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Rural-Serving Community Foundation Hosts DEI-centered Community Conversations

As philanthropy seeks effective ways to advance equity, the Fremont Area Community Foundation is leading critical community conversations in Newaygo County.

A vineyard in Rural Michigan

As philanthropy seeks effective ways to advance equity, the Fremont Area Community Foundation (FACF) is taking the lead on hosting critical community conversations in Newaygo County.

“Diversity has always been a part of the fabric of our community, but there is not a high level of recognition or awareness around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in our area,” Carla Roberts, FACF president and CEO said. “We want to start conversations around diversity, discrimination, and challenges for marginalized people and then we can talk about the systems that have been put into place that have created a lack of opportunity.”

Conversations around DEI began within the foundation’s executive committee after the groundswell of civil rights action across the country after the murder of George Floyd. Foundation leadership began to think about the role their organization could play to start a dialogue about inequities in the community for many groups while also highlighting the ways differences can enhance a community.

After some internal conversations, the executive committee boiled down their goals to a key question: What if we lifted the voices of local people from diverse backgrounds?

The foundation first partnered with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights for internal training of staff and board, and from there formed a committee to discuss how to engage the community with stories from diverse perspectives.

“We all have a story,” Jessica Folkema, FACF’s director of marketing and communications said. “For some in our community, it’s a story of belonging. For others, it’s more complicated. By creating a safe space to hear the stories of our neighbors, we hope it will help our community begin to shift perspectives and listen to all voices.”

This led to the creation of the Stronger Together Series, community events designed to explore identity, difference and the stories that shape the lives of Newaygo County residents.

The committee in charge of the events developed four goals they hoped to accomplish through the series:

  • Create a safe space for individuals to tell their stories.

  • Amplify marginalized or overlooked voices.

  • Encourage listeners to consider perspectives other than their own, broaden the basis for critical thought and promote cultural understanding.

  • Explore the ways differences enhance the community and ultimately make it stronger.

“We want to create meaningful opportunities where we can listen and learn from each other,” Folkema said.  

The foundation partnered with the Michigan Humanities Council to host the first event, “Beautifully Different,” on November 5. During the live stream—which was viewed by 120 people—Newaygo County natives Razel Jones and Daniel Abbott read excerpts from their book Wounds: A Collaborative Memoir in Stories and shared some of their experiences growing up in Newaygo County as Black and white men (respectively), followed by a question-and-answer session with Roberts. Attendees were able to ask questions of Jones and Abbot, and foundation leadership was pleasantly surprised by the amount of engagement.

“We’re equipping allies,” Folkema said. “We’re giving our board, staff, and attendees tools and points of reference to have these conversations in their own families, workplaces, churches and the broader community.”

The foundation is in the process of planning future events for 2021. They hope to open the door for community members to not only participate in these conversations but to start them as well.

To aid in this effort, the foundation commissioned a study guide for Wounds and has begun conversations with local libraries and book clubs to keep conversations going after the event. Every attendee of the first event, along with the foundation’s staff and board of trustees, was mailed a copy of the book.

The foundation acknowledged that while these conversations provide a great deal of opportunity for growth, they may also become more challenging as time goes on. 

“Ours is a community that is predominately white,” Folkema said. “When you are in a majority group, it can be difficult to look at our identities and understand that we have been given certain privileges that others have not. There’s a reckoning for those who engage.”

Roberts added, “It can also be difficult for marginalized people to speak up and say these things in a public forum because oftentimes they have been taught to keep their heads down and fit in.”

Still, foundation leadership believes that by opening the door to empathy and understanding, the conversations around systemic inequities in Newaygo County can move forward.

“We are learning that DEI work is like the work of philanthropy itself: we’re planting seeds,” Folkema said. “This is a long-haul endeavor. The fruit of this work may not be seen for years to come, but it’s by persisting and making small incremental changes we can make a difference.”

For Roberts, this series is the first of many efforts to create a community of changemakers and advocates for equity.

“Early on, one of our trustees said that ‘change happens at the speed of trust,’” Roberts said. “You have to build relationships to create openness towards new perspectives. The way we’re choosing to build that trust is through listening to the stories from our community.”

Want more?

Check out Wounds: A Collaborative Memoir in Stories by Razel Jones and Daniel Abbot.

Watch the “Beautifully Different” event in the Stronger Together Series.