Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Battle Creek’s Human Relations Board is poised to give a much greater voice to residents who have been left out of discussions about social equity and racial justice issues in the community, says Kathy Szenda-Wilson, a City Commissioner representing Ward 4 and the newly-appointed chairperson of that board.
“What it boils down to is that we are charged with increasing constructive communications with all people regardless of their status and to provide equitable access to community resources for all,” Szenda-Wilson says.
The Human Relations Board
is in the process now of reviewing applications for six open positions on the 15-member board. Szenda-Wilson says eight applications have already been received, signaling an interest that has not been there before.
“The system has not created a space for them. We’ve had a conversation about recruitment, who we want to have a seat at the table, so that at each crossroad when we’re trying to make a decision, we can be thoughtful and know who we need to talk to, who benefits, and who it might be harmful to. We want to be inclusive of all identities, not just around race. Our task is to be able to get equity through a much broader lens while simultaneously being inclusive of all.”
Among the Human Relations Board’s current applicants is a disabled individual who represents the needs of the city’s disabled population. Szenda-Wilson says members of this community and other communities that are largely invisible to those who are not a part of them will be lifted up when talking about the services provided or resources available to them.
When filling the current vacancies, she says among the questions that are being asked is, “Whose perspective is missing right now?’ We know we definitely have a gap with the Latino and Hispanic community and we will be working on recruitment efforts in those communities. Based on applicants we’ve got so far, we have youth, the Burmese community, the African American community, and a retired law enforcement individual who says if this not the place for her, she just wants to be engaged somehow.”
The African American Collaborative
is hoping to have a member of their organization on the HRB, says Kyra Wallace, President and CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League. The Collaborative is an initiative of the Urban League.
Within the structure of the African American Collaborative people are able to have ample opportunities to have their voices heard, she says. The AAC is now strategizing about successfully implementing tactics based on what they’ve heard from the African American community in terms of what they want to see in the city.
“We know there is an application process and we have access to the application as everyone does. We’re being very intentional about speaking with individuals working closely with the Collaborative to ensure that those things we discuss and talk about and what we want to see happen in our community is represented on the board,” Wallace says.
“The actual work of the board needs to be brought to the city’s attention. The appropriate departments and service areas will be the ones to change those things that the board brings to their attention. The board is creating a space for conversations to be had. Those voices need to be representative and all-inclusive.”
As the Human Relations Board goes about its work to give a voice to all residents, the city is partnering with the African American Collaborative on an Equity Audit to determine where the city is on race relations in terms of internal policies, procedures, and practices, Wallace says. Requests for Proposals have been sent out and an organization will be contracted with to conduct the audit once the applicants have been narrowed down and interviews are done.
The Equity Audit is the result of ongoing conversations the city has been having with members of the AAC Systems Priority Team.
“This was one of the action items to get us to the place we’re trying to get to ultimately,” Wallace says.
Szenda-Wilson says this will give city leaders the opportunity to see what they’re doing well and where improvements can be made.
The Need for Diversity and Inclusion
Chris Lussier, who is beginning his fifth year as a Human Relations Board member, says the groundwork to create a more diverse representation on the HRB became a focus under the leadership of former Vice Mayor Susan Baldwin who chaired that board at the time. She decided not to seek re-election in 2020.
“There was a recognition that certain communities or perspectives were not represented,” says Lussier, the city’s Community Development Manager. “I think Kathy has embraced that. We will take some time and build some consensus around what are the things we’d like to tackle and what is our mission.”
Once new members are seated, Szenda-Wilson says she’d like to schedule a retreat to define an equity statement and discuss priorities, including long- and short-term goals and how the board will hold itself accountable to the city.
“We want to make sure we’re focused on things that are typical of a lot of things that happened in the last year around racial equity in the country and in the city. There was a lot of movement around criminal justice and public safety last year,” Lussier says.
During the Human Relations Board’s most recent meeting, Police Chief Jim Blocker was among those who attended to learn and listen. He plans to have an ongoing role as a contributor. He says he supports efforts to ensure that all voices are heard, adding, “As a city, we should look for opportunities to provide a place for those unheard voices. I think that’s what’s critical and has to be recognized.”
Chief Blocker sees the real advantage of having an ongoing dialog with the Human Relations Board as giving him the opportunity and an official space where he can answer questions about incidents that come up or new programs that are being put in place, such as the use of body cameras or drones by police officers. He also is anticipating conversations about incidences with police that garner national headlines such as the murder of George Floyd and what is the local impact.
“This is an opportunity to accurately describe what our police culture is like here and talk about how we have either moved to adjust policies or already have those policies on paper that will not allow what happened with George Floyd and other African Americans to happen here,” Blocker says.
While there have always been varying avenues by which people can be heard, Wallace says the degree of attention paid to them depended on what they wanted to talk about. She says this selective listening is no longer an option.
“Social justice and racial equity are hot topics right now. We’re in a space right now in our country where it’s necessary because of the injustices that have taken place, we have to have conversations about how do we stop, eradicate, or reverse what’s happening so that we can live in a community where we all feel welcome, safe, and wanted.”
No Longer Be Ignored
Szenda-Wilson says she has not heard specifics from community residents who feel like city officials have not listened to them, but she has heard from people who have been marginalized by others.
“There are members of our Burmese community who have shared with me that they have had people in Battle Creek utter things to them about not belonging. To those of us who don’t share that mindset this is so mind-boggling,” Szenda-Wilson says. “When we open up our ears and in we’re in relationship with folks, we begin to hear their stories. We say we are a welcoming city, but what does that mean? Even if the city claims that, what have we done to bring the city along?”
COVID-19 further reinforced the importance of working on social justice issues and racial inequities as those inequities are being accentuated during the pandemic. And videos taken by ordinary citizens are providing proof of the atrocities “for those of us who have known for a long time that this is happening in people’s lives. You can no longer ignore them,” Szenda-Wilson says. “The climate has changed and there’s the realization that you cannot be neutral, you’re either racist or anti-racist.”
Since its inception in the early 1960s, the Human Relations Board has at various points in time been very active and also inactive. Lussier says the Board was essentially dormant in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 2016 it was reconstituted after then-Commissioner Andy Helmboldt saw the need to bring it back.
“He put it on my radar. He saw a need to be doing something with it,” Lussier says of Helmboldt. “Happening at the same time, the state was changing its Constitution and we weren’t allowed to collect disaggregated data by race for who you were hiring as an organization. Part of the HRB’s mission at the time was looking at our role as an Equal Opportunity Employer and was our staff reflective of the community we serve.”
The Human Relations Board’s work with Equal Opportunity Employer issues was followed by a deeper dive into documented evidence of housing discrimination in the city. Between 2015 and 2019, city officials conducted eight systematic housing investigations that showed housing discrimination occurring in the city.
Shortly after joining the Human Relations Board, Lussier suggested that it serve a role in fair housing. He says board members agreed to review housing data on an annual basis.
“When we had the systemic fair housing investigation of realtors with an emphasis on African Americans pursuing homeownership in Battle Creek, the board was the first to vet that information,” Lussier says. “That report had significant and disheartening findings. The board did really great work around vetting that and coming up with a plan about how we could be accountable to the African American community based on the findings in that report.”
That plan was passed on to city leadership which implemented significant changes to ensure that fair housing opportunities were just that – fair to all residents. This is an example of the advisory role the Human Relations Board plays within city government. It is likely that the board also will play a significant role in the Equity Audit and its outcome.
“Those are the kinds of changes we want to see, but it’s hard work and generational work,” Szenda-Wilson says. “It’s taking bold steps and being courageous enough to say this is important as a community, there’s too much exclusion among opportunities to engage and make change and that’s a form of oppression.”
“It’s been time, it’s still time and while we’re in these times we need to move forward and do what’s appropriate for the moment and because HRB had a structure we are in a place now where we have individuals sitting on the commission who are saying this is important,” Wallace says. “This is why it’s important that we vote and get people in who want to fight for justice.”