Where Freedom Rings (as long as you are not in favor of DEI)

The Ottawa Countys Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office was shut down.

The Ottawa County’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office was shut down.

Mariah Stewart

An immigrant woman walks into her 9-5 and as she talks to her co-workers, they backhandedly say “Wow, you speak great English.”

A Black woman sits at her desk and hears from behind her, “Is that your real hair?” 

An Asian man walks into his job interview and hears, “Well, you must be great at math.” 

A Black man talks on the phone with his boss and hears, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting you to be so articulate.” 

A young woman sits at the table with an all-male board and they interrupt her yet again during her time to share her ideas. 

A transgender man shares his identity with his co-workers and says, “Wow, I would have never guessed that you were a girl.” 

   Microaggressions, stereotypes, and blatant bigotry are things that many marginalized groups in Ottawa county know all too well. We need systems and programs in place to help make our working environments more inclusive and respectful for everyone in Ottawa County. The Ottawa County DEI Office was great at creating solutions to this problem. Unfortunately, they were shut down by Ottawa Impact members. 

What is DEI?

   DEI stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The term has caught more popularity in recent years. The term applies to actions and activities. For example, DEI training can be implemented into work places in order to make communities a more equitable place to work and live. DEI can be valuable to communities that lack any of the three characteristics.  

The opening of the DEI Office in Ottawa County

   In 2013, the former county board’s establishment of a Cultural Intelligence Committee stressed the importance of the diversity and inclusion within the county. After lots of hard work and determination in 2018, the county’s DEI office opened. The office had the responsibility to partner with communities in the county to promote DEI in lots of ways. The office partnered with various local companies and organizations in order to promote DEI in Ottawa county. 

What did the office do/ the effects? 

   The office had lots of effects around the county. The director of Ottawa County’s DEI office shares the goals that they have for the future, “implementing a DEI strategic framework to allow Ottawa County to internally throughout its own departments and programs, the creation of a racial equity toolkit to help remove implicit biases from decision-making processes to allow equal opportunities to all Ottawa County residents and finally, work with local municipalities and organizations to assist them in implementing DEI strategies. 

   One way the office impacted the community was by facilitating and encouraging conversations about George Floyd’s death in 2020. These conversations can be extremely hard, especially in the workplace. Having facilitators and tips for having conversations like these is important in order for our community to make progress and acknowledge the wrongdoings of others while honoring and being respectful of those who have passed away. 

  The office was largely known for helping organize the Ottawa County Diversity forums. Since the office started helping with the event the numbers of attendees skyrocketed. Ottawa county residents and those beyond found the event very informative and impactful. The office brought people together to talk about important issues that DEI can help solve. The more people that learn about the importance of DEI the more impact it will have in Ottawa County. 

   The office also created a book challenge with 40 members of the Cultural Intelligence Committee in Ottawa County. The office received a grant from a Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area. The grant helped the county create the Government Alliance on Race and Equity toolkit. The challenge encouraged more people to The 58th District Court  had a day of professional development thanks to the DEI office. They focused on procedural fairness and ensuring equal access for all. Many found this experience insightful and important for having equity in our community. 

Why did the office close?

   At the beginning of the new year the Ottawa County commissioners made sure that they were noticed. Their meeting on January 3rd announced the closing of the DEI office. On January 8th Ottawa County Commissioner Joe Moss tweeted “DEI has no place in government. If corporations and nonprofits want to pursue the DEI agenda, that is their prerogative; it’s a free country, if we can keep it” and later retweets an article that suggests DEI violates the United States constitution. The new and dangerously conservative board of commissioners voted to remove the office.  

Actions taken by community:

   There was an uproar amongst those living in Ottawa County. Ottawa County residents knew that the decision to close the DEI office did not represent the county well. The Facebook group “Ottawa Objects” arose and is used for staying up to date on the commissioners’ actions. Many in the group have expressed their thankfulness for the community Ottawa Objects has brought. Local political leader and State Representative candidate Larry Jackson said “The closing of the DEI Office and the change of the slogan “Where you belong” to “Where freedom rings.” showed people that the Ottawa Impact Board Members don’t see Ottawa County as a place people from all backgrounds belong. It also inspired a campaign to make Ottawa County a place where we all “STILL Belong.” 

   Jackson encouraged people to take all the frustration they had and use it as fuel to get ready for upcoming elections in Ottawa County. On Thursday January 12th Jackson, among other local leaders and activists, had an event at Tulip City Brewstillery in Holland, Michigan. They discussed strategies, plans, and jobs for residents in Ottawa County and how they can help turn the county blue. Ottawa County residents understood they must enact change now in order to have DEI in the county in the future. Jackson said “The “Let’s Talk About 24” Facebook group started to get people engaged in my future race in 2024. It then turned into organizing with people across the county to involve other races as well.” 

   Since this meeting Ottawa County residents have made sure they are heard. Local activist and Ottawa resident Joe Spaulding has been a key voice at commissioners meetings. Spaulding said, “It is important to speak at County Commissioner meetings because sometimes elected officials will act shady if they know no one is paying attention. Then all of the residents suffer the consequences” and “Hearing my neighbors speak out against that (County Commissioners decision to remove the DEI office) makes me really happy. It makes me feel like I belong.” Having a community that accepts you for who you are and implements systems to help promote equity is important for Ottawa County residents. 


Check out this Youtube video for the Office’s annual report during 2019-2020! Hear from community partners that were involved in the office.