In fall 2020, the City of Wyoming enlisted Dr. Rik Stevenson to engage city staff, including police and fire departments, in cultural competency training. A lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Florida, Stevenson also has Grand Rapids roots. He once pastored a Christian Reformed church here and taught African American studies at Grand Valley State University and The Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.
Dr. Rik Stevenson
"It is important that those in leadership acknowledge that our country is frayed on all sides by racial, cultural and gender unrest. Therefore, the leaders should train and prepare their people for the inevitable,” Stevenson says. “That is a shift in the way our country looks and functions. Those who are aware and prepare will be successful with societal sustainability, those who don't will eventually become extinct."
As of January 2022, all but 10 of Wyoming’s employees have taken part — and those remaining are scheduled for future sessions. Sessions have also been extended to community members, with an emphasis on those who are active on the city’s boards and commissions.
“We have a long history of doing diversity-type training with our staff … [and] we have records back to 1991 of training with staff on diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Curtis Holt, city of Wyoming manager. “In 2020, we had the opportunity to have a discussion with Dr. Stevenson. He hit the marks on the things we wanted to talk about. These aren’t really diversity, equity inclusion sessions as much as cultural competency sessions.”
Wyoming holds the sessions in small groups of 15 or 20 so that everyone attending will feel at ease taking part in conversations that aren’t always comfortable.
“At the time that he was here early on, there were a lot of things going on in the world with the different issues that police departments are facing. This was somewhat difficult to bring to the police department at that time. They felt like they were being attacked,” Holt says. “Dr. Stevenson was able to bridge that with them and have very fruitful and honest discussions about those issues. One of the most rewarding things out of this was to hear police officers talk about how rewarding their discussion was.”
Wyoming plans on having Stevenson back at least once a year to train new employees. In addition, the city has created a diversity, equity and inclusion committee to keep the conversation going. The committee includes city staff from all levels and represents different races, ethnicities and faith traditions.
“The City of Wyoming has grown increasingly diverse over the last 10 to 20 years,” Holt says. “For us to be effective in our roles in government, we need to make sure that we're reaching those diverse communities, not just communicating outwardly with them, but also engaging them in the process. Because, you know, government is only as good as those who get involved in it.”
Holt says that Wyoming’s efforts aren’t only about diversity, equity and inclusion, but also about ensuring that city services and government are accessible to all residents.
“It’s not only that they are comfortable reaching out to a police officer or getting help from a firefighter but also coming into City Hall and paying the water bill, showing up to a council meeting or volunteering for a board or commission. We really need an engaged citizenry,” Holt says. “We're starting in a good place, talking about relationships of respect and trust. The more we can build on those relationships of respect and trust, the more we can put racism behind us.”
Written By Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Dr. Rik Stevenson and City of Wyoming