In an unexpected move that followed the Feb. 11 hiring of former House Speaker Lee Chatfield as CEO of economic development nonprofit Southwest Michigan First, the organization on Feb. 16 announced a new non-discrimination policy and posted a Statement of Values on its website. It reads in part,
"…we have updated our official handbook at Southwest Michigan First to more clearly articulate that we prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in our hiring process. Though it has always been a practice to treat one another with an equal amount of dignity and respect free of discrimination throughout our company's existence, we are taking this important step today to make sure it is official. We have listened. We have heard. And now we are taking action."
This development comes in direct response to the city of Kalamazoo's decision at a Feb. 15 city commission meeting to distance itself from the organization out of concern that Chatfield's hiring showed disregard for the community's values, as reported by MLive. Formerly, the city paid $10,000 annually to be a Council of 100 member.
"Is Southwest Michigan First aligned with Kalamazoo and the greater Kalamazoo area or has it aligned itself with Chatfield's record when he served in the Michigan House of Representatives?" asked Erin Knott, at the city commission meeting. Knott is both the executive director of Equality Michigan and a Kalamazoo City Commissioner. She made the motion to break ties with the organization; after some discussion, it passed 7-0. Knott called it a "pause."
"I want Southwest Michigan First to open up a dialogue with us as it relates to their process and how they made this hiring decision, again, because it felt like it was absent of a diversity, equity and inclusion lens," Knott said.
At the same time, Knott is not interested in seeing Chatfield lose his job. She said Southwest Michigan First is a private organization, they made a hiring decision and she is looking toward the future:
"And what that means is, I want Mr. Chatfield as well as the board of directors of Southwest Michigan First to throw all their influence and political capital behind moving the Legislature to amend ELCRA once and for all," Knott said. "How can they do that? They can get on the record as supporting Fair and Equal's citizens' initiative: the people's bill. They can join the dozens of other corporate leaders across the state of Michigan that support that initiative."
Knott mentioned that Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) would be introducing legislation in the coming weeks and called upon Chatfield and business leaders associated with Southwest Michigan First to call for hearings and an up or down floor vote.
While Knott said she applauded the swift action taken by Southwest Michigan First on updating their employee handbook and issuing a Statement of Values, she commented it was long overdue. Countless organizations are light-years ahead in terms of instituting policies that are welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
Knott then pivoted and called upon all top business leaders in the state to throw their influence behind pressuring the Legislature to expand ELCRA, if for no other reason than it makes economic sense. First, she gave as an example states like North Carolina with so-called "bathroom bills" that have suffered economically as a result; and second, research has shown that in order to attract and retain the best talent, it's vital that businesses have inclusive policies in place.
According to MSN News, Chatfield called the immediate amendments to the group's non-discrimination policy warranted as it relates to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Well I think this was a chance for us to listen and a chance for our organization to learn," Chatfield told MSN News, echoing the organization's Statement of Values. "There's always been a practice of non-discrimination at Southwest Michigan First, but in looking at our handbook it wasn't specifically in there, so today we made that clear."
While Knott only became aware of Chatfield's comment as a result of this interview, she sounded pleased to hear it.
"If he said it's warranted, I commend him for making that step, and I would love to have a conversation with him and the other leaders within the institution to talk about next steps," Knott said. "I firmly believe the former Speaker still maintains a lot of power and influence in Lansing. If I could get him on board to publicly sign on to Fair and Equal's initiative, and to call upon the Legislature to immediately and swiftly take up the people's bill, without a carve-out or exemption — exactly as written — I think that would carry a lot of weight with his former colleagues."
Knott said she didn't know the scope of the non-discrimination policy in the employee handbook, saying only that at a minimum it protects the organization's own employees and those of their internal stakeholders.
"But as you know, the patchwork system of where you live or who you work for does not mean that everyone here in Michigan has some sort of protection," Knott said. "To Chatfield's quote, the patchwork system doesn't work. Far too many Michiganders are left out because they don't work for a company that has inclusive policies within their handbook or they don't reside in one of the 40-some municipalities that have passed some sort of a non-discrimination ordinance. And that's why we need to codify our state's civil rights law to make sure all of us are protected and no one's left behind."
We asked Knott whether she thought the actions of the Kalamazoo City Council would put other organizations on notice to update their policies as it relates to sexual orientation and gender identity — or they would be held accountable.
"I think it's not just the city of Kalamazoo or Equality Michigan," Knott replied. "I think that hearts and minds have changed. I think the vast majority, and there's polling data that suggests this, of Michiganders on the right side of history…
"I think that there are folks across Michigan of various political ideologies and various belief systems that are stunned when they learn that we still can be fired or kicked out of our housing or denied service," she continued. "And when you talk to them, about whether they feel this should be fixed, it's a resounding 'absolutely.' And again, I don't think it's the city of Kalamazoo putting folks on notice, I think it's all of us as a community stepping up, saying the time has come. It's far past time to get this work finally done."
Despite Southwest Michigan First's most recent effort at damage control, Knott said the city of Kalamazoo will keep the relationship on "pause" for now.
"We are open to having a conversation with them, but at this point in time, all things are on the table," Knott said. "We need to see that they're putting some real legwork into helping uphold the values of this community and of this region. It's a conversation that will be continued."
In response to a request for an interview, BTL received the following email message from a representative at Southwest Michigan First: "We are trying to get the selection committee to put together a statement on the [hiring] process. If I do get one, I will share it with you immediately."
Chatfield did not respond to questions sent via text message.
This is a developing story.