One of the reasons I have always felt particularly well-suited to my position as President and CEO at Macomb County Habitat for Humanity is because of the wealth of cultural and racial diversity that has infused my career and personal life.
Having worked in a soup kitchen, a food bank, and for the Michigan AIDS Coalition, I have had the honor of serving and working side-by-side with people who were richly diverse in every arena. From board members to staff, from donors to volunteers, the people who lifted me up and allowed my teams to serve them have been both young, more seasoned; wealthy, just starting out; African American, Hispanic, Hmong, Caucasian; straight, gay and transgender. Some have been physically and mentally challenged while many are very healthy and fit. Large groups have been Christians and others have had a variety of religious and cultural beliefs that were different from my own.
That very diverse mindset was one that I brought to Habitat nine years ago. It was an attractive quality to the board team that interviewed me, and I hoped to find ways to impart that knowledge in a respectful manner as the years passed.
For the most part, what I found at Macomb Habitat was an open-minded group of board members who embraced diversity. One of those members was very key in changing who we served when it came to partner families. In our past, we provided affordable housing opportunities to people who “lived or worked” in Macomb County. Because of our name and the territory we serve, that must have made sense to the early crafters of our mission. However, once I mentioned Fair Housing Laws, and a desire to work with everyone, one board member and attorney, made it very clear that
ALL people from ALL counties would be welcome at our door.
Similarly, I feel that most staff were very open to embracing partner families who were diverse. My favorite partner family was a wheelchair-dependent young man whose adopted mother had passed, and he was caring for a quadriplegic adopted brother. We welcomed him into our program and began to plan for a home with ramps and a first-floor laundry room! Sadly, that young man died suddenly in his sleep, and the brother was taken to a nursing home to live. The whole story breaks my heart but reminds me of how open we were to serving this very unique man who is certainly now at “home” with God.
Improving diversity has been important to our board and staff. Just this past year, PNC generously paid for a Diversity Training Day that exposed our learned biases and beliefs. It taught us how to leave those beliefs at home and enter work with a true desire to treat everyone equally! Everyone felt that our time together, talking about how we arrived at our beliefs, was invaluable. It was a memorable day for all!
And yet, after all of those changes, I feel we need more training. Though I believe we have been more conscious of becoming an inclusive non-profit, I think we can do more.
This year, I am asking the leadership team to help the staff to be more sensitive to anyone who seems different than they are. I am encouraging them to read a few books such as
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World and Become a Good Ancestor
by Layla Saad.
I’m asking them to have a diversity luncheon program four times a year to try new foods and discuss cultural differences.
But most of all, I’m requiring that we more proactively find ways to serve marginalized communities and invite them to become homeowners in Macomb County! It’s time to seek partner families whose heads are covered and whose garbs look more like gowns than jeans. It’s past time to help secure families who are legal asylees, immigrants and refugees. It is way past time to change the diversity in the neighborhoods where we build and rehab. And we must ardently seek and serve men, women, and children who have disabilities we can easily see and those we cannot see at all!
Though I have been trained and have been touched by thousands of people who look very different from me, I have always known that I have much more to learn before I can be the best leader possible. In my heart I know that all of us can do better at treating everyone equally and with respect. And at the front of that line is me!
If you have an idea on how we can be better or act more "just" - call me. In the meantime, know that our doors will be open to everyone!
With every best wish,
President and CEO