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Inside Track: Dedicated to human service
Kent County administrator/controller uses experiences growing up in 1960s America to better community.
For some, the 1960s may seem like a great time to have grown up, but that wasn’t necessarily the case for many. It was the time of a sanctioned racial caste system in the United States, and as a black kid, Wayman Britt had many obstacles to overcome.
But, Britt did not let that affect his success. In fact, he said going through those times is part of what makes him who he is today. And he uses those experiences to better the community in his work as the Kent County administrator/controller.
“I was blessed having had those experiences growing up in that era,” he said. “It was tough, but we made it through.”
He remembers being one of the first black kids to get busing in his home state of North Carolina, where his father was a sharecropper. When his family moved to Flint when he was in high school, the racial tension continued.
He was the only black student on his high school basketball team, and he remembers when a fight broke out on the court between his team and an all-black team. His coach later asked “which side” he was on.
After a moment, he looked at the coach and said, “This is my team.”
“I wasn’t going to choose race over Flint (Northern High School), but I wasn’t going to choose being silent,” Britt said.
“At that point, I knew who I was. I’m an African-American. I’m a proud black man.”
No matter what happens, Britt always remembers he is a part of “the team,” whether it’s basketball or Kent County administration. That also means if he sees injustice, he will speak against it in a way the offender can understand, in an effort to better the community.
Britt has maintained that ideology throughout his career.
As president of high school student government, Britt spoke with adults about racial tensions and worked to ease some of the issues between students.
He had the same relationship with his coach while he was captain of the basketball team at the University of Michigan.
During his time on the team, he was named the defensive player of the year and earned the university's Fielding H. Yost Award for Academic and Athletic Excellence. He graduated in 1976 with a B.A. in communications and sports management.
Britt then played professional basketball for one season, appearing in seven games with the Detroit Pistons.
When the Pistons cut him, he moved to Grand Rapids in 1977.
He later was recognized for his athletic accomplishments, earning a spot in the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
He worked at a bank for a short time and then took a job at Steelcase, where he stayed over 24 years in various administration and management positions.
He credits Steelcase with a lot of professional development. As one of the people in management training, he said the company invested in helping him and his colleagues find out who they were.
During his time there, he worked to ensure all people at the company had a voice. Without going into detail, he felt, at the time, not everyone always was given proper regard for what they were able to contribute.
He said he always has been sensitive to “injustice” and would sometimes react by shutting himself out. But this was a reminder to Britt of the importance of speaking out when he feels it’s necessary.
“Since that time, I feel like I can utilize that sensitivity to what I feel and what I see to help change things, to help improve things, and that’s what I bring to the county,” he said.
To make those changes, he said it is important for everyone on “the team” to come together because each individual piece makes the whole.
“We’re all here to serve others, and we’re all here to give as much as we can give. But at the end of the day, we all have our issues. We all have our problems. Not one of us is as smart as all of us,” he said.
Britt left Steelcase in 2002 after some company reorganization. He then did some work in construction, getting his general contractor’s license, and he remembers his wife asking him if that’s really what he wanted to do.
Britt hired a company to analyze his skill set, and he realized his true passion: human service. He started getting involved with community groups and nonprofits, such as the American Red Cross.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Britt’s “first foray” in county government was his first job, cleaning the floors of Genesee County’s administration building the summer before his senior year of high school.
Years later, he became a board member of the department of health and human services in Kent County, then called the Family Independence Agency. And in 2004, he took a county job again, this time as the assistant county administrator for Kent County.
When the position of county administrator became available, he hired a team of marketers to create a six-page pamphlet expressing why he’s the right fit for the job.
Some of the accomplishments listed included spearheading the establishment of the West Michigan Sports Commission and relocating the health and human services department into a $27-million facility that included workforce development and public health services.
He was hired and began the job in January 2018.
“My purpose was to serve others,” Britt said. “I didn’t know that was connected to county government, but that’s what we do. We serve others.”
There’s a lot that happens in county government many do not realize, and without it, the county would crumble, he said.
“We set the tone for how investors look at whether they want to invest in this community,” he said, adding the county has an AAA bond rating.
Britt pointed to places like the DeVos Place and the Van Andel Arena, saying the county is responsible for the bonds that enabled their construction.
“And look at the life it brings to our community,” he said.
He said it’s the county’s role to keep taxes and property values at a level that will encourage people to move here and open businesses.
“I didn’t know these things when I worked at Steelcase,” Britt said. “I had no idea.”
He also mentioned the county’s work with PFAS-contaminated ground issues in northern Kent County.
“If it wasn’t for the health department, we would probably be in a world of hurt,” he said.
Britt’s overall work includes creating a county budget and working with the board of commissioners to make decisions.
“This is not an easy role, but I love it,” he said.
It’s a role Britt believes he was prepared for because of his experiences, everything from his childhood during the Jim Crow era to his experiences at Steelcase.
“All that success, all that opportunity, I think, was paving the way for what was next,” he said. “Now, I’m hoping to utilize those experiences, helping to grow the county’s influence and quickening the prosperity of the community.”
He said he credits his strong work ethic in part to the example set by his father, who he called the hardest-working man he’s ever met. When he was a sharecropper, sometimes he’d work all night.
Britt said he still remembers when his fourth-grade teacher told him he would be a leader one day. She did not remember telling him when he reminded her about it years later, but it’s a message he has kept in mind throughout his life as a reminder of who he could be, and who he is.