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Alpena slow to change

Northeast Michigan hasn’t caught up to changing demographics

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Jordan Gail moves tires earlier this month at Cliff Anschuetz Chevrolet, one of two jobs he holds in Alpena. The other is at WBKB. Gail knows he will likely have to leave Alpena to find a job in audio production, which was his field of study.

ALPENA — While Northeast Michigan is becoming more diverse, the region hasn’t yet become diverse enough to require big changes in the community among businesses, law enforcement, or government, officials said.

Businesses say they hire the best candidates — regardless of race — and will stock their shelves with the products and offer the services most wanted by their communities. That sometimes leaves the region’s growing number of people of color wanting, forced to leave the region for simple things, such as haircuts, that their white neighbors take for granted.

Law enforcement officials say ongoing diversity training takes place, but much of it occurs while police are in the academy, before they put on the badge. Police say they at times struggle to meet the different needs of a diverse inmate population.

Being a diverse community means more than being inclusive to people who are different from one another. It also means welcoming the art, culture, history, religious and political beliefs, and traditions of their minority neighbors, local people of color say.

While minorities who live in Alpena report a mix of experiences — some positive, some negative — they and experts in racial healing say residents must be aware of what can make minorities successful locally and want to grow roots in Alpena.

It’s an increasingly important question as, while Northeast Michigan remains overwhelmingly white, it is becoming increasingly diverse. The number of people of color in our region increased by 55% between 2000 and 2017, according to U.S. Census data. The number of black Northeast Michiganders more than doubled in that time.

‘PREPONDERANCE OF SAMENESS’

People of color living in Northeast Michigan sometimes find a lack of products and services that the majority of people and businesses may take for granted.

Lauren Mixon, for example, moved to Alpena about a year ago for a job. The black woman said that, overall, her experiences have been positive, but she hasn’t always been able to find the things she needs here.

Mixon explained that black hair requires more oils and maintenance to keep it looking good, and she often has to leave town to find such things.

“I have to leave the community in order to get the types of hair care products I need, or to just get a haircut,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for such changes to happen slowly, said JR Reynolds, special initiatives director for the Battle Creek-based racial healing group Beyond Diversity.

Highly homogenized communities are challenged in their adjustment to change, Reynolds said, by what he called a “preponderance of sameness,” an unconscious bias toward maintaining the status quo.

“A majority group will claim they accept a minority group, but will do so on their own terms,” Reynolds said. “A community will say with their actions, ‘We don’t have anything against you, but we just don’t want you to do things your way. We want you to do them our way, in order for us to feel comfortable.'”

Area businesses have been offered diversity training sessions through the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce, said Chamber President and CEO Jackie Krawczak.

She said it’s important to offer products and services geared toward our neighbors of color, but so is being profitable.

“It’s a chicken and the egg question, really,” Krawczak said. “Businesses have to do what makes sense to them financially and make them money. If they don’t have the volume of the people they are going to support by adding something to a menu or adding a product to the shelves, it may not always be a smart business decision. As our diversity changes, then businesses will respond, react, and adapt to those market changes.”

But it’s not just minority-specific needs that drive people away.

Jordan Gail has lived in Alpena for 19 years.

He’s biracial, but identifies as a black man, because he said that is what he looks like.

Gail works at WBKB and at Cliff Anschuetz Chevrolet. He said he believes many minorities move to the area because it offers employment and reasonable living costs.

However, Gail knows the day will come soon when he will have to leave, because there is limited demand here for his field of choice, works in audio production. Plenty of people, regardless of skin color, have to make that kind of choice.

“I’m going to be forced to leave, because there is no demand for my field that I got my degree in,” he said. “If there was, and the city was built to support that type of thing, I would probably stay.”

According to Census estimates, the region’s total population — including people of color — is on the decline.

REACHING OUT

Some places in the region employ a more diverse staff than others, and WBKB would be one of them.

And that’s not by accident.

General Manager Cher Allen said the station doesn’t exclusively recruit minority employees, but advertises with the National Association of Black Journalists. Allen said the response from minorities seeking employment at the station has increased because of that effort and because of recommendations from past employees of color who have moved on.

Allen said the station’s diverse staff improves WBKB and the product it provides viewers. When a minority reporter gets on the air, it helps them adjust to the community, and vice-versa.

“We have a lot of different backgrounds, which offer different perspectives,” she said. “They often have diverse story ideas or series concepts, which offer our viewers a unique point of view. Being on the news brings them into people’s living rooms morning and night, so the community welcomes them.”

Allen said keeping any of the employees at the station is a chore, because they have career ambitions that are larger than the Alpena region can offer.

Although there are other businesses with minority employees, most don’t actively recruit them in the hiring process. Instead, they say they hire most-qualified individual, regardless of color.

“Our businesses accept all candidates, and always choose the best-suited, best-qualified,” Krawczak said.

Even if there are few minority employees at some area businesses, it does not mean they aren’t doing their part to promote equality and diversity.

Adrian Alexander, a gay black man employed at Thunder Bay Theatre, said local businesses rallied to support a program the theater offered called Let’s Talk, which featured panels discussing topics he belives need to be addressed locally, including race.

He said the first event drew between 40 and 50 people and the number increased for following forums.

“When so much change is thrown at you, you can’t avoid it,” Alexander said. “Downtown businesses were very supportive of the Let’s Talk series, offering venues, supplies, and promotion — Bob’s Bullpen, Black Sheep, Art in the Loft, Fresh Palate, Bella Rose.”

However, because Northeast Michigan is primarily white, it offers little in terms of black entertainment, history, or culture. There are also few black business owners.

However, Gail, the WBKB and Cliff Anschuetz employee, said that could change down the road.

He said that, when more minorities begin to succeed in Alpena, word will spread and other people of color will come, hoping to replicate that success.

“If people of color see someone like themselves being successful here, I think they would begin to gravitate here,” he said. “With them, they would bring their own cultures, beliefs, fashions, and lifestyles, and the change would be organic.”

‘LADY JUSTICE IS BLIND’

As diversity increases, it isn’t just businesses and communities that need to adapt, but also other parts of the city’s infrastructure, such as schools and law enforcement.

The region’s increased diversity is especially pronounced in Alpena Public Schools, where the number of students of color has doubled since the 2002-03 school year.

However, like schools statewide and nationwide, there’s some evidence Alpena schools often struggle to bring students of color up to the same performance level as white students.

Too few students were tested for APS to report a breakdown of performance by ethnicity in most grades and subjects on state standardized tests. However, in most of the grades where data was available, white students outperformed their classmates of color on last school year’s tests.

APS Superintendent John VanWagoner said the school always works to narrow any achievement gap.

“It is a key focus of almost everything we do,” VanWagoner said.

Montmorency County Sheriff Chad Brown, meanwhile, said training at the academy and staying current and discussing social changes is key to avoiding potentially negative diversity-related issues. Despite that training, Brown said his department sometimes struggles to offer special accommodations for people at its jail.

Brown said the department does its best, for example, to accomodate inmates who may identify as transgender or who have disabilities or religious beliefs that call for special treatment.

“The most prominent issue we have is when we have someone who is transgender,” Brown said. “We usually shuffle the jail population around, or put the person in a cell by themselves, so they don’t have issues with the other inmates.”

To be successful at the jail and on the roads, Brown said making sure the best people are hired is key.

“We get people with mental illness, veterans, different religious beliefs, and LGBTQ in the jail, and we accommodate them to the best of our ability, because they have rights.” Brown said. “I believe hiring the right person for the right reason is key and to treat everyone how we want to be treated.”

Over the last decade or so, racial profiling by police has been at the forefront of racial tensions in the U.S. The risk of being killed by a police officer is more than twice as high for black men as for white men, the Washington Post reported earlier this year, citing a Rutgers University study.

One local police official, however, said he believes those issues aren’t a problem with most police, especially those in Alpena.

In the eyes of law enforcement, people are people, said 1st Lt. John Grimshaw, commander of the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post. He said the post has had diversity training twice in the last three or four years, but he is confident police locally do their job based on the law, and not on someone’s skin color.

“There’s a reason Lady Justice is blindfolded,” Grimshaw said. “Skin color, gender, religious beliefs, all those things don’t matter to the police. Our job is to enforce the law. If you violate the law, no matter if you’re a martian or some other person, you are supposed to be held accountable.”

Northeast Michiganders are split on how much progress Northeast Michigan has made to be more accepting of persons of color, people of different sexual orientations or identities, and people of different religious beliefs.

Most agree, however, that Alpena has the potential to not only be more diverse and accepting, but thrive because of it.

To do so, people need to take their blinders off and recognize the minorities for what they are: equal, said Gail, the WBKB and Cliff Anschuetz employee.

“People just need to realize we are just living life and trying to exist, the same as everyone else who lives here,” he said.

News staff writers Julie Goldberg, Crystal Nelson, and Julie Riddle contributed to this story. Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.

About this series

U.S. Census estimates and other data shows the face of Northeast Michigan is changing. While that face is still far more likely than not to be white, straight, and Christian, the 2020 Census next year is likely to find a far more diverse region than it did a decade ago. The News’ reporters spent weeks interviewing area residents, officials, and experts from outside the area to understand what those changes might mean for the region and for area residents of color.

Saturday: How is Northeast Michigan changing? A look at what the data tells us

Monday: While the region as a whole is diversifying, that’s especially true in area schools

Tuesday: Some Northeast Michigan groups are actively welcoming the region’s growing diversity

Today: Northeast Michigan’s demographics are changing; is the region doing enough to keep up?

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