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The Holland City Council Vote and Talent Retention

June 27, 2011

Last week’s Holland City Council no vote on an anti-discrimination ordinance has continued to have ripple effects from all sides of this debate.

On Saturday is was reported that a member of Holland’s Human Relations Commission resigned in protest because of the decision by the City Council to vote no on the anti-discrimination ordinance. Other people upset by the vote have begun a boycott of Holland businesses and on the other side of the fence a group has said they will finance efforts to unseat 3 of the 4 city council members who voted for the ordinance.

There have also been a series of articles in the Grand Rapids Press concerning how the Holland City Council vote will impact the local business climate. Last Thursday there was an article that included comments from some area business who think the vote doesn’t promote a welcoming environment. A representative from a consulting firm was quoted as saying, “I’m concerned about Holland’s ability to keep and attain talent because, in the future, there will be a talent war.”

MLive also posted an additional article on Thursday about the issue of attracting “talent” to communities like Holland, which also included a plug for a forum held at the Amway headquarters on Friday morning, where the Mayor’s of Holland, Muskegon and Grand Rapids would be debating the importance of attracting a creative class to West Michigan.

The Press then published a story on Friday about that same forum on retaining talent that was hosted by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and is a project of the various West Michigan chambers. The article mostly summarizes what each of the area mayors had to say about how you attract and retain talent in one’s community. There was some disagreement on how to attract and retain talent, but there were no voices questioning the very idea of talent retention or even a serious look at what that means.

Many people are aware of the idea of talent retention and the creative class through the work of Richard Florida, author and speaker who works for the Martin Prosperity Institute. The Martin Prosperity Institute, which appeals to hip, young professionals, is nothing more than a slick representation of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. In other words, how can we help you to become prosperous on the backs of others. Florida and his colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute talk about the creative class and culture, but they casually ignore any serious conversation about the fact that their formula will exclude a huge sector of society…….namely working class people.

You see all this discussion about how to retain talent is predicated on the lack of interest in retaining working class people. The thousands of people who live in poverty in Grand Rapids alone are not be courted, recruited and are not the subject of talent retention. They are merely used for their labor to do tasks that apparently do not require talent or creativity, like pick the food we eat, scrub the floors, change the linen, pick up the trash, take care of the elderly and tend to the lawns of West Michigan.

The very idea of a creative class is in itself misleading. If we are going to apply the term class to people in this society, then we only have 2 classes – the ownership/capitalist class and the working class. Sure there is some diversity within the working class in terms of income levels, but ultimately those who do not have economic and political power are part of the working class.

The Holland City Council Vote and Talent Retention

This brings us back to the Holland City Council vote. I am all in favor of such a vote passing in Holland. Having said that, I also think it is important to raise serious questions about the benefit and intent of such an ordinance.

It is important to have an ordinance that would provide some legal recourse for people who are discriminated against. Grand Rapids passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in the mid-90s but people in the LGBT community still face serious discrimination in this community.

In Mayor Heartwell’s comments at the talent retention forum on Friday he admitted that such an ordinance is more symbolic than anything else. However, what he said has less to do with protecting and respecting people’s rights than the role such an ordinance plays in promoting business interest. Heartwell said the ordinance was more about marketing. “What cities can do to attract talent has more to do with place-making. If you create a vibrant area where people want to be, then I think (recruitment) happens.”

So a question that could be asked is, “should cities attract members of the LGBT community because it makes good business sense?” If this is the case then what are we really gaining? Another way to ask the question is, “what about working class members of the LGBT community that are not part of the creative class, will they be welcomed and recruited?”

It is important to recognize at this point that the ideas of Richard Florida are not really new ideas, they are old ideas that are simply repackaged. As a result of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s many businesses realized that if they just started to include women and racial minorities on their boards that this would gain them some points within those circles.

Coca Cola was one of the first businesses to attract more African Americans to leadership positions, in part as a response to the Civil Rights struggle, but more because they are based in one of the largest Black cities in the US (Atlanta) and because they wanted to attract more African American consumers. Coca Cola has been fairly successful in being a more inclusive company in terms of who sits on the board of directors and who has been the CEO in recent decades. However, Coca Cola is a company that makes tremendous profit from selling a product that is fundamentally unhealthy for human consumption, exploits workers worldwide, is complicit in serious human rights violations and destroys ecosystems.

The question is, is the ultimate goal of passing an anti-discrimination ordinance about justice or is it about promoting and enhancing business interests? It seems clear from the news coverage and the interests of groups working to retain talent in West Michigan that their interest has more to do with the profit motive than with justice and it is a question that deserves serious discussion.

Both Vicki Eaklor in her book Queer America: A People’s GLBT History of the United States and Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States document the tension that has always existed within the LGBT community around whether or not their struggle was merely to be accepted/included in a heterosexist society or to struggle for greater liberation, both sexual and social liberation.

Are we to be content that companies like Herman Miller offer same sex partner benefits or do we question the necessity and sustainability of a company that manufacturers and markets office chairs that range from $500 to $5,000? These are the kind of questions and conversations that are vital to the future of social justice and they are the kinds of questions cannot be lost amidst the simplistic talent retention chatter currently underway.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 6:58 pm

    These are difficult questions. The anti-discrimination ordinance in Holland sprung up when Dustin Lance Black was not allowed to speak on the campus of Hope College. Hope has institutionalized discrimination against the LGBT community through both their policies and their history of censorship around LGBT equality (i.e. Miguel de la Torre). Individuals on campus and in the community rose up in response and both “Hope is Ready” and “Holland is Ready” were formed. Their first goal was to pass an inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.

    I say all this because the people behind these movements are passionate lovers of justice who want to do the right thing in their community. The difficulty lies in evaluating how such an ordinance will create lived equality for LGBTQ communities. Notice how quickly the conversation turned to the idea that we need to pass this ordinance to promote business in the area. The focus of the conversation needs to stay on how an intervention such as this will free a marginalized group from oppression, how their daily lives will be made better, and how that group will become a participatory component of the power structure in their own community.

    Holland is a great place to evaluate these institutionalized forms of oppression since there is tremendous stratification of wealth in that community. A few extremely affluent families have amassed their wealthy on the backs of the working class and those same families wield incredible power. An examination needs to include a deeper evaluation of the systems in place that continue to exploit the “non-elite” members of our community – systems which are often invisible to individuals just trying to live their lives and get by. It is admirable and important to pass these kinds of ordinances; however, unless we look more deeply at the systems that create oppression, these noble acts will be little more than a Band-Aid.

    In November, GRIID, GVSU’s LGBT Resource Center and the Kutsche Center for Local History at GVSU will premiere “A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids.” Those screenings will create an opportunity to look more deeply at historic and current barriers to justice in our area as well as to hold a conversation regarding next steps in working together to build a society where there is both legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people.

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