MLK Letter 2020
A Letter From Our CEO, Denny Sturtevant
This morning I had the opportunity to experience another Martin Luther King Day Breakfast hosted by the Grand Rapids Urban League. They were celebrating their 20th anniversary of offering this program for the community. More than 1,000 people were in attendance from every sector of the community.
Joe Jones, the President of the Urban League, called me a few weeks ago, asking if I would be willing to sit on a “thought panel” for the event to talk about solutions that might “ultimately” address the affordable housing crisis in our community. I said yes, of course, while hiding my trepidation about taking on such an impossible task. Joe annually offers each of the panel members a King quote and then a question to respond to. The Martin Luther King Jr. quote I was asked to respond to, relative to the affordable housing crisis was as follows:
“On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Feb 6, 1968 A Proper Sense of Priorities
The question he gave me was this: “What do Grand Rapids and the other urban centers in West Michigan have to ULTIMATELY do in order to properly address the affordable housing issue? What is the absolute right thing to do about affordable housing?”
Preparing for this “impossible” assignment consumed much of my waking hours over this past couple of weeks. It’s not just that I was speaking in front of 1,000 people; I have done that before. It’s really that I wanted my message to resonate with meaning for those willing to listen.
I found myself asking how mere words might change a heart or a mind when so much of what we believe about the role that government and other institutions play in our lives is seemingly hard wired as part of a narrative we learn while growing up. Later, as adults, those narratives are sometimes challenged and sometimes reinforced by who we choose to affiliate with in our careers and in the clubs, churches, political parties and other institutions that we come in contact with. We can even become insulated in our own neighborhoods and communities from experiences and viewpoints that are very different from our own.
So I chose to talk about the blind spots we all have when it comes to understanding the lived experience of others. One example, where we can still see the remnants of systemic racism in housing, is by looking at the racial disparities in homeownership rates. Nationally, just 41% of African American families own their homes compared to 72% of white families. In Kent County, the rate of African American homeownership is even worse at just 33% compared to 76% for white households. If your parents or grandparents owned their own home and you or your parents benefited from a wealth transfer of some of the equity that came when they sold that home, you should know that redlining practices, sanctioned by the federal government up until 1968, prevented most people of color from gaining that same benefit because access to mortgage financing in neighborhoods where they lived was not a possibility under the law. The disparities in homeownership that we see today can, in part, be traced to those redlining practices from the past. Undoubtedly, systemic racism in employment and education probably also contributed to this disparity.
In 2018 in Kent County, 1 in 119 white children were homeless at one time or another compared to 1 in 39 Latinx children and 1 in 5 African American children. Under the facilitated leadership of KConnect, the community is now exploring what strategies need to be employed to reduce these wholly unacceptable disparities for children of color.
In a 2019 study commissioned by the Wilder Foundation in Minneapolis, they looked at 10,000 residential rental cases over 7 years, to determine if criminal history was a good predictor of success in rental housing. This was especially important research because many landlords, including Dwelling Place, use criminal history in their screening process for housing applicants. It was also important because of increasing evidence that people of color are far more likely to be stopped, arrested and convicted than whites for the same behaviors, thereby creating a disparate impact for people of color in accessing affordable rental housing.
Their research discovered that in 11 of 15 crime categories, criminal history was not a statistically significant predictor of success in rental housing. This kind of research and our awareness of the systemic racism that is still prevalent in law enforcement and judicial practices should give us pause, questioning whether this may be a blind spot for us to explore in more detail.
Systemic racism in housing, education, employment, law enforcement and many other facets of life can still be found if we look carefully at racialized outcomes in systems and begin to ask the “WHY” questions.
I want to thank each of you for the efforts you make to teach me and to learn from others about the many ways our differing experiences and perspectives enrich this organization.
We all have blind spots. We simply need to open our hearts and minds to find them. We then need to act on our conscience to address injustice wherever and whenever we see it.
Chief Executive Officer