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A power team of employee activism

By |2012-04-26T09:00:00-04:00April 26th, 2012|News|

When one of the founders of Ford Globe met one of the founders of Chrysler’s People of Diversity at an employee resource event in 1998, the wheels started turning on a relationship based on mutual love for each other and for activism.
Suzanne Wait, an engineer in Powertrain Controls for Ford, and Michelle Walters, who was a manager in Chrysler’s Procurement and Supply department before retiring in 2008, make a great team.
The Royal Oak couple recently won the Jan Stevenson Award for Service at the Affirmations Spring Bash for their years of service not only at their jobs, but through the community center as well.
The most obvious thing Wait and Walters have in common is their passion for workplace equality. In 1994 Wait was among the first to attend organizational meetings for Ford Globe, the employee LGBT affinity group.
“Workplace issues have always been important to me. People need to be able to be their true selves at work,” Wait said. She stayed with Ford Globe all these years, often serving on the board for years at a time.
Meanwhile over at Chrysler in 1996, Walters had just come out of the closet and was working hard to co-found People of Diversity (POD). Thanks to efforts by Walters and the other employees who were bold enough to stand up first and create change, Chrysler included sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies in 1997, and after that grew to offer partner benefits and include transgender individuals in their protective practices.
In 1998 each of the women in this romantic tale were already on top of their respective worlds. The multi-national auto manufacturing corporations were changing because of them. In a society that largely discriminated against gays and lesbians, each had a job where they could feel secure both economically and personally. And each was out of the closet and confident in themselves. And then those two strong worlds combined.
“We were dealing with the same issues,” Wait said. “Not just in fighting for domestic partner benefits, but just being part of the corporate world. There are a lot of commonalities between the environments. That’s why Dilbert is so popular. Lots of people can relate.
“I liked Michelle’s intelligence and quick wit, and that she seemed to enjoy life very much,” said Wait.
Wait and Walters continued to remain active in their work communities, the broader LGBT community, and the larger community of southeast Michigan. Walter spent six years serving on the board of her neighborhood association in Rosedale Park. Wait served on the Women’s Committee for Hope Fund, helping to send impoverished refugees to universities.
Affirmations community center is one of the causes near and dear to their hearts. They recently served on the “Women’s Group,” a female-centered fundraising committee that was part of the Campaign for the Future. Walters is also preparing to end her run on the Multicultural Advisory Committee, which since 2008, has been exploring ways of increasing diversity at Affirmations. The committee will be coming to an end, but she may be involved in presenting reports and recommendations for moving forward.
When asked why they are so engaged Walters said, “I like to work with smart people and do smart things for the community. Not just the LGBT community, but broadly.”
“The only way to make things better is to get in involved. A few people can make a difference. We can have an effect. I’ve seen it,” said Wait.
The women said they’ve had great role models over the years, including Howard Israel. “I’d heard of him for years and we finally met at a Lambda Legal fundraiser,” Wait said. “He encouraged us to reach out to other communities and his passion is beyond compare.”
They are also inspired by the changes they’ve seen at Affirmations. “When they opened the doors to the new building, that was a proud day,” Wait said. “Knowing that we helped fundraise to make that happen, and knowing all the people who would be helped by it.” Walters said she’s excited about the increased usage and being able to see the way programs have changed people’s lives.
As far as Wait and Walters go, there’s no way to know what the future holds, though with love they continue to enjoy it together. “I love that Suzanne is smart and witty and generous and kind,” gushed Walters. “Without her I never would have watched ‘West Wing’ which was the best TV show ever.” She said that as the MAC winds down she’s sure something else will pop up to fill that time slot, but she’ll take her time to decide.
“I’ve never have a plan,” Wait said. “I just look around and see what needs doing…. Once you’ve won the Jan Stevenson award, what more is there to achieve?”
The Jan Stevenson Award is named after Affirmations first executive director. Stevenson is now co-publisher of Between The Lines.

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