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The Journey to Eliminate Racism

Is it possible to end racism? PRFC thinks so. Partners for a Racism-Free Community (PRFC) in Grand Rapids offers an organized and measured program to help individuals and organizations become racism-free.
Is it possible to eliminate racism? A new organization in Grand Rapids believes so.

Partners for a Racism-Free Community (PRFC) offers an organized, challenging and measured program to help individuals, organizations and businesses become racism-free. This new venture was developed over the last six years by the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism (GRACE) as a result of their Summits on Racism. PRFC is currently operating with a grant received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2011.

PRFC defines racism-free as “the individual and systemic condition achieved when all persons, regardless of skin color, feel welcomed and wanted in all places and treat others in the same way.”

Why is it important for greater Grand Rapids to become racism-free? Many people believe their community or organization already celebrates diversity, but being racism-free is much more than that. What’s often missing is inclusion and equity -- a true sense of belonging and equal treatment for all.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population in Grand Rapids is 64.6% Caucasian, 20.9% African American, 15.6% Hispanic or Latino, 1.9% Asian, 0.7% American Indian and Alaska Native and 0.1% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.

Of the two largest non-Caucasian groups, 61.4% of African Americans and 50.4% of Hispanics/Latinos experienced residential segregation in Grand Rapids, based on a study by MetroTrends. The study also showed income and employment levels are much lower in these two groups compared to that of Caucasians.

Racism is experienced by people of color regardless of income or social status. Eddie Tadlock, an African American who is the Assistant General Manager for DeVos Place and DeVos Performance Hall, says he sometimes feels like “an invisible man” when noticing people looking past him on the street.

He’s also learned that how he’s dressed often makes a difference in how people who don’t know him treat him. When he’s wearing a suit, people are more likely to approach him. However, if he goes to the mall wearing jeans and a t-shirt, he gets a different reaction.

“Store security wants to follow me around,” Tadlock says, adding that even with a suit on, people sometimes think he works at the store “and ask me to get them something, in their size.”

Linda Quist, Finance and Development Director at PRFC, says racism in our community is often institutional and systemic and everything points back to this. Many industries were started well before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Quist thinks this is one of the reasons the “the white hierarchy” stays in place. She adds that many minorities are the lowest paid, receive fewer promotions and are the first to lose their jobs. PRFC wants to change this, realizing that inclusive environments won’t be possible unless everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Quist admits it won’t be easy to “turn history around overnight.”

“Eliminating racism is a journey,” she says.  

PRFC’s assessment and credentialing program

For three years, a group of volunteers worked on developing a set of standards, an assessment process and a credentialing program as a way for individuals, organizations and businesses to measure the process of becoming racism-free.

The assessment process is made up of two parts that help participants reach three different partner designations: Provisional Partner, Full Partner and Credentialed Partner. So far, eight companies and nonprofit organizations have been awarded certification for completing PRFC’s assessment and credentialing program.

Participants are expected to identify and document positive actions based on the following six standards developed to measure organizational behavior:
1.     Leadership engagement
2.     Internal policies, practices and processes
3.     External collaborations and relationships
4.     Contractor, supplier and vendor practices
5.     Client, congregation, customer and/or marketplace practices
6.     Measurement and results

The first step is to make sure the organization’s leadership has made a full commitment to becoming racism-free. Documentation to measure this is shown in how they communicate their commitment to the organization.

Measurement for all standards can be demonstrated through documented memos; hiring and recruitment practices; mentorship programs; surveys with customers, vendors and suppliers; seminars offered to employees; board minutes and other written documentation.

PRCF Executive Director Lisa Mitchell stresses that they “don’t want to scare anyone” and organizations can take up to three years to submit information.

“The assessment and credentialing program is a process and a journey, not a win-lose thing,” says Mitchell. “We’re not judgmental or critical.”

Feedback on the PRFC program

Staff members from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation attended PRCF’s annual summit a few years ago and heard about the assessment and credentialing program.

“Naturally, being an organization of over-achievers, we immediately wanted to pursue it,” says Amanda St. Pierre, PR & Marketing Specialist at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “Being inclusive and welcoming of all people is incredibly important to us here at Grand Rapids Community Foundation. I think we initially thought the process would be a piece of cake -- we were already committed to diversity and inclusion at every level of the organization, after all. But not so, this was an incredibly rigorous process.”

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation submitted documentation on everything from policies, to emails, communication pieces and meeting notes. St. Pierre said her organization ended up with two full 2-inch ring binders of documents and evidence.

She said the great conversations had along the way and the process forced her and the rest of the staff to identify why it was important to specifically state that they are committed to becoming racism-free, not just diverse and inclusive. The GRCF updated a few policies and changed the wording of some statements to clarify what the organization stands for. They were awarded the Full Partner Designation this spring.
“It was challenging, but also very beneficial for our organization,” St. Pierre says.

Cascade Engineering, a manufacturing company who was awarded Full Partnership Designation last August, displays their commitment to becoming a racism-free company in a letter from owner Fred Keller on the front page of a diversity calendar offered to customers, vendors and suppliers. Cascade is hoping to be the first manufacturing plant to be awarded the Credentialed Partner Designation with plans to be audited for the second assessment program soon.

When Cascade began the process, the staff here, much like GRCF, also thought they were already succeeding as a racism-free company. Senior Manager of Environmental Safety and Sustainability Sharon Darby says, “We thought we were pretty far along in the process. We soon found out we had a long way to go.”

Darby says her company initially became involved with PRCF as a way to enhance the corporate culture. Since they are a manufacturing company, the process is more complex due to working through the supply chain.

As part of their commitment to a racism-free company, Cascade Engineering rented the Jim Crow exhibit from Ferris State University. Each employee had the opportunity to view the historical display with time for dialog afterward.

Darby thinks PRFC’s program is structured with a well-thought-out process on how to implement change. She says it’s inexpensive, but “it’s not easy.”

Going forward toward a racism-free community

Right now, PRFC is busy planning monthly Lunch and Learn topics for the fall and an annual forum to be held in February or March. They’re also hoping to move out of the GRACE offices into their own space and hire an administrative assistant in the near future.  

Mitchell says she would like to “create a tipping point” toward a racism-free community and she believes awareness of the issue is the first step.

PRFC encourages us as individuals to expect equality, because no one can truly experience equality until everyone does.

Visit Partners for a Racism-Free Community to find out more information.

Heidi Stukkie is our Do Good editor and a freelance writer, graphic designer and marketing consultant. She is currently finishing her B.A. in Professional Writing and Journalism at Grand Valley State University. She advises everyone to finish college when young because doing it in your forties is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. Heidi is slightly obsessed with the news and not much happens in the world she’s not aware of. You can find her on Twitter at @HeidiSocial.


First and second photos: Lisa Mitchell is the Executive Director of GRACE.

Third and fourth photos: Lisa Mitchell leads a meeting at their headquarters downtown.

Fifth photo: Board member Faye Richardson-Green participates in a meeting with GRACE downtown.

Photography by ADAM BIRD
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