Healing Racism Group Looks Back On 10 Years

April 28, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Nearly 10 years ago, Bob Woodrick — the son of Roy Woodrick, who is the “W” of the D&W grocery store chain — was part of a panel that had a question. And in September 1997, the answer to that question, regarding this area’s diversity commitment, led the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce to form the Institute for Healing Racism.

The importance of cultural diversity came “through an awareness from Bob Woodrick,” said Sonya Hughes, vice president of Diversity Initiatives and Programs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “He brought it to the chamber and started having a conversation about cultural diversity and also the impact race has on individuals and employees and the community.”

The Chamber put together a survey on the topic that revealed employers were looking for help to address the issue of racism. In response, the Chamber created the Institute for Healing Racism, which has since served more than 150 companies and more than 1,600 individuals.

Hughes said that out of those who responded to a later survey, 58 respondents said their organizations had strategies in place to implement what was learned at the Institute for Healing Racism.

“It seems simple, and you wonder why more of us don’t recognize it,” said Hughes. “We live in a global world and we also know that communities that attract diverse talent win. Those that can embrace diversity, that have the creative mind, that have communities that are vibrant will win.

“We know, economically, Michigan needs an edge. Michigan needs to be able to compete, and to do that we have to provide the work force that companies desire. It has to be a welcoming community. It has to be a welcoming region.”

In 2007 the Chamber Coalition, which includes Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Holland and Grand Haven, commissioned a report called “Strategies for a Culturally Competent Region.” The coalition is committed to ensuring there are activities to help the region become more welcoming. It is also working on strategies and resources to help employers become more culturally competent and their work force a “diverse and creative and comfortable environment that everyone desires to be in.”

In order to measure the region’s accomplishments and goals, the coalition has formed a Regional Diversity Council, which will begin meeting in this second quarter.

Last Thursday, the Institute for Healing Racism commemorated some of its accomplishments and goals with its 10-year anniversary celebration. The event was anchored by guest speakers Woodrick and by Jim Hackett, president and CEO of Steelcase. Hackett was the first chairperson of the Cultural Diversity Council of the Grand Rapids chamber.

“It is a time for institute alumni to come together to have a celebration of the fact that as a community we are making steps to move forward,” said Hughes, alluding to the chamber’s plans to reveal some new resources for individuals and companies to help advance diversity in West Michigan.

“As a chamber, we believe that we have to celebrate our successes so it encourages us to continue on this journey. The more that we raise awareness, the more we engage our communities,” said Hughes. “We believe that business has a role in leading on becoming a more inclusive community — a more culturally competent, aware, diverse, vibrant community.”

Hughes credited the strong backing the initiative has garnered from businesses.

“For the business community to lead it, I believe it accomplishes two things: It changes the way that a company does its business, who it speaks to, who it includes in its work force, who is the user of its product; but also, if you’re working for that company, the information and the knowledge that you gain — you take that with you into your home, into your community, and it makes you even that much richer.”

The Institute for Healing Racism currently offers two programs: the 10-week reflective learning program and a two-day intensive program: Facing Racism. The chamber’s diversity initiatives also currently include the Multiracial Association of Professionals; Get in the Game; the Diversity Management Plan; and many diversity resources for the community.

Hughes said the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is the only chamber she is aware of that has any initiative focused on healing racism and the only chamber in the nation that has a division devoted to cultural diversity and competency.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Hughes. “But we’ve also really made important steps towards accomplishing our goal. To be able to celebrate diversity and to be able to include it really is going to help determine what economic successes we can have.”

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