In the past several years, Ottawa County has contracted with Lakeshore’s Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) to assist in building capacity to promote racial equity. LEDA is an independent non-profit, founded in 1996, which works to dismantle barriers to ensure people of all ethnic backgrounds have equal access and opportunity to participate fully in the life of the community.
The start of concerted racial equity work in Ottawa County began with The Board of Commissioners adoption of the Four Cs Strategic Organizational Improvement Initiative (Customer Service, Cultural Intelligence, Creativity, and Communication) in 2012.
The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA)’s annual Summit on Race and Inclusion helped to move the Cultural Intelligence initiative forward. The 2014 keynote speaker was john powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. The previous year, Terry Keleher, director of Race Forward’s Chicago chapter, had spoken at the Summit. Both speakers focused on the concept of implicit bias and its effects in everyday life, especially the workplace. Following this conference and several networking phone calls, Ottawa County in partnership with LEDA, joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) to implement best practices for advancing racial equity work in the county. Through this partnership with GARE, Ottawa County has been able to access information, best practices, and governmental connections to inform their racial equity work. In addition to materials and resources provided by GARE, the periodic conferences provided a platform for Ottawa to learn from other governmental jurisdictions about what was (or wasn’t) working well and to be informed of related cutting edge research.
In order to provide staff with a shared framework and common language to engage and understand racial equity, LEDA is in the process of training 900 full-time and regular part-time Ottawa County employees in a workshop focusing on implicit bias and racism. The workshop explores the dimensions of a system of advantage based on race though an analysis of internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural realities shaping racial inequities today. Employees not only learn about the differences between personal prejudice and systemic racism, but they also engage in dialogue with one another on how racism and implicit bias get in the way of their good intentions. Staff are also given time to brainstorm ways to minimize the role that implicit bias plays in their respective departments, offices and courts. Employees have been very receptive to these educational workshops and some have even commented that it has been the best professional development they have ever received.
Additionally, LEDA has implemented an organizational systems review in order to identify areas of success and also barriers that exist in achieving a diverse racial and ethnic workforce. The goal of this review is to understand current outcomes, what is currently being done to promote diversity and inclusion, and how the county can design a system that will create sustainable, long-term equitable outcomes. LEDA will develop a customized report of findings, including a set of recommendations for Ottawa County to consider implementing. For example, in examining current recruitment and hiring practices, LEDA will look at the qualifications listed in a job description and consider how job descriptions and minimum qualifications can ensure the recruitment of the strongest, best-qualified candidates. This review will begin with an analysis of established policies and procedures by working closely with the Human Resources Department with the aims of reviewing potential barriers to inclusion along with already existing practices that promote diversity and inclusion.
One of the key factors in the advancement for racial equity in Ottawa County has been the personal commitment, investment, and leadership of the County Administration. Al Vanderberg, Co-Chair of the Summit on Race and Inclusion Advisory Council, has been involved with LEDA since 2004, as a member of the CEO Advisory Committee. Vanderberg’s leadership helped to pave the way toward racial equity training of staff as well as implementation of the organizational systems review.
Ottawa County was one of two locations in the U.S. to participate in the Transforming White Privilege Project, funded by the W.K. Kellog Foundation. Key staff from the County Administrator’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and Human Resources Office participated in this pilot held in Grand Haven in February, 2015.
Racial equity work has been growing in Ottawa County government for over five years now. Strong leadership from County Administrator Vanderberg and others will help to sustain continued work in the coming years. LEDA and Ottawa County staff expect that the organizational systems review will identify and secure new changes to advance equity. LEDA is also providing coaching and support and working on additional data analysis of disparities between different communities in Ottawa County.