Report: Racial disparities cost West Michigan millions on economic front


by Cynthia Price, Legal News
based on information from
Michigan Dept. of Civil Rights

The West Michigan Leadership Collaborative is a group created by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), composed of local leaders in business, civil rights organizations, and social justice groups, including several lawyers.

At the beginning of June, the Collaborative and MDCR released a report, The High Cost of Racial Disparities, with a focus on West Michigan.

Though many reports make strong recommendations, The High Cost of Racial Disparities is somewhat out of the ordinary in that it states repeatedly its intent to be a community call to action and broaden the circle of community leaders, whether official or grassroots, who have a stake in improvement.

When John Golaszewski   opened up the MDCR Grand Rapids office, he set about putting together the Leadership Collaborative, inviting those who either worked for an advocacy organization or related agency, were involved with the Grand Rapids Public Schools or local colleges and universities, or who filled a Diversity role within a business.

These included such people as Scott Ayotte, the diversity specialist at Spectrum Health; Brenda Brame of the United Way; David Bulkowski of Disability Advocates of Kent County; consultant Martha Gonzalez-Cortes, who sits on the MDCR’s Hispanic Commission; Connie Dang, multicultural affairs at Grand Valley; Nancy Haynes of the Fair Housing Center, who is an attorney; John Helmholdt and Teresa Neal of GRPS; Teresa Hendricks and Cindy Silva of Migrant Legal Aid; Cle Jackson of the NAACP; Joseph D. Jones of the Urban League; Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering; writer and consultant Latesha Lipscomb; Lisa Mitchell of GRACE; Roberto Torres of the Hispanic Center; and both Miriam Aukerman and Julia Henshaw of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Grand Rapids office.

“We had no direct contribution to the report,” Henshaw says. “We’re very interested in what people are doing and what’s going on in this area, so we hope to be more involved now that the report is done.”

The Collaborative, which was one among several regional collaboratives MDCR established, was given the charge of facilitating common strategies and cooperative resource development to enhance the common impact on civil and human rights issues.

It has three main objectives:

—Prevent or resolve civil and human rights concerns in the region;

—Sustain existing initiatives;

—Create new initiatives aimed at enhancing the overall quality of life for residents of West Michigan.

According to Leslee Fritz, Deputy Director of MDCR, when the Collaborative started meeting, there was a discussion — one that Henshaw says took a “very open approach” — about what could actually be done on the subject of racial justice.

“Each organization and participant group, whether a business or advocacy organization, wanted to ensure that the work of the collaborative was not duplicative of work already going on,” explains Fritz. “So they decided that in order to aid the existing work, they really needed to focus on disparities and the impact of disparities, and wanted to get sound information about them.

“They secured a grant through us [MDCR] from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Woodrick Center took over writing the report,” she adds. Tamber Bustance of the Woodrick Center, now at  Grand Rapids Community College, and GRCC’s Executive Director for Equity Affairs Eric Williams pulled together data and wrote The High Cost of Disparities.

The report examines the impact of racial and ethnic disparities in three areas - economic development, education and health care - on the economy of West Michigan. It  is a compilation of recent research on disparities between racial and ethnic groups, shifting demographics in west Michigan, and the potential economic benefit to the region from reducing inequality.

 Drawing from data on employment and wages in the greater Grand Rapids area, the study estimates the region would have enjoyed a 9% increase in total economic output for 2012 if disparities in household income among all racial groups were eliminated. Those disparities cost the region’s families more than $3.3 million in GDP in 2012 alone.

The report, which can be found at
EquityReport_490697_7.pdf, also examines shifting demographics in parts of Kent County, with a current and projected increase in the population of people of color. Between 2009 and 2014, the African American population in Grand Rapids / Wyoming increased 5%, Hispanic population 10%, Asian population 13% and people who identify as two or more races 20%. In many neighborhoods, racial and ethnic minorities are becoming the majority population.

 “We know that west Michigan, just like the rest of the state, is rapidly becoming more and more diverse,” commented Fritz. “At the same time, the research makes it clear that too many minority families are being left out of economic development and educational opportunities, and access to health care. The bottom line is that west Michigan will not become the vibrant economic region it can be until these disparities are eliminated.”

Fritz says the Collaborative has determined the next steps to be conducting both public meetings with broad participation, and one-on-one discussions with individual community leaders and stakeholders. “The Collaborative members will present the report, make sure people understand the data and ask them, now that we know this and we’re clear on what the impact is, what do we as a community do about it?”