Ottawa Co. official: Diversity problem may hurt economy

WEST OLIVE, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County is facing an “ugly challenge” with eliminating racism and discrimination, County Administrator Alan Vanderberg said Tuesday during his State of the County speech.

“I have listened to the CEOs of some of West Michigan’s top business leaders state that an inability to attract and retain global talent and create diverse teams in the future could lead to the relocation of corporate headquarters or company divisions to areas such as Chicago,” Vanderberg wrote in the speech. “Talent can be homegrown in some cases, but the competition to lure global talent is happening and it will only intensify. The future prosperity of West Michigan hinges upon eliminating racism and discrimination.”

At last Census count, Ottawa County’s population was 93 percent white.

Vanderberg said that he is not saying that the residents of the county are racist.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “Certainly every place on the planet has people who are racist, but what we’re after is how can we be more outwardly welcoming to people who are different and not being indifferent.”

Being more welcoming to people of different races, ethnicities, religions isn’t just a neighborly concern anymore, Vanderberg said: It’s an economic one.

“If you have some of the top CEOs in West Michigan saying this is something that could be a threat in the future, shouldn’t we act today to try to remove that threat? I’m sure that there’s healthy job opportunities for future generations of West Michigan residents and those new folks that come in,” Vanderberg said.

To do their part to change the trend, about half the county staff has gone through racial equity training over the past year.

“We’re not looking at this as blame, shame and guilt. We’re not saying, ‘Oh, we’re horrible people in Ottawa County and we need to change our culture.’ What we’re saying is there’s a global economy that’s taking place all around us, and it’s changed the dynamic of who employers are looking to hire and where they come from,” Vanderberg said.


The excerpt from the State of the County address discussing diversity efforts:

“We must pursue and welcome diversity, including the full range of human differences, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, ability and more. Our vision is that Ottawa County is the location of choice to live, work and play. We will fail unless we also create an Ottawa County where all people want to stay. The mission of the Cultural Intelligence Initiative of Ottawa County is to promote an environment where all employees, residents and visitors are valued and welcome. We believe our employees can make an enormous difference. Last year we embarked upon a training partnership with the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. To date, 507 Ottawa County employees have participated in the Racial Equity Training. These will continue until all staff have been reached. The training builds understanding; shows how we can work to eliminate the impacts of unintentional bias; and focuses on solutions for diversity challenges. During this year, we will further enlist the support of the alliance to explore where bias exists within our organization and how it can be eliminated. Theodore Roosevelt dealt with similar issues as new waves of immigrants from Western Europe experienced discrimination from the well-established population. During this time he said, “This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in, unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.” Likewise, Ottawa County will not be a good place for any of us to live, unless we make it a good place for all of us to live.”

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