How the Ottawa County DEI Department came to be—A conversation with the founders
Published April 13, 2023
Written by Hamilton
Photography by Simply American
In 2019, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners launched the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department, approving a budget of $1.1 million over 5 years. The department was created with funding from private donors and corporations, with the county contributing $631K of the expense.
At the time of this interview, the former DEI Director and her assistant had been on the job for about two years. When the department was dissolved in January of 2023, the yearly expense to the county had reached $286K.
Did the DEI Department improve Ottawa County as the founders intended?
It was Wednesday, June 30, 2021. As I walked through the empty parking lot, I could feel that summer had arrived in West Michigan. The sky had been mostly cloudy all day, hiding the late June sun, but the temperature was still in the 80’s. I was glad the conference room in the Ottawa County Fillmore Building would be air-conditioned. I had a meeting scheduled with the Ottawa County Administrator, Al Vanderberg, and with the Director of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Department, Robyn Afrik. Although we had been exchanging emails for a while, I had never met either of them in person. I was a little nervous. They had agreed to stay past their regular office hours to meet with me, so that I could pick their brains about the DEI office and its purpose in Ottawa County.
The door to the county building was locked, but one of the administrator’s assistants let me in and greeted me with a friendly smile. She showed me to the conference room. As I settled into my chair, I double-checked the questions I had jotted down and made sure my pen had plenty of ink.
Interestingly, my interaction with Ottawa County officials had not even started with DEI. Like many parents during COVID, I was concerned about health mandates, schools being shut down, healthy kids being forced to quarantine, and our Constitutional rights being violated. One thing had led to another, and as I followed the rabbit trail of government overreach, I came across another component of the problem: the county DEI office.
A few minutes later, Vanderberg and Afrik entered the conference room, offering warm greetings and kind handshakes. As far as people go, both seemed very friendly, professionally competent, and likable. It seemed like either would be a great next-door neighbor. In this article, I don’t want to make the discussion about them as people, as they both seem like wonderful individuals who genuinely believe the ideas they promote. They were not frauds or fakes. They truly believe in DEI and other leftwing ideas and wanted to use their authority within Ottawa County to promote those ideas. So I will refer to them as the former County Administrator and the former DEI Director. I would rather focus on the ideas than the personalities.
Why Was The DEI Department Started?
After brief introductions and small talk, the former County Administrator started right in with his defense of DEI and the reasons he and the former DEI Director started the DEI office and agenda in Ottawa County.
“When I started as the County Administrator,” he began, “I started meeting with the CEO advisory board of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. I was in meetings with the biggest employers in Ottawa County. And there was a common theme: Ottawa County is not welcoming to people who are different from the cultural norm.”
These large employers told him non-white employees from outside of West Michigan would only last for about a year and a half. Then they would leave because of racist treatment.
“In some cases, their kids get picked on in school. I remember one of the stories that stuck with me was an international business guy who had an MBA. He is Hispanic. He did a lot of work for one of the companies in South America. But when he came here to Ottawa County, he was followed around in stores because people looked at him, saw he was Hispanic, and assumed he was going to steal something off the shelf. There’s just a lot of stories of that happening in Ottawa County.”
The former administrator went on to say that these large companies told him that if Ottawa County did not become more welcoming to ethnic minorities, the day would come when those businesses would expand or move elsewhere. It was a simple matter of needing to be able to attract the best talent to their companies. And prejudicial behavior in Ottawa County was scaring away the best talent.
Fast-forward a few years, and the former administrator had the idea of creating an official government agency within Ottawa County to address these problems: the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This office would solve the problems raised by the CEOs of West Michigan’s largest companies and help to prevent the racist behavior chasing talented minorities away.
What Did The Department Accomplish?
Now that I knew the origins of the DEI Department, I was curious to hear exactly what the former director had been doing that would prevent the type of racist interactions that chased away potential employees. What was Ottawa County government doing to prevent kids from being picked on in school because of their skin tone, or to prevent people from being followed in the grocery store because of their ethnicity? So I asked her about it.
“Obviously, when you start a new job and you’re in the first year, you have to understand what’s going on,” she said. “And then when COVID hit! Did anyone do anything the second year?”
I pushed further. It had been two years. What had the DEI office accomplished?
Both the former County Administrator and the former DEI Director stated that the main focus had been examining all county policies and procedures related to hiring county employees, and to providing services to Ottawa residents. They had been removing any implicit bias they found in those policies and procedures.
Implicit bias was a very big focus of their efforts and energy. They explained that implicit bias is bias that people don’t even realize they have. Like when an applicant for a job has an ethnic-sounding name, and doesn’t get the consideration that someone with a “normal” name would get.
I asked for specific examples. Did the former administrator see proof that the county had been biased in the past, before the DEI office was created? Had the county seen widespread bias or racism in its hiring practices? No. He said that he had not identified any specific bias or racism before, but that often times implicit bias is difficult to identify. So by creating a hiring process that was blind to gender and ethnicity, they could eliminate the possibility of implicit bias. It seemed pretty obvious to me that hiring for positions with the county should be as unbiased as possible. I wasn’t sure why it took a special, newly-created office to do this when it seems that it should be a normal function of the Human Resources Department.
In addition to making the hiring process less prone to bias, the former DEI Director pointed to other work as evidence of the DEI office’s good work. She was organizing the county’s “Diversity Forum” and spreading DEI initiatives to other local governments in Ottawa County.
Several things still did not make sense to me. The problems and solutions were not adding up.
Remember that the problem identified by the large employers who had approached the former administrator in the first place was related to people feeling discriminated against in grocery stores and at their kids’ schools. So the solution was to remove implicit bias in the hiring of county governmental employees? How does that prevent the MBA Hispanic guy from being followed around at Meijer?
I interrupted the conversation. “There seems to be a disconnect between your big business reason and what the county DEI office is actually doing.” I pointed out that making people “feel welcome” is a nice-sounding goal. But, in the end, it needs to be individual human beings, not government agencies, that make people feel welcome. The child at school who feels like an outsider will not feel better because there’s a county DEI office. The child will feel welcome when the other children in her class look past her skin tone and see her as an individual human being.
The former administrator was not convinced. He still believed that programs within institutions were the key to making people feel welcome. “The reason the corporations have programs, and the chambers of commerce, and universities, and governments, and even some churches is to make people feel welcome.”
And THAT right there was the key! Almost two years ago, during the meeting, I completely missed it. But reflecting upon that meeting now, I realize the key component that I was missing was VIRTUE SIGNALING.
The point of the DEI office was not to directly solve problems related to non-white employees leaving these companies (if that was even happening on a large scale in the first place). Both of these founders of the Ottawa County DEI office had admitted the work they were doing was mostly related to holding conferences, tweaking internal policies, and doing lots of networking with other supporters of DEI. It had nothing to do with preventing racism at Meijer. Although, as a side note, I have been in Meijer stores hundreds of times and seen hundreds of black and brown shoppers. I have never witnessed them being followed by store employees a single time.
The point of the DEI office was to send the “virtuous” signal that Ottawa County was jumping on the woke bandwagon. It was to make Ottawa County like all those other governmental entities, and universities, and big corporations that the former County Administrator had mentioned. “We care about DEI, too!” Likewise, the decision to join the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) was for the purpose of sending the same signal. (There will be more on GARE in future articles, Lord-willing.)
It was 100% about virtue signaling.
And that is a fundamental difference between the left and the right. The left is content to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to create and run a DEI office that is, at best, doing little more than virtue signaling. At worst, the DEI office is opening the door to further leftist ideology in Ottawa County, endangering our Constitutional rights and entangling our County government in a swamp of government overreach and questionable public-private partnerships.
On the other hand, Conservatives reject these big government schemes and quasi-governmental organizations. We recognize that if we want to end the problems caused by racism and prejudice, we need to teach our children to judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. We need to see our neighbors as individuals first, with God-given individual rights, and not as members of artificial groups based on our chromosomes.
All things considered, the meeting with the former DEI Director and the former County Administrator was a good one. It was enlightening to see the role of DEI from their perspective. And their answers to my questions were highly informative. Likewise, their non-answers to some of my questions were as well, such as how the county’s relationship with GARE came to be.
In the end, when it comes to the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—taxpayer-funded virtue signaling has no place in Ottawa County.