Diversity group born from viral racist comments finding footing after COVID-19 setback
Port Huron Times Herald
Months after the viral racist comments that inspired its founding, organizers behind the Diversity Initiative of St. Clair County said they had a lot of things in motion.
The initiative came together last year after racist comments by former Marysville City Council candidate Jean Cramer made national headlines.
But the coronavirus shutdown stymied progress, organizers said, and the national unrest surrounding police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd is only more recently beginning to reignite discussions about equality with a “St. Clair County, better together” spin.
“Bringing people together that wouldn’t normally have,” said former Marysville mayor, Dan Damman, who started the group in 2019 with Kevin Watkins, local NAACP president. “… It was really going to be, I thought, a cool idea. When COVID hit and everything (was) canceled, we were left to refocus our energy.”
Now, Damman said they have a renewed “passion in everybody that’s a member of that committee to be on the forefront or a catalyst for change.”
Group is ‘stronger now’ than before COVID
By early spring, they’d been looking to launch educational efforts, largely surrounding youth.
There was the launch of an art contest for middle-schoolers, as well as plans to display work on a bus as part of a “Freedom Riders” effort preceding next year’s Martin Luther King programming. They also planned to join forces with organizations that already ran long-standing events like the NAACP’s Field Day in August and Operation Transformation’s Family Night during Blue Water Fest.
Watkins said the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shutdown, indeed, “stopped us in our tracks” but only “to a point.”
Because of COVID-19, the diversity committee went a couple months without meeting.
Following Floyd’s death May 25 and the local NAACP march for peace June 4, they said, the initiative’s begun to hold virtual meetings every two weeks instead of meeting once a month in person — all while expanding its circle to include 20-plus members.
Watkins and Damman said they’re finding diversity not just in the inclusion of people of color but with the range of community stakeholders who’ve taken an interest. Both pointed to Judge Mona Armstrong as a recent addition.
“Who’d ever think that NAACP would partner with Blue Meets Green?” Watkins said of the economic development group co-chaired by St. Clair County Board Chairman Jeff Bohm.
“We’re stronger now than we were before COVID,” Watkins added. “… We have some motivated people on board. But we don’t forget how we started. From something negative.”
‘The success will come’
During an election forum in August 2019, former Marysville City Council candidate Jean Cramer replied to a question about attracting foreign-born talent to the community by recommending they “keep Marysville a white community as much as possible.”
In follow-up discussions with media, she doubled down with comments about interracial marriage and people of color before her words went viral, making national headlines and shining a critical spotlight on the small community.
Damman announced the initiative within days, adding it would have a countywide focus, and Cramer formally dropped out of the council race, netting just a fraction of the votes in November.
Before every meeting since, Damman said, he’s asked himself about what the initiative could tangibly do that’d mean successful progress against racism to the public at large.
“I don’t know that there’s a benchmark or tangible measure of success for what we’re trying to do. But when you take a look at where we were at 10 months ago and who we have involved, how well represented and what we had going into this summer and the relationships building … the success will come. I firmly believe that. I don’t know how you quantify success when you’re talking about immense social issues.”
Watkins said he’s gotten that question from members of the public, about being a group of action versus one in name only.
“I understand people are looking in and thinking, ‘What are you guys doing? I don’t see anything,’” he said. “I hear that a lot. But you’ll see it soon, and you’ll be touched by what we’re doing.”
‘A long way to go’
There was no set timeline for re-approaching canceled plans.
But organizers acknowledged more has happened in St. Clair County communities since Cramer’s comments. And a bigger focus now has become the conversation itself.
Both Port Huron and St. Clair County Community College has founded offices of diversity, equity and inclusion. Five protests or marches have been organized in Port Huron and Marine City since Floyd’s death. The cities of Port Huron and Marysville and Port Huron Schools have adopted anti-racism resolutions with a nudge from the NAACP, and Watkins said Marysville Schools plans to join them. Most recently, Marysville administrators said they responded with disciplinary actions after a police officer shared a racially controversial post on Facebook.
In all of it, Watkins said they’re careful not to be too hard on local leaders he believes are trying their best to respond to issues.
Because Marysville City Manager Randy Fernandez and Marysville Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Wightman were also names organizers mentioned in talking about the diversity initiative’s members. There was also Jerry Johnston of MSU Extension, Pastor Kim Brown of SCORE and multiple others.
Damman looked at some of the resolutions being passed — although Port Huron’s were proposed by Councilwoman Anita Ashford — and said, “I don’t know how much of that would’ve been done if these relationships have not been built.”
Watkins said the ongoing discussion drew inspiration from an educational piece of recent Juneteenth virtual programming. He admitted the initiative may “have a long way to go.” But, if the effort has done nothing else so far, he said it’s given them a platform from which to understand others.
“How can I expect you to put things together in the big picture if you don’t understand the roots of the different issues?” he said.
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.
This content was originally published here.