Traverse City has improved, but there’s still a white elephant in the room
Three years ago, when well-established comedian Sinbad took the stage at the Traverse City Winter Comedy Festival, he peered out at the packed State Theatre crowd and joked that he actually was the only black person in the building. His opening zinger became a theme that he returned to over and over again, prompting scattered laughs, but mostly awkward silence from an all-white and mostly silver haired crowd.
What Sinbad discovered was one of northern Michigan’s most striking characteristics that urbanites, minorities and tourists often notice when they visit our region. Whereas, the Grand Traverse region boasts striking natural beauty, a delicious and diverse culinary scene, a thriving downtown, and an active, outdoorsy lifestyle, our population is predominantly white.
That homogeneity has occasionally hampered our ability to attract high-level talent, particularly when the ideal candidate is a person of color. Here’s an example. In 2010, the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (which was then called the Michigan Land Use Institute) wanted to hire a Louisville native and African-American woman named Cassia Herron for a policy position. Herron and her family visited during a beautiful week in September, fell in love with the autumn scenery, and were impressed by our organization and the opportunity to work here. In the end, though, Herron didn’t feel comfortable raising her two kids, then ages 4 and 2, in a predominantly white community where they might be the only children of color in their classes. She passed up the job.
“I remember we arrived late at night at the Holiday Inn and opening the blinds the next morning; it was beautiful! I felt a sense of opportunity and freshness here,” Cassia remembered. “But in the end I wasn’t ready to put my two kids in that environment so far from home. I’m wary every single day of the culture where my kids go to school. Plus, if I were to do (policy and organizing) work in an all white space, and not being from Michigan, I wasn’t sure how I’d be received. If I had been single and didn’t have kids, the opportunity could have been perfect.”
Herron stayed in Kentucky and is involved with community and economic development policy. She is currently organizing a cooperatively-owned grocery in one of Louisville’s downtown historic neighborhoods, and promoting energy policy, environmental justice and local government accountability. That’s important work. Louisville’s gain.
In the wake of a presidential election that has forced communities nationwide to examine the importance of tolerance and inclusiveness toward minorities, some people of color in Traverse City have wondered whether this is really their community.
Advocate in position of power
Three days after the election, an off-duty police officer sporting a Confederate flag confronted and provoked a peaceful “Love Trumps Hate” rally in a public park. The misstep provoked international headlines. He was suspended from the force and resigned three days later. But in the wake of the uncomfortable incident, some members of minority communities opted to maintain a lower profile.
Traverse City Police Chief Jeff O’Brien immediately launched an investigation that led to the resignation of the offending officer. “I hear you!” Chief O’Brien wrote in a public Facebook note to the community. “Let me assure you that we hold our officers to a higher standard.” O’Brien drew praise from community leaders and citizens who uphold tolerance and inclusivity as their core values. To many, he represented the best face of Traverse City.
For his positive efforts, the Traverse City Commission recently named O’Brien “city employee of the year”. The police department needs to keep building relationships with the city’s communities of distinction — its minority and LGBT communities, O’Brien told the Record-Eagle. He said that the Confederate flag incident shouldn’t be a setback to those efforts. “I’m really proud of my department, I’m really proud to be a police officer and proud to be a part of this community,” he said. “I think this community is so open-minded and they accept people, and I want to maintain that.”
Fast forward to this consequential week in mid-January, which is bookended between MLK Day and the presidential inauguration. Once again, it’s worth asking how diverse and tolerant Traverse City is, and how we as a community can become more inclusive in order to attract diverse citizens, workers and tourists, and make everyone feel welcome to our freshwater shores?
The questions are important because if Traverse City wants to grow and keep a high-skilled, creative and entrepreneurial workforce of tomorrow — hallmarks of our New Economy Project — we need to project a genuine image that we embrace all people, even those who don’t look like the crowd that watched Sinbad perform at the State Theatre on that evening in February 2014.
Days after the Confederate flag incident, the Groundwork Center published this letter to the community titled “Diversity and Tolerance are Good for Traverse City Community and Business.” In it, CEOs and other community leaders offered their own thoughts about the importance of tolerance to protect our outward image and for future economic growth.
“25-34 year olds are the most racially diverse, inclusive generation, and the largest consuming demographic, in the history of our country,” wrote Chris Treter, co-founder of Higher Grounds Trading Co. “In 2016, a healthy, responsible business community requires a growing professional workforce. Innovation depends on the creativity that is formed when a community values all genders, religions, languages, cultures, and histories to form a better future, together, for all of us.”
Embrace of LGBTQ community
Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers is at the center of this conversation. He moved here from Boston in the late ’80s, but at that time in northern Michigan, he said, “you’d still hear the ‘N word’ used”. Carruthers was once asked to remove an AIDS Awareness button from his shirt before entering a voting booth. Homophobia was still pervasive at that time. (We interviewed Carruthers yesterday as part of our new Facebook Live series.
But things have changed. Downtown Traverse City is thriving with life and commerce, and that has attracted urban millennials, cultural festivals, top-notch restaurants, and the kind of attitude that embraces, rather than fears, diversity.
Most of all, this region has grown inclusive of its gay community. In November 2011, the year after Cassia Herron decided not to move to Traverse City, an overwhelming 63 percent of city residents voted to keep an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance that the city commission had passed the previous month. Last May, Carruthers, who is openly gay, was elected mayor. Twenty four hours after the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando in mid-June, a citizen covertly covered the steps that lead to Clinch Park with duct tape to form a rainbow flag. Two weeks later, Jenn and Elon Cameron organized the largest Pride Parade in Michigan: thousands marched from Little Fleet down Front Street.
Embracing gay rights, just like embracing ethnic and religious diversity, is not just the right thing for a community to do — it’s also good for attracting talent and the workforce of tomorrow. That means business, and jobs. A Bridge Magazine story from March 2014 hammered home this point by connecting Michigan’s restrictions on gay and abortion rights to the state’s brain drain and difficulty recruiting young talent. (This story was published before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.)
“Increasingly, the economy is driven by talent,” Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on boosting the state’s economy and talent pool, told Bridge. “Talent comes in every dimension, and if you are not welcoming, they are not coming here.”
Next steps toward promoting diversity
What do you think? Is Traverse City a tolerant and inclusive place? Can the region do a better job of embracing and promoting diversity? If so, how? And if you’re a member of a minority group or person of color, does this place feel like your community?
Here are a few questions and next steps we think our region could consider:
• Can we highlight Native American-owned businesses or workers in the Grand Traverse region?
• Are there other rural communities (in Michigan or elsewhere) that do a embracing diversity and tolerance?
• Which minority business initiatives could this region pursue?
• Could Young Professional groups make this a priority?
• Should Traverse City join the Government Alliance on Race and Equity?
• Are there programs that support minorities who serve on boards of directors or serve in elected positions?
• What role can the Traverse City Human Rights Commission play?
What do you think?
Jacob Wheeler is the communications manager at Groundwork. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.