Some members of an advisory council tasked with promoting diversity and inclusion for the city of Lansing feel sidelined after Mayor Andy Schor shelved their recommendations for months, only recently rolling out plans for racial justice without soliciting much of their input on the topic.
Those frustrations have already pushed one member to call it quits. And unless the role of the original Mayor’s Diversity and Inclusion Council is amplified amid ongoing social unrest in the capital city, board members suggested that more resignations from the board could soon follow.
“As we have seen over the past months, the impact of this committee has been adulterated,” board member Jennifer Carrera wrote in a fiery resignation letter last week. “We have not been listened to. We have begged repeatedly to have our modest recommendations acknowledged.”
Schor’s first executive order as newly elected mayor in 2018 was to establish the Mayor’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. Until last week, it was the only appointed mayoral advisory board reporting to Schor specifically on issues like discrimination and racial justice in the city.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and amid a continued call for police divestment, Schor announced last week that his newly formed “Racial Justice and Equity Alliance” would now be tasked with examining many of the same city policies and racial biases for at least the next year.
And after suggestions for improvements have been ignored for months, some members of Schor’s original task force are questioning the efficacy of yet another committee on diversity.
“We already have 12 committed individuals who want to push the city of Lansing in the appropriate direction,” said Council Chairman Randy Watkins. “And while we are disappointed and frustrated with the way the process is going, we still believe we have a good role to play in this process. It would be unfair to deny that members of this board have some sincere concerns and there have been thoughts of resignations, but I also think we’re willing to stick this one out.”
Carrera resigned last Thursday after the first of three city-organized Zoom calls, part of Schor’s new “community input series” on racial justice and equity. Although Inclusion Council member Lori Adams Simon played host, board members said they were hardly involved in the process, only reviewing prewritten questions that were posed at the online event one day in advance.
“We were displaced from that process. Our contribution as a committee has been described as being basically complaining and not positive enough,” Carerra wrote in her recent resignation letter. “Addressing racism and inequity is not going to be comfortable. It’s not supposed to be. Our responsibility is to communicate what the community wants and needs and advise the Mayor on how to meet those needs. We are not here to make the Mayor comfortable.”
More than 100 local residents tuned into the virtual meeting last week to voice concerns about discrimination within the capital city. Adams Simon and Police Chief Daryl Green posed questions about racial inequities to more than a dozen people who volunteered to speak. Schor gave brief remarks, but otherwise mostly sat back and listened. And the concerns were plentiful.
“I do believe that there is racism in Lansing,” said Dominique Devereaux. “Do I believe that it is overt? No. But I do believe that it is very systematic. I do believe there is racism existing within the Lansing area, but it’s more of a systemic racism than overt, person-to-person racism.”
Local activist and firefighter Michael Lynn said he feels comfortable living but not working in Lansing, especially at the Fire Department. Lynn is suing the city for racial discrimination and said he suspects that more work is being done to make Schor look good than to drive change.
Pamela Ford, in response to a question of whether the city hires and supports people of color, said she doesn’t believe the city’s workforce — especially in management positions — adequately reflects demographics in the community. Recruitment needs to change, she said.
Lansing resident Naudia Fisher said she believes some Black employees were hired in an act of “tokenism.” Transparency within the recruitment process should help on those efforts, she said.
"I want to be very clear that I do not believe that any person of color in a high profile position has been hired as a result of tokenism," Fisher later clarified in an email. "My point was to say that many may feel that it is a result of tokenism and that’s why transparency regarding the process and how decisions are made would be helpful because it would prove that not only do these people belong here, but other people of color would be aware of the process and be encouraged to be a part of it."
Many of those issues, Carrera said, have already been addressed — and have been ignored.
“The most important work that needs to happen around racial equity in this community is the work that this new task force is set up to address, and I would say our committee was designed to address,” Carerra wrote. “We represent the community members. The task force represents leadership in powerful positions in the administration along with a smattering of community representatives and one member of our committee. Our efforts are being diluted and displaced.”
Carrera, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University, focuses on environmental justice as well as differential access to resources and its impact on the well-being of marginalized communities, according to her webpage. She’s a literal expert in the field.
With Carrera’s input, the Diversity and Inclusion Council last year suggested Schor hire a staff member specifically dedicated toward enhancing diversity and inclusion within city operations. The proposal was shelved for months before Schor revived and announced the concept in June.
“We have even not risen to the level of demanding that action be taken on our recommendations, just that we would be acknowledged,” Carerra wrote. “It was only in the face of embarrassment during recent weeks after the Mayor’s performance on the Black Lives Matter call that he responded to our recommendations, saying that they had been lost for months.”
Schor, for his part, said he responded positively to the Council’s proposal for a diversity and inclusion coordinator in an email sent last year but that that email never made it back to the Council members. He didn’t intentionally ignore the suggestion, he said. And budget constraints in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic only knocked it lower on the city priority list.
“I thought I had responded to those things in February, but either they didn’t get it or I didn’t send it. Then, we had the shutdown in March,” Schor explained. “I thought communication was getting better. I’d like to see this Council work alongside the Alliance on a lot of these issues.”
As part of the mayor’s plans to assemble the city’s first long-term diversity, equity and inclusion plan, Schor announced last week the formation of the Racial Justice and Equity Alliance. More than 40 people — all appointed by Schor — are now tasked with further developing city policies in tandem with attorney Teresa Bingman, who is being paid $63,000 for her consulting services.
The newly formed alliance will be led by Schor, Bingman, Police Chief Daryl Green and Human Relations and Community Services Director Kim Coleman. Representatives from the mayor’s cabinet, the boards of Fire and Police Commissioners, the Human Relations and Community Services Board and the existing Diversity and Inclusion Council will also reportedly pitch in.
Additionally, an “advisory committee” of 34 mostly Black community members have been appointed to one-year terms. Members include Lansing NAACP President Dale Copedge, Ingham Co. Health Officer Linda Vail and developer Joel Ferguson.
“Information and data obtained will be used to inform the revision of community-inspired police use-of-force policies and also develop a community-inspired racial justice and equity plan,” Bingman said, noting brainstorming efforts would eventually develop into meaningful changes.
Watkins said some board members have questioned the integrity of those efforts, given that they’ve already been ongoing in the city for more than a year with little meaningful progress.
“I can’t say I’m satisfied at this point either,” Watkins added. “But really, this is just a first step. As the saying goes, every journey begins with a first step. I’d say there has been a lack of communication between the board and the mayor, but I think we’re still on the right track.”
In additional to racial bias training in his office, Schor also pledged last month to reaffirm existing police policies on deescalating violence, exhausting non-lethal alternatives and reviewing use of force — all efforts that officials said have already long been in place at the Police Department.
Green also rolled out at least two policy reforms in the wake of recent social unrest. Local cops will no longer pull over drivers for minor infractions like broken taillights in an effort to curb unnecessary police contact. No-knock warrants have also been entirely banned.
But with secondary equipment violations only accounting for about 15% of traffic stops, and only three no-knock warrants included among 284 searches conducted over the last five years, the reforms made to date have only left a growing desire for truly meaningful operational changes.
Schor said the Diversity and Inclusion Council is designed to tackle broader, quality-of-life issues tied to social equity while the new taskforce carries a laser focus on curbing racism. Still, he understands how some of his original board could feel like their toes have been stepped on.
“This alliance is kind of a short-term group of people to focus on these racism issues,” Schor explained. “They’ll still work together. I also think we’ve had some good communication to bridge some of these gaps. I thought these communciation issues had been getting better.”
Schor said he had no personal involvement in the creation and organization of last week’s virtual community meeting, but he said he thought the Diversity and Inclusion Council had been consulted. He also said his ongoing plans for the city are also subject to change as more input arrives.
“This is a working document. We’re creating the roadmap to racial equity and we’re adding to it as we move along,” Schor said. “I’ve been to several of their meetings and worked with their leadership. I value their opinions and can absolutely review, evaluate and adjust as necessary.”
Schor called in Watkins and other members of the Diversity and Inclusion Council for a private “discussion with staff about moving forward” earlier this week, a city spokeswoman said. City Pulse wasn’t allowed to send a reporter, but a spokeswoman labeled it a “good conversation.”
“They discussed concerns and ways to best move forward,” she said without elaborating further.