Racial equity and inclusion in St. Clair County: A conversation with Jazmyn Thomas

Waves of demonstrations have been occurring throughout the country for well over a week now, people gathered to protest police brutality and violence against African Americans, triggered largely in part by the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.

In Port Huron, a protest occurred last weekend. At least two more are planned for this week, with one happening at noon on Thursday, June 4, starting at the Black River Pavilion. Another is planned at 3 p.m. on Friday, June 5, starting at Pine Grove Park.

When talking about racial justice, the words equity and inclusion are often at the center of discussion. It’s no surprise then that the Community Foundation of St. Clair County recently formalized its Equity & Inclusion Committee. Its first focus is minority- and women-owned small businesses.

Tapped as a leader of the committee is Jazmyn Thomas. A Port Huron native, Jazmyn’s St. Clair County bona fides run deep. A graduate of Port Huron High School, Jazmyn has worked for the City’s Community Development Office. Besides leading the Community Foundation’s committee, Jazmyn is also on the committee of the Diversity Initiative of St. Clair County. Professionally, Jazmyn currently holds the position of Associate Planner for Macomb County's Community Development Office.

We wanted to ask Jazmyn Thomas about her work with the Community Foundation. Given the current state of affairs, we asked her about police brutality through the lens of inclusion and equity, too.

Jazmyn ThomasQ: The Community Foundation of St. Clair County recently formalized its Equity & Inclusion Committee, of which you've been tapped as a leader. What is it that the committee does exactly and why is it important?

A: The Equity and Inclusion Committee is a new, trailblazing philanthropic effort in St. Clair County. The committee is composed of a diverse group of people from different backgrounds that bring new and invigorating perspectives to the committee. The Committee is intentional in all our efforts and we aim to promote diversity, inclusion, and equity in St. Clair County through philanthropic methods.

Our first area of focus since forming in 2019 has been locally owned disadvantaged businesses. Disadvantaged businesses include enterprises owned by women, minority, veterans, and disabled persons. Due to the impacts of COVID-19 on small businesses in our community, our committee had our first opportunity to take action and make a difference. The committee decided to partner with the Community Foundation's Thumbcoast COVID Response Fund to hire two small business consultants: Kanchan Wankhebe of Great Workplace LLC and Shannon Schwabe from Michigan Small Business Development Center. The consults work with business owners to navigate the different resources available to them during the COVID pandemic, assist them through the application process and help build trusting and lasting relationships with the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and St. Clair County Economic Development Alliance. The consultants have provided excellent assistance so far and the feedback we have received has been wonderful.

In the future the committee will transition and adopt other initiatives that fit into our priority areas.

Q: Given the wave of demonstrations happening across the country – and even in other parts of the world – protesting not only the death of George Floyd but police violence and systemic racism against Black men and women in total, how can equity and inclusion work to eliminate the need for such demonstrations in the first place?

A: The demonstrations currently happening in response to George Floyd's death are a result of decades of systematic oppression and excessive force at the hands of police. This has caused us to reach a boiling point in our country. In order to even begin correcting and remedying these issues, we need systematic changes to our criminal justice system, we need to increase financial equity and homeownership for minorities, and we need to properly fund our education systems so that all children, whether they live in wealthy community or a poor community have access to a good education.

Equity and inclusion are two key pieces to solving the problems at hand. Increasing inclusion recruiting efforts should be a priority for police departments, corporations, organizations, and communities across the nation. Requiring employees to attend diversity and inclusion training is another mechanism that should be widely adopted. There needs to be more public and private funding for equity funds and initiatives. Leveling the playing field and helping minorities tackle barriers that hold them back from achieving the same feats as their non-minority counterparts is one of the best ways we can remedy the problems we're currently facing.

Q: What are some challenges that we face on a local/regional level?

A: On a local level, equity for minority businesses and startups is definitely a challenge our community faces. Minority entrepreneurs do not have the same access to wealth and investment, whether it be from family or financial institutions, as their non-minority counterparts. I hope that our Committee is one small part of the solution and is able to help level the playing field for minority business owners.

Another challenge our community faces is indifference. Some people do not care about an issue if it does not impact them or someone they know. We need everyone to care about systemic racism and excessive force issues, whether it impacts them directly or not. When people band together and create a united front, we can impact change and be a powerful force. We need all people, regardless of race, to care and speak out against injustice because we are one country and we should care about what happens to our fellow citizens.

Q: What are some of the things being done within the community to combat those challenges? Can you point to any instances, individuals, and/or groups affecting positive change?

A: Education, education, education! Everyone should make it a priority to try and understand why people are upset. The best way to do this is to educate yourself. There are great books, videos and articles that discuss the history of systemic racism in America. People can also join a protest, write their elected officials, and make their voices heard. One of the most powerful ways we can have a voice is to vote and hold our elected officials accountable.

In addition to the Equity and Inclusion Committee, there are various local groups that are impacting positive change in our community. Our local branch of the NAACP and SCORE, along with some other local groups are organizing peaceful protests in the area to protest injustice. I'm also a part of the Diversity Initiative of St. Clair County which is a committee of local changemakers that will be promoting diversity in St. Clair County through various efforts. One of the best examples of positive change I've seen recently is the City of Port Huron hiring a Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator.

Q: What more needs to be done? And to that point, how can your average joe resident or business owner in St. Clair County help?

A: We need more allies to fight against injustice. An average citizen or business owner can help the cause by educating themselves first and foremost. Everyday citizens can help by making their voices heard: Write your elected officials, join a protest, give money to organizations fighting for the causes, but most importantly vote.

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