare nationwide than they drew down ($13.1 million in Ottawa County in 2019); and paying $51.5 million in 2019 to Social Security in Ottawa County.
Andrew Lim
With a daily average of 10,000 baby boomers retiring nationally, immigrants will play a key role in the workforce, according to Garcia Torres.

“What we’ve seen is immigrants can be counterbalanced to that (dearth of new hires),” she says. “Eighty-one percent of immigrants are of working age, between 16 to 64. They’re a robust workforce. We see a chronic shortage in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. (Immigrants) helped preserve 700 manufacturing jobs in Ottawa County that might otherwise have gone elsewhere. So immigrants, whether they’re starting their own businesses or supporting existing businesses, are helping to pump money back into our communities.”

7. Social workers at the library. Diane Kooiker, director of Herrick District Library in Holland, spoke of the collaborative effort with Community Action House, which helped them shift from a security-focused, gate-keeper library to providing access to all of its providers by working to bridge the digital divide as well as have social workers interact with patrons four hours a day, five days a week. 
Diane Kooiker
The focus of both the library and CAH is to seek first to understand, says Kooiker. Of a yearly average of 800,000 library visitors, it’s important that no stigma be attached when patrons wish to avail themselves of its services and services within the community that social workers can connect them to.

“Community Action House connected (patrons) to real needs: food stamps, Medicare, mental health resources, disability services, pantry, and resource navigation and, in my opinion, the most important is relationship building,” says Kooiker. “They come and sit and talk to some of our patrons.”

8. Improving crisis response. Tim Piers, program coordinator for the Ottawa County Community Mental Health Critical Incident Response/Jail Mental Health Services, first had DaleTron Thompson recount how her 28-year-old son’s bipolar schizophrenia resulted in his arrest and a jail sentence when he should have been admitted to a hospital.
Tim PiersThompson’s son was arrested simply because he was pacing up and down a sidewalk, which made a neighbor uneasy, she says. The neighbor didn’t know what else to do but call the police. He was very cooperative with police, says Thompson, who added her son was charged with domestic violence, later reduced to disturbing the peace, even though no aggression occurred. He eventually lost his job, still has to take regular drug tests even though no drugs were involved in his arrest, she says. He also has to see a judge weekly at 2 p.m., which makes finding a first- or second-shift job impossible for a man acclimated to working first shift, Thompson says. Too often, law enforcement is involved when it should be somebody else, and an arrest occurs when the better option is going to the hospital, she says.

“Jail was not the place where my son needed to be,” Thompson says.

Piers agrees with Thompson. Eighty percent of most law enforcement work does not involve fighting crime. Instead, it is related to responding to incidents stemming from mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, and neighborhood squabbles. Piers is working with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department and Holland police to provide community partnerships intended to improve crisis response, otherwise known and Crisis Intervention Teams, a concept that first was launched in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988.

“All the research shows the earlier we can get folks into treatment, the better the outcomes,” Piers says. “We want to support people, to get them to the next step.”

9. Building leaders. Lindsay and Henry Cherry are the co-founders of I Am Academy, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping African American youth achieve their full potential.
Henry and Lindsay CherrySystemic racism makes achieving this goal an uphill challenge, particularly when the country’s public school systems foster a school-to-prison pipeline. According to a 2021 study by researchers from Boston University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Harvard University, that’s due in part to zero-tolerance policies that place harsher punishments on its Black students. This results in more detentions, suspensions, and expulsions for Black students. But the Cherrys refuse to be dissuaded.

“Black students are subjected to (punishment) at a much faster rate than white students because they are being identified as the troublemakers,” Lindsay says.

Black men and women are needed as leaders, particularly in the school setting, adds Henry.

“I think we have an opportunity for greater growth in that area,” Henry says. “It changes (students’) paradigm that others who look like them can lead as well. That opens the door to opportunities and leads to support and advocacy. I Am Academy wants to build relationships in the home, build a bridge in education and work with students in the (school) building, whether in classrooms or a break to touch base with their mentor, or homework support. They need to see themselves operating in the community, potentially live in that community, and get our local talent to stay here.” 

10. Asking the right questions. Dr. Donijo Robbins, professor of public finance at Grand Valley State University, lent her expertise in how to remove biases in surveys and establish “reliability and validity.”
DoniJo Robbins
In explaining how to fashion a successful questionnaire, Robbins recommends considering your audience. By the end of the questionnaire, the participant is likely tired of answering questions. Keep things simple and end with questions requiring little brainpower, like demographic questions.

“You need a good data strategy,” explains Robbins, “and to get that data quickly into the hands of decision-makers.”
Keith Van Beek
Holland’s City Manager Keith Van Beek concluded the Diversity Forum by reiterating that Ottawa County’s motto, “Where You Belong,” needs to be “not just aspirational but something that can be absolutely true for everyone.” He thanked the presenters and the audience for their presence at the forum and for their ongoing work in diversity. 

“There’s a continuing commitment to improving,” he says. “We don’t settle for average. We pursue excellence.”

Kathleen Schenck contributed to this report.


Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.