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A Community conversation about Diversity
On April 19, 2006, key community leaders and constituent groups were invited to participate in “A Community Conversation about Diversity” This initiative was co-hosted by the Livingston 2001 Diversity Council, the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the City of Howell. Leadership sponsors for the event were: Citizens Insurance, the City of Howell, Saint Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital and TRW Automotive. Contributing sponsors are: First Impression Printing & Graphics, First National Bank, Livingston County Daily Press & Argus and National City Bank of the Midwest. Diversity to be focus of community conversation.

The National Conference on Community and Justice (NCCJ) facilitated the April 19 all-day conversation, attended by 36 community people representing such areas as business, nonprofit organizations, churches, education, health care, real estate and law enforcement. NCCJ returned for each of the subsequent evening meetings. The sessions were designed to engage participants in both education and dialog concerning the social impact of diversity and its effect on the future economic vitality of the community.
At the first evening meeting three areas of tension concerning diversity were identified and the participants formed subgroups to seek solutions. The work continued during the following two meetings, concluding with an action plan.

“We were pleased with the interaction of those at the conversation and with the support we received in planning the event,” Pat Convery, president of the chamber and member of the diversity council. “With such an honest and candid exchange, we now have a better understanding of how to proceed to better define Howell as a welcoming community.”
The initial event was organized to enhance the knowledge and skills of those participating and embark on positive change for the community. All the sessions are intended to promote discussion about the economic and social impact of diversity; create a sustainable network of individuals, organizations and businesses to act on initiatives designed to help build a diverse and tolerant community; and address the community’s reputation as unwelcoming and an intolerant place for minorities.

“The whole issue of racism and how it’s impacting our country and our community is important and something we need to deal with,” said Dr. Doug Edema, chief operating officer of the hospital. “Saint Joseph Mercy Livingston is a significant employer and provider of services within this community and we understand the importance of establishing and maintaining a vibrant and growing environment. From the perspective of an employer and member of the community, we need to remain open, tolerant and diverse so we can attract a strong workforce and enhance the community to further build on the positive aspects already in place.”

The National Conference on Community and Justice (NCCJ) facilitated this multi-phase program that engaged participants in both education and dialog concerning the social impact of diversity and its effect on the future economic vitality of the community.

The April 19th session was the first event of this initiative designed to enhance the knowledge and skills of those participating and embark on positive change for the community. The opening program was a one-day diversity awareness, leadership and community development training that engaged several dozen key stakeholders in the community in facilitated discussion and strategic planning to begin work on moving the community forward in progressive ways and repairing its image to the outside world.

“We see this as an opportunity to begin defining our community attitude and image rather than just allowing others to do so for us,” said Pat Convery, president of the chamber.

The session is intended to promote discussion about the economic and social impact of diversity; create a sustainable network of individuals, organizations and businesses to act on initiatives designed to help build a diverse and tolerant community; and address the community’s reputation as unwelcoming and an intolerant place for minorities.

Facilitators

Diversity continues as focus of community conversations
Following the April 19 session entitled “A Community Conversation about Diversity,” three subsequent events were planned to continue the dialog initiated during the inaugural session. While the first event was limited by invitation to key community leaders, the following sessions scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. May 16, 30 and June 13, 2006 at the Howell Opera House were open to any interested public.

Community Conversation about Diversity results in action plan The work involved approximately 125 leaders and community members of the Howell area who met to learn more about the value of diversity and strategize on ways to promote the area as a welcoming community to everyone. Five subcommittees were formed: Media Relations, Creating Connections, Youth, Business and Community Culture. Each was charged with developing at least one program or initiative. The subcommittees report their progress at every Livingston 2001 Diversity Council board of directors meetings. Some of the projects underway include a one-day exchange of leaders and students with other communities, creation of a welcoming statement for businesses to display, a keynote address to business and community by a diversity leader and an outreach to more diverse media. The Youth subcommittee already secured funds to send two Howell High School students to Anytown USA, a camp run by the National Conference on Community and Justice.
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“All the sessions encouraged discussion about the social and economic impact of a welcoming community,” said Vic Lopez, who co-chaired the Community Conversation About Diversity. “The conversations created a network of individuals, organizations and businesses that are committed to create a welcoming, open and economically strong community that embraces diversity and the inclusion of people from all walks of life.”
“We had very strong business support for and participation in the Conversations,” said Convery. “Major businesses know that a diverse workforce and customer base is important for success—plus they know it’s the right thing to do.”

Group photo

Livingston 2001 Diversity Council is very proud and pleased with the success of the Community Conversation forum. Desiree Cooper of the Detroit Free Press wrote: “Howell looks racism in the eye and won’t blink” Desiree Cooper’s article appeared in the July 25, 2006 Free Press. The following is a copy of the article.

DESIREE COOPER: Howell looks racism in the eye and won't blink
By Desiree Cooper
Free Press Columnist
July 25, 2006

Striving for diversity
The vision for Howell's Community Conversation about Diversity is to create "a welcoming, open and economically vibrant community that embraces diversity and the inclusion of people from all walks of life, where the rights of everyone are honored." To that end, it has suggested:

  • Creating a welcoming statement that businesses can display in support of diversity.
  • Inviting a leader in the area of diversity to address the community.
  • Supporting the diversity efforts of the public schools.
  • Organizing cultural exchanges with students and community leaders.

Desiree Cooper

Some residents of Howell have spent this summer -- and the past decade -- trying to end bigotry in their area.

"A healthy community is one that accepts diversity and that clearly and outwardly rejects racism," said Lee Reeves, president of the Livingston 2001 Diversity Council.

Formed in 1989 by business, religious and community leaders, the council has tried to help the predominantly white county -- and Howell in particular -- become a more welcoming place for people from all walks of life. The group had hoped its work would be done by the time that year's kindergarteners graduated from high school in 2001, hence its name. But experience has taught them that true racial reconciliation requires constant work.

First step: Talk it out
In June, the council completed a two-month Community Conversation about Diversity, cohosted by Howell and the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation. About 150 people attended four public discussions.

At first, the council was "concerned that it would be a bunch of white people talking about diversity," said Pat Convery, a council member and president of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce. "What do we know about the black experience in our city?"

So they encouraged diverse voices to attend the conversations. Facilitators from the Detroit chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice, an anti-bigotry organization, helped guide the dialogues.

One of the facilitators, Shea Howell, was impressed that a community like Howell, which according to the last census was 96% white, is focused upon addressing racism.

"It's a community that could have chosen to stay in denial but hasn't," said Howell.

Everyone's problem

For council members, denial isn't an option.

"Our businesses were finding it difficult to hire the right people for jobs," said Convery. "People of all colors and backgrounds won't come here because of the perception that this community is close-minded."

But the council feels its efforts have ushered in change.

"There are people who say, 'I never thought of it like that,' or 'I never understood that,' " said Reeves.

"People aren't deeply racist; they just don't realize how hurtful behaviors can be. Anything we can do to prepare our kids for the diverse world is good."

Howell agreed.

"People build communities based on the white, American dream," she said.

But in our focus groups, their children are saying that the homogenous environments make them feel disadvantaged. They feel unprepared to deal with people who aren't like them."

The upshot has been to pull more people into standing committees that will report to the council bimonthly on their efforts to address diversity.
"If we keep moving forward," said Reeves, "there will be a critical moment when we'll arrive at the next level."

If you ask me, they already have.

Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.