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Racism allegation arises at Affirmations

By |2018-01-16T02:27:49-05:00December 17th, 2009|News|

by Jessica Carreras

FERNDALE – Former Affirmations Director of Communications and Development Michael Coleman has filed a complaint of racial discrimination against the LGBT community center with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Harold Core, director of public affairs at the MDCR, confirmed the complaint, adding that a formal investigation began Nov. 16.
Coleman filed the complaint after resigning from his position at Affirmations this fall. He had been hired in 2007 following previous employment at WDET and Michigan Public Radio.
Calls made to Coleman were not returned as of press time.
Affirmations Chief Executive Officer Leslie Thompson and Board President George Westerman both held that no such discrimination took place.
“It would be inappropriate, it would be disrespectful of Mike for us to make any comments about something that’s ongoing,” Westerman commented.
“We have our facts and we do not believe that the center has done anything wrong, and I think that will probably come out in the investigation.”
“I’m sure that when it’s all said and done, it will be determined that there really wasn’t any inappropriate action,” Thompson added. “Procedures were followed.”
Details about the case, including any exact incidents Coleman may have considered discriminatory, are unavailable while the case is under investigation. However, several past staffers said they heard the situation arose from disciplinary action taken against Coleman by his supervisors.
It is unclear as to what might happen if evidence of racial discrimination is affirmed by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
Core explained that the investigation includes a number of tactics to determine the validity of the complaint. “During the investigation,” he said, “we’ll interview witnesses, we’ll request documents, we may conduct site visits or whatever else we can do to try to reach a point where we can say that either we cannot demonstrate that illegal discrimination occurred, or that we believe we can demonstrate it.”
If the Department of Civil Rights finds evidence of illegal discrimination – in this case, based on Coleman’s race – the accused entity can face such reparations as “(replacement of) lost wages, money for damages and suffering,” Core said. “In some cases, they’ll order the person back to work. They can order changes in policies or procedures that they find are discriminatory in nature.”
If no case for discrimination is found, Coleman will have 30 days to appeal the decision.

A history on both sides

This is not the first time Affirmations has been accused of racism, nor is it the first time Coleman has encountered trouble in the workplace.
Coleman was convicted of embezzlement in 2006 from his then-employer, University of Michigan-owned Michigan Public Radio, for accepting food and alcohol in exchange for on-air announcements about the establishments. Coleman, a former deputy director at the television and radio stations, was sentenced to two years probation and was ordered to pay $3,500 in restitution by the Washtenaw County Circuit Court.
That, plus his controversy-filled tenure at WDET, caused some LGBT community members to question Affirmations’ choice of hiring Coleman as the center’s development director in 2007. “This is not the sort of person you want making decisions about the disposition of thousands of donated dollars,” wrote Detroit resident John Kryzston in a January 2007 letter to Between The Lines.
Despite community wariness, Coleman’s almost three-year stint at the center resulted in no more eruptions until the current complaint.
But accusations of racial discrimination by the center have arisen before. In October 2006, the firing of Community Outreach Coordinator Kimya Ayodele and consequential resigning of Community Engagement Coordinator Vanessa Marr caused uproar after both past staffers claimed racism played a part in their departure. Several protests were held at the center, and lesbian women of color group S.P.I.C.E. temporarily stopped holding their meetings at the center.
At the time, though Thompson insisted that race had nothing to do with Ayodele’s exit, she admitted that diversity was something the center struggled with. “(Racism) exists, and it exists at an institutional level across the country, and we’re a product of that like all institutions,” she told BTL at the time. “We’re really actively working to stop it at Affirmations.”

Working toward diversity

After the 2006 incident, Affirmations created the Multicultural Advisory Committee, which aims to increase diversity and combat racism at the center. In February, the center held several Black History Month events, and in September, the MAC hosted an open house at the center to highlight the committee’s progress.
The MAC also adopted a Statement of Inclusiveness Principles on Sept. 3, stating:
“At Affirmations, we believe in and incorporate the core principles of multiculturalism and inclusion. We embrace multiculturalism because we believe that it affirms, respects, treats equally and is representative of various races, ethnicities, nationalities, and cultural identities. Inclusive organizations not only have diverse individuals involved, but more importantly, they are learning organizations that value the perspectives and contributions of all people. They incorporate the needs, assets and perspectives of communities of color into the design and implementation of universal and inclusive programs.”
Thompson said she believes racism will always be an issue to be examined – not just for the center, but in the general community. “Affirmations has done a lot of programs and activities around reaching out to the LGBT people of color organizations,” she commented. “… We live in metro Detroit, and (race) is always going to be a topic; it’s always something we’re going to have to be aware of. But I think we’ve done great work over the last couple of years around this issue and we’re continuing to do that work.”

Watch for updates on this case as it unfolds in future issues of Between The Lines.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.