Ottawa County’s diversity forum brought in top DEI leaders, reminded – “equity work is for everyone"

Michigan’s top diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders took center stage at Ottawa County’s fourth annual diversity forum held November 15 — its first since hiring Robyn Afrik as the county’s first DEI director. This year’s forum highlighted a new partnership with the City of Holland; a new venue, the Holland Civic Center; the value of public sector networking; and that diversity, equity, and inclusion work is for everyone.

Over 300 attended Journeys to Equity in Public Service and participated in workshops and panel discussions led by Michigan’s top DEI practitioners – who came together to share knowledge, challenges, and successes of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. During a conversation earlier this month on WGVU, Afrik emphasized that the diversity forum has taken place in years prior. However, 2019 is the first to scale, given its new partnerships designed to reach the larger community – and ongoing effort to engage with government agencies across county lines to network and learn from one another.

“When my office came into play, members of the cultural intelligence committee said we need to focus on some of the work the DEI office is going to be doing in the future; and equity is part of that,” Afrik said in a conversation with Keith Van Beek, city manager for The City of Holland.  “So, we said, let’s look across Michigan and highlight the fact that we have the first racial equity officer in the State – we have two other racial equity officers across including my new office; and then highlight Grand Rapids and Kent County because they have been doing this work and there are some great best practices.”

DEI practitioners offered their expertise during workshops such as “Leading with Racial Equity,” co-presented by Stacy Stout, director of the Office of Equity and Engagement with the City of Grand Rapids. On networking, Stout says, “Government employees need to gather at events such as the Ottawa County Diversity Forum and nationally with the Government Alliance on Race and Ethnicity (GARE) – to share what is and is not working; and to support each other to continue to lead with racial equity and authentic community engagement.”

She adds, “This work, equity, is somewhat new to the sector. We have had diversity and inclusion in name or practice for decades; but, leading with racial justice to undo the impact and presence of racism is new. So, we are figuring it out together and with community partners.”

While this year’s forum reinforced the value of networking between government agencies, according to Ottawa County’s DEI office, the driving message was that diversity, equity, and inclusion work is for everyone. “We all have a part to play and we all have a part in DEI,” Afrik reminds. “Sharing in this work with others across county lines and industry sectors ultimately benefits everyone.“The work we are doing in government supports the greater community and businesses,” she adds.  

Beyond the annual forum, there are several opportunities for individuals to network and stay connected to others involved in DEI work. A good place to start, Afrik suggests, is with a personal assessment. “Where do you want to and need to grow, learn more about, or get involved?” Do research,  she also suggests. “Learn what is happening and how to plug in.” Additionally, individuals can attend or volunteer at cultural events, which offer great networking and connections with individuals who also wish to stay involved.

Photos courtesy Ottawa County.
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