November 15, 2016 | By Jacob Wheeler
Dear Traverse City,
Our optimistic, tight-knit community is accustomed to media attention. We smile with pride when the nation and the world recognize our beautiful landscape and our great lake, our culinary pleasures and our cultural festivals. After all, we are a sought-after tourism destination and a great place to call home.
But we’re not used to negative attention like we saw last week when an off-duty Traverse City police officer flaunted the Confederate flag to provoke a peaceful demonstration at our “Open Space” public park on Friday. The officer has since resigned, but not before a deluge of negative stories in newspapers from the Washington Post to The Guardian.
We are proud that our police chief, Jeff O’Brien, condemned former officer Michael Peters, almost immediately, for his actions. “I want to stress this is not how the TCPD presents itself or what we're about,” O’Brien told the Traverse Ticker. “We respect all different races, sexual orientations and creeds, and we are committed to making sure everyone is equally protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
We’re also proud of the immediate stand that mayor Jim Carruthers and city manager Marty Colburn took.
The Traverse City we know, and aspire to be, is a tolerant and inclusive community that welcomes people of all skin colors, faiths, genders and sexual preferences, to live here or just to visit. This past summer we were thrilled to host the largest Gay Pride Parade in Michigan. But we recognize that northwest Michigan is still mostly homogenous, and we need to do more to embrace minorities and make them feel included in our community.
The events of this past weekend serve as a wakeup call.
It’s no secret that diversity and tolerance are good for business. They’re also good for promoting tourism, the arts and education. Our community includes a great community college (Northwestern Michigan College) and a world-class, arts-focused college prep school (Interlochen Center for the Arts). Both boast global and diverse student populations.
In addition, today’s millennials and young professionals seek out diverse and economically thriving cities and towns to call home. We need more of them. Our upcoming New Economy Project, which we’ll publicly unveil next month, will focus on how Traverse City can attract, and retain, more skilled 20- and 30-somethings. A big part of that is embracing diversity.
We reached out to a few community and business leaders to hear about what diversity in northwest Michigan means to them.
Jeffrey Kimpton, president, Interlochen Center for the Arts:
“As an international destination, Interlochen Center for the Arts prides itself on celebrating ideas, creativity and the arts in an environment where controversy is greeted with informed discourse. We believe the Grand Traverse region is that place. We must all work hard to create an open, tolerant and diverse space that is built upon respect — today, and everyday.”
Marsha Smith, executive director of Rotary Charities:
“There are 1.2 million Rotarians around the world representing diverse perspectives, cultures, races and religions. What unites us is our commitment to service and making a positive, lasting change in our communities and around the globe. What keeps us together is mutual respect, tolerance and appreciation of our diversity. It is a good formula that can work at all scales, globally and locally here in northern Michigan.”
Fernando Meza, CEO OneUpWeb:
“Diversity and tolerance are core pillars of innovation. Growth and progress stall when we can’t be tolerant of new ways of thinking. Whether we’re talking about the tech industry, manufacturing, marketing or any other industry, diversity and tolerance are core pillars of innovation. Plus, this is a country founded on the principle of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ I think that some in our town are worried that diversity and a culture of acceptance somehow lessens or threatens their identity or constitutes special treatment, when in reality, tolerance is a foundation that allows everyone to be equal, to feel at home, because everyone here has a vital role to play in our amazing community. It’s what our soldiers, including my brother in Iraq, have fought to protect.”
Andy McFarlane, owner Leelanau.com:
As the owner of Leelanau.com and Absolute Michigan and the former director of the Leelanau Wine Trail, I have a huge number of contacts in tourism and business across the state of Michigan. After Friday's incident with an off-duty TC officer displaying the Confederate flag hit the state & national media, I received an astonishing number of messages from people out of the area asking in various ways if they would be safe if they visited Traverse City. One woman, who is black and leads a Detroit-area coalition, asked me if it was still safe for her to book a conference in Traverse City. Particularly due to our ethnically homogenous population, what we say and who we stand for matters not only to our fellow citizens, but also to many who do not know us. Silence is its own message.
Eric Hines, station manager WNMC (college radio station):
Every day WNMC celebrates the diversity of human cultural expression. For us diversity isn't something to be tolerated, but something before which we stand in awe. Something we love, cherish and share. Something we never stop learning from. It is that love that animates this radio station and its community of volunteers, listeners and supporters throughout the Grand Traverse area. And what you will find in the community at large is much the same: warmth, fellowship, interest and respect. That's what this community stands for.
Chris Treter, co-founder and director Higher Grounds Trading Co.
At Higher Grounds, it is not only imperative that Traverse City continues to deepen its commitment to diversity but wholeheartedly embraces every form of it. It's simply smart business urgently required to stop the brain drain of young adults from our region. Doing otherwise is bad business — 25-34 year olds are the most racially diverse, inclusive generation, and the largest consuming demographic, in the history of our country. In 2016, a healthy, responsible business community requires a growing professional workforce. Innovation depends on the creativity that is formed when a community values all genders, religions, languages, cultures, and histories to form a better future, together, for all of us.
Erin Anderson Whiting executive director and Kit McKay artistic director, Parallel 45 Theatre
The very foundation of the theatre, or any art, is diversity — diversity of perspectives, opinions, experiences, backgrounds, and identities. That is what makes it so compelling and, potentially, life-changing. All good art allows us to look at the world without division and, instead, concentrate on what connects us. While embracing diversity is imperative to building a robust creative economy that will enhance our community’s quality of life and its economic sustainability, there is something even greater at stake. The opportunity to see the world through another person's or another community’s lens is an enormous gift. By collaborating with artists from around the world, and just down the street, who represent a diversity of religious, racial, economic, political, sexual and gender identities, we can pass that gift along to our community. If we don’t safeguard a tolerant environment to which we can welcome artists, and in which they can create their work, we all lose something; we lose the opportunity to live lives that are richer, more thoughtful, more inclusive, and more respectful of what it means to be human.
If you are a business owner or nonprofit leader in Traverse City and would like to add your name and quote to this list, please email Jacob@GroundworkCenter.org.