The current political climate in the U.S. has clearly not been lost on the many cultures that make up Sterling Heights.
The opening entertainment act at the city’s annual Diversity Dinner was an Elvis Presley impersonator crooning “Suspicious Minds”, indicating a keen (if not tongue-in-cheek) understanding of the strain that multi-ethnic and -religious communities around the nation are facing.
With more than 20 percent of the city's 133,618 residents identifying as ethnic or racial minorities, it would be easy to expect divisions and tensions in Sterling Heights.
Many residents, however, are not just making sure tensions are held in check, but that the cultures of the city—recently ranked one of the top 10 places to raise a family in metro Detroit—are a source of strength.
Sterling Heights police chief Dale Dwojakowski knows all too well how important this is. Recently recognized with a Diversity Distinction Award for his efforts to make sure his force “reflects the community they serve”, Dwojakowski has been a key supporter of a new after-hours police academy that was approved this month. It will dramatically change the face of his team.
Sterling Heights police chief Dale Dwojakowski was recently recognized for his contribution to promoting diversity in the city.
“Most of the kids [who currently apply] are white males, in their 20s, and that’s traditionally who is becoming a part of the police academy.”
An "extended-session” training option, which will run from February 4 to December 17 and support classes on evenings and Saturdays, will open the career path to a more diverse pool of residents. Previously, trainees had to take classes for six weeks full-time to enter the force—not a luxury everyone can manage.
“I love the idea that someone who has a kid at home, someone who can’t afford to quit their job, someone older, someone who has a current occupation, could do this,” Dwojakowski says.
It’s also about tapping into communities. Dwojakowski says the Chaldean, Albanian, Latinx and African-American communities of Sterling Heights don’t traditionally consider a career in the force.
“A lot of families own their own business, and the idea of working for the government just never dawned on them,” Dwojakowski says. “It’s not a typical job.”
The part-time training initiative hasn’t been easy. Getting evening classes off the ground involved state approval, sourcing and funding instructors for after-hours courses, and canvassing for new students. But Dwojakowski says it’s worth the effort, and he’s expecting planned open days and recruitment nights to help encourage minorities to apply.
“This, we’re really hoping, will change the dynamics of who becomes a police officer.”
The impact of that dynamic is very real for police in the city.
“We just had a case where a Chaldean male just came up to the window at the front desk and said ‘I am having some domestic issues at my house, do you have a Chaldean officer I could talk to?’, and we do,” Dwojakowski says. “It breaks down barriers immediately, we are no longer a bunch of strange dudes that don’t reflect their family or their family values.”
Dwojakowski is the first to admit he’s not the only one using diversity to strengthen his city. In 1990 Sterling Heights established an Ethnic Community Committee to promote the cultures within the city, and this year the committee honored several residents who contribute to ethnic harmony.
Michelle Oh, from the Philippines, works to encourage civic participation.
The Buddhist Meditation Center hosts the annual Taste of Thailand Food Festival.
Subra and Potselvi Manivannan were awarded for their contribution to creating a Tamil entertainment group and in establishing a sister city in Sri Lanka, while Su McKelthen-Polish was recognized for her work at the Buddhist Meditation Center, which hosts the annual Taste of Thailand Food Festival. McLaren Macomb Diversity and Inclusion Board, Michigan Schools, and Government Credit Union and the MOMs Group at Holy Martyrs Chaldean Catholic Church were all also honored for their work.
Michelle Oh, from the Philippines, was awarded for her contribution to educating Filipino-American communities about the importance of civic participation.
“We encourage the city and the community to be engaged,” Oh says. “To increase the social capital in our community, improve the quality of life, and to make this a better place to live today, and for the generations to come after us.”
The ethnic committee also serves as a forum for dealing with issues and concerns of residents, and chairperson Kozeta Elzhenni admits it’s not always perfect between the city’s groups. When the construction of a mosque was proposed on 15 Mile Road in 2015, there was a lot of push-back from residents, especially the Chaldean community—a minority group who immigrated from Iraq. It was a touchy issue. But the community was determined not to let it divide them.
Kozeta Elzhenni is chairperson of the Sterling Heights Ethnic Community Committee.
“It brought a lot of clashes between Muslim and Iraqi people,” Albanian-born Elzhenni says. “But everything has settled down, its ok. Communication between both groups helped, they sat down and spoke.”
Iraqi-born Susan Kattula grew up in Sterling Heights and is vice president on the Warren Consolidated School Board, as well as working as an ambassador for refugees and immigrants in the city. She says while objections to the mosque may flare up again, it’s about recognizing people's concerns and addressing them.
“Many of the people that were really debating it just had some scars, they were still hurt,” Kattula says. “We put a committee together and worked through it.”
Elzhenni says being free to communicate with each other breaks down barriers. Her advice to new residents? Get out and meet your neighbors.
“That’s the way you get to know your city. Volunteer as much as you can, so you can see how things work.”