‘Start to bridge differences’

Groups working to address diversity in Northeast Michigan

News Photo by Julie Riddle Erika Phillips poses for a recent photo in Alpena.

ALPENA — Erika Philipps gets called “exotic” a lot.

She hates it.

The term is meant as a compliment, Philipps, who is black, thinks, “but, it bothers me.”

Northeast Michigan demographics are changing. While the area remains overwhelmingly white, the number of residents of color in the region climbed 55% between 2000 and 2017, according to U.S. Census data.

As communities grow, they should do so with the expectation that a percentage of newcomers will be minorities, according to Gwendoline Van Doosselaere, business development and marketing manager at White Men As Full Diversity Partners, a Portland, Oregon-based consulting firm that helps organizations create and sustain inclusive cultures.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena’s Kaye and Gordon Breckenridge reflect on raising an child of color in a predominantly white region while looking at family photos.

“You have to be able to invite new people into your community,” Van Doosselaere told The News. “Currently, the way the U.S. demographics are shifting, a lot of those new people are from different cultural backgrounds than the one you may have grown up in.”

Increased representation of new cultures necessitates a look at how a community is recognizing and adjusting to differences, she said. People new to the conversation will be resistant, because they feel it’s a negative assessment of who they are.

But “it’s not,” Van Doosselaere said. “It’s understanding that you have a culture, and you have a lens, and, once you realize you have that, you can also shift it and change it, and that’s where you can start to bridge differences.”

As Northeast Michigan diversifies, several organizations in town are actively taking steps to make sure minorities in the region feel welcome, safe, and part of the community.

That’s because a city of nearly all white faces suffers when it stays the same, said Jeffrey Mindock, producing artistic director at Thunder Bay Theatre in Alpena.

As part of his job, Mindock goes to some of the biggest cities in America and talks to 18- to 25-year-olds. He tells them, “‘I want you to come to my community. I want you to work in my theater, because the people in my community need to see your face and hear your voice and watch the way that you dance on stage, because they don’t get that anywhere else.’ The community needs to see Cinderella as an actor of color.

“It should be so simple,” Mindock said.


While Alpena bills itself as a welcoming port, its welcome is not universal, according to a number of residents who, because of their skin color, stand out from the rest of the community.

Philipps moved to Alpena two-and-a-half years ago from Richmond, Virginia to accept a job at the Alpena hospital.

In Virginia, she was one of many. Here, she’s one of a few.

The difference was jarring.

A month or so after she moved here, Philipps saw another black person at Walmart, and “I did a little jig,” she told The News, so excited was she to see someone else who looked like her.

As one of a few, Philipps feels the weighty responsibility of being the voice for an entire group. If she doesn’t look like the majority of people around her, she has to be the best possible representative of a small community, she feels.

“Someone told me I was a prominent African American in the community, and it made me giggle,” Phillips said.

Never, in her line of work, would she think of herself as prominent, she said.

Noting a lack of similar efforts in the Alpena area, Hope Shores Alliance in Alpena is creating a position to address “isms,” said newly appointed Education and Impact Manager Jeanine Kaltz.

In her new position, Kaltz will promote ethical and inclusive practices at Hope Shores and within the community, especially in regards to the survivors of stalking and dating, domestic, and sexual violence with whom Hope Shores works.

As they worked with minorities and underrepresented populations as part of their programs, the leaders at Hope Shores noticed nobody else in the city seemed to be talking about diversity or looking for improvements

“We said, ‘Couldn’t it be us?'” Kaltz said.

Hope Shores wants to look at its own work through a lens of inclusivity, Kaltz said, finding ways to provide a safe space for abuse survivors — whom, Kaltz said, often are people of color and those with non-traditional lifestyles — and to help the community see and address actions harmful to those groups.

On many forms, said Jillian Ferguson, sexual assault program coordinator at Hope Shores, you have to check one box, declaring with a stroke of a pen who or what you are.

“But what if you’re an ‘other’?” Ferguson said.

Those with “other” identities need to feel safe being themselves, she said, explaining why Hope Shores leaders have begun to include the pronouns by which they identify themselves — such as she, her, hers — in the signature lines of emails.

“We want to create a safe space,” Ferguson said, explaining that stating who you are invites others to freely express who they are.

While Alpena residents may not make overt gestures to show people with differences they’re unwelcome, a more innocent-looking — and therefore more harmful — form of discrimination is almost impossible to escape, Kaltz said.

Microaggressions — the small, commonplace behaviors that, often unintentionally, convey negative prejudice and create separation — are all around us, once we start to see them, Ferguson explained. Several people of color, for example, told The News about being watched when they shop at area stores.

Quality hair care products for black people are nearly impossible to find in Alpena, Philipps said, and getting a haircut requires a trip downstate.

A small detail, to those who don’t experience it, but, to Philipps, it’s only one of many ways that a community says to a group, “You are not welcome here.”


Alpena can’t close its eyes to more overt signs of racism, some community leaders say.

First-generation American Connie Sysak, a Greenbush resident of Mexican descent, has been told it’s rude to speak in other languages. She used to hear whispers outside the business she owned in Tawas, saying she should go back where she came from.

At Thunder Bay Theatre, some patrons stopped coming several years ago, when the theater began to intentionally diversify its cast, according to Mindock.

In the receiving line that used to be a tradition after performances, some patrons refused to shake the hands of actors of color, Mindock said. Actors of color reported harassing comments and behavior from residents around town. The theater no longer incorporates receiving lines into its performances.

Negative behaviors are not universal. Mindock reports many supportive patrons and words of thanks for bringing diversity to Northeast Michigan.

He can’t say that racism isn’t a part of the community, though, because, he said, that would be breaking a promise he made to his actors, seven of 12 of whom are actors of color.

Mindock said he promised “they are going to be protected, and they are going to be respected, and they are going to be appreciated.”

It’s a promise Mindock wants the whole community to keep.

To begin conversations about diversity, Thunder Bay Theatre decided to host a series of moderated panel discussions to which the community was invited during 2019. The Let’s Talk series, which began in February with a discussion about race as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognition, has seen consistent attendance and generated good conversations, Mindock said.

The talks, each of which offered a frank discussion on difficult topics in a safe space, helped people to see their hidden biases, according to Adrian Alexander, education coordinator at Thunder Bay Theatre. The theater’s goal, through open discussion and honest answers, was to communicate that it’s OK to ask questions and not know all the answers when it comes to issues of race.


In a mostly white region — though growing in number, people of color still make up just more than 3% of the population — a lack of minority faces has left Alpena residents unsure of how to react to a face that’s different.

Alexander, noticeable in the community because of his position at the theater as well as because of his skin color, hears enthusiastic thanks for choosing to live in Alpena.

People are trying to be kind, he knows, but the comments serve to point out his difference, a kind of backhanded compliment.

At the beginning of the year, Alexander said, there was a circle of black residents who checked on each other, supporting each other.

About five of the group have left, Alexander said, because it’s exhausting to always be different.

The parents of four children with three different skin colors, Kaye and Gordon Breckenridge saw firsthand the differences in the way the world treats children of color.

Tonya and Nicholas, their first two children, are black. Their son Mark is white, and their daughter LeAnne is Korean. Raising their children in Alpena in the 1970s, the Breckenridges saw differences in the way each of their children were treated, the children of color receiving harassment in school and being kept from dating by the parents of other young people.

Now, the grown children choose to live elsewhere, in large cities, where, they say, nobody pays attention to skin color.

One grandchild, the son of a black father and Korean mother, visits his grandparents in Alpena rarely. His exuberant, untamed hairstyle gets too many suspicious looks in the city, so he slicks it back when he comes to visit.

In order to fit in, he feels he needs to change.

Alpena, without a rich blend of colors and backgrounds, is lacking a cultural competency that Philpps, the hospital employee, encountered when she lived in Washington, D.C., where people spoke Farsi, were muslim, and celebrated Ramadan.

We don’t know what to do with minorities in Northeast Michigan, she said, so we gaze at them in curiosity at best, fear and loathing at worst.

Sysak, with her Mexican ancestry not obvious on her face, regularly has people ask, “What are you?”

“It’s very common for minorities, and it’s very offensive to me,” she said. “Not because I’m not proud of what I am, but because they’re singling me out, and the way they say it. You’re different. I was born here. I’m an American. What difference does it make?”


The minority experience in Alpena may not be perfect. But it can be made better, Ferguson at Hope Shores said.

“What if we had a lens that said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we didn’t see this,’ and tried like hell to fix it?” Ferguson said.

As individuals, we can’t understand what we haven’t lived. What we can do, Ferguson said, is to listen to and respect the experiences of people of color, even if it doesn’t match what we think they should be reporting.

Events such as The Longest Table, a community-wide outdoor dinner held this summer to start conversations and connect strangers, offered a tool for coming together, Gordon Breckenridge said.

Sandra Pilgrim-Lewis is the one-time director of Hope Shores and now works in victim services for the state, providing technical assistance and guidance for all underserved communities, and on the national and international level on the board of directors for Praxis International, a nonprofit research and training organization that fights marginalization and oppression.

In her work across the country, Pilgrim-Lewis works with many small communities not willing to have conversations about sensitive issues. In very few small towns is the topic of race ever raised, she said.

The reason for the silence is often fear.

People think, “if we think about these things, we might need to change,” she said.

To keep the conversation going, Mindock said Thunder Bay Theatre plans to host more Let’s Talk events next year.

As leadership in preparing the community to respond to diversity emerges, Alexander hopes the Let’s Talk series will be an example of what can happen when people start talking.

He wants to see other events by other groups, until conversations about diversity become an expected part of life in Northeast Michigan.

Many people want Alpena to be the best town it can be, Ferguson said, but we as a community haven’t yet looked at ourselves through the lens of racism. When we do, she said, we will see infinite possibilities and opportunities to be the town we want to be.

“We don’t have to wait for change,” she said. “Change is happening. And we can make it go faster.”

News staff writers Julie Goldberg, Crystal Nelson, and Steve Schulwitz contributed to this report. Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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

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

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

Missed an issue? Stop by The News offices at 130 Park Place, Alpena, to pick up a copy.


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