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New ordinance proposal calls for Civil Rights Department, robust anti-discrimination legislation in Grand Rapids

LINC UP is proposing a new city ordinance in Grand Rapids calling for a Department of Civil Rights, a Disability Rights Commission, civil rights investigators, laws codifying their investigative process and strengthened prohibitions in employment, housing, and public accommodation.
Lyonel LaGrone II, Policy Liason at LINC UP

Lyonel LaGrone II, Policy Liason at LINC UP /Courtesy of LINC UP

Civil Rights Town Hall

In acknowledgement of the 50th anniversary of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Linc Up is proposing a stronger Civil Rights Ordinance for the City of Grand Rapids.
18 April at 18:0020:00
1167 Madison Avenue SE



“The citizens in Grand Rapids are totally unprotected from discrimination, totally. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has a couple good investigators and I mean a couple,” says Lyonel LaGrone, Policy Liaison for LINC UP, a local community development organization.

LINC UP is proposing a new city ordinance in Grand Rapids, which would replace an older ordinance, calling for a Department of Civil Rights, civil rights investigators, laws codifying their investigative process and strengthened prohibitions in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodation.

What does the new ordinance do?

LaGrone explains, “It has a real codified, investigative methodology, it establishes investigative positions in the city for people to actually be employed to serve as complaint investigators and get down to the bottom of these issues. And I mean real investigations where witnesses are interviewed, complaints are filed. If a person feels like they’ve been discriminated against, they file a complaint, the investigator investigates that complaint, they review documents, they have subpoena power, they write and file an investigative report after they finish and they issue a determination. And then start working toward a remedy for the person. A real ordinance that really protects people in Grand Rapids against illegal discrimination.”

LaGrone says this is needed because currently there is no specified process in the City of Grand Rapids handling discrimination complaints.

“If you call the City, the office of Diversity and Inclusion will tell you they don’t do that. So if you call the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), the Elliott-Larsen, which is the civil rights law for the State of Michigan is weak. Now when Elliott-Larsen came into place in the 1970’s, it was good for the time, but now they need to strengthen that law.

This issue was really brought home to LaGrone when he called the MDCR in 2016 with his own discrimination complaint and received no real help. When he sent FOIA requests to learn their investigative protocol, he learned MDCR didn’t have one.

“They sent me a brochure. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights did not have a clear investigative protocol. So Elliot-Larsen doesn’t protect people properly. To add insult to injury, the MDCR has achieved something called substantial equivalency with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Because the MDCR is substantially equivalent, if you call HUD over a housing complaint, they will kick it back down to MDCR.”

He explains this circular method of handling discrimination complaints leaves people in Grand Rapids without any clear way to find justice.

“[The new ordinance] basically gives people who believe their civil rights have been violated a real avenue to seek recourse or a remedy."

Grand Rapids then and now

“I grew up here and Grand Rapids was a very racist town and it also had the nerve to be boring. So a lot of us when we were growin’ up African-American, your whole goal was to get out of Grand Rapids. Because here was not an option, we were clearly not welcome in this city. You couldn’t go to the mall without a police officer hoppin’ behind you waiting for you to do something. In the mall, security guards are thinking you’re stealing. You’re not welcome in your own doctor’s office”

LaGrone left Grand Rapids and became a civil rights worker because of these experiences, wanting to help people who were victimized by discrimination. He working in Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Champaign, IL before returning to Grand Rapids in October 2016. He said he had all these experiences in his mind when he returned, looking to work in his hometown.

“This was in the back of my mind, but I believe you let the community drive the work. It’s not about me saying ‘This is what you need,’ but me listening to what the community has to say and figuring out the approach to it,” says LaGrone.

After attending numerous community meetings, city commission meetings and county commission meetings, LaGrone realized people in Grand Rapids were feeling the same way they had when he’d left 20 years before.

LaGrone says, “I’m listening to the public comment and there was one resounding narrative coming up over and over again. People of color are still feeling the same way in this town. People are talking about apartment complexes you just can’t rent at, neighborhoods you can’t drive through, employers you don’t even bother trying to get a job at. This is common knowledge, this is how people move. This is just the way it is. My job is to take community concerns and translate them to policy solutions. So I said, let’s look at the civil rights ordinance.”

Civil rights legislation in Grand Rapids “symbolic”

LaGrone notes that a lot of times there are laws in place, but people don’t know about them, so they looked at the civil rights ordinance in Grand Rapids.

"Initially I thought we needed to take it more public for people to understand. But we realized there was nothing here. There is absolutely nothing here that is protecting people. The current ordinance is what you call more symbolic than real," says LaGrone. “And did you know that out of the hundred and some City commissions and boards, we don’t have one dedicated to disability rights? So what we’re doing in the ordinance is also establishing a Disability Rights Commission because there’s a lot of things that people with disabilities deal with here in Grand Rapids that need to be addressed. We need a body to oversee all of that.”

What kind of city does Grand Rapids want to be?

LaGrone acknowledges the City's talked a lot more about equity recently. "They’re involved in a national group that is equity based and trying to be more equitable in government it’s easy to say we want more equitable outcomes when you receive a grant. But if you have to sit back and look at your 523 million dollar budget and figure out how you can dedicate some of that money to actually affirmatively furthering civil rights in your city via passing a strong ordinance? Also, keep in mind, we’re the second biggest city in Michigan and East Lansing and Kalamazoo both have strong civil rights ordinances."

LaGrone says Grand Rapidians have an important question to ask themselves. "The city commission and mayor have a real opportunity to put their money where their mouth is because at the end of the day we fund things that are important to us. Why would we be the second biggest cities in Michigan and one of the cities known nationally for being a really frustrating place for people of color to live and not want to change that narrative right now by dedicating funds to passing an ordinance that would ensure people are held accountable for discrimination?”

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