Last year’s highly publicized grassroots movement to defund the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township was just the start of a larger conservative push in West Michigan.
That effort, spearheaded by a group known as Jamestown Conservatives, focused on the availability of queer books at Patmos, the community’s only public library. The library millage failed during the November election, and the library is set to close in early 2025, once private donations dry up.
Separately, and around the same time, a shadowy group calling itself Ottawa Impact that has been plotting to advance its socially conservative agenda for two years has emerged. The group endorsed several far right county commissioner candidates, who sailed to victory in this reliably red district. With eight commissioners endorsed by Ottawa Impact out of 11 total, they wasted no time at the Jan. 3 meeting making drastic moves like dissolving the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Office.
Elsewhere, three Ottawa Impact “parent-approved” candidates won seats on the six-member Patmos Library board. Numerous endorsed and parent-approved candidates won their races for school board as well. Kate Leighton-Colburn, executive director of Out On The Lakeshore, says LGBTQ+ community members are on alert.
“I think folks are scared, and rightfully so,” Leighton-Colburn said. “I think we’re waiting to see what happens. But as we do, Out On The Lakeshore is trying to provide a space for folks to grieve any changes that are being made and to come together in a place of safety, to support each other through this time. I think folks are just scared about the future.”
Not only was the DEI office dissolved, the Trump-endorsed losing congressional candidate John Gibbs was installed as the new Ottawa County Administrator. Concerning as well, the county’s legal counsel has been replaced with Kallman Legal Group, PLLC, notorious for fighting anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination policies (but also for losing the Rouch World case). It’s worth noting that a nephew of David Kallman is the business partner of Joe Moss, president of Ottawa Impact and the county board’s new chair.
The incoming commissioners changed the county motto to “Where Freedom Rings” from the original, more inclusive “Where You Belong,” which, commissioners said, was “used to promote the divisive, Marxist ideology of the race equity movement.”
Doug Zylstra is the solitary Democrat on the county’s board. His district comprises the city of Holland, home to Out On The Lakeshore. “The talks [to fund a DEI office] had been started just before I came on in 2019,” Zylstra said, “and one of my first votes in 2019 was to fund the [DEI] office on a six-year funding plan.”
Ottawa Impact started rallying against the DEI office a year-and-a-half ago. In its first annual report, the organization highlighted events like a diversity book challenge among 40 members of the Cultural Intelligence Committee and a day of professional development at the 58th District Court focused on procedural fairness and ensuring equal access for all.
“A lot of the existing commissioners lost their races, commissioners who had supported the department in the past. And a lot of the incoming commissioners signaled that they weren’t comfortable with what the department was doing,” Zylstra said. Months ahead, the board approved a severance package for the director of the office.
Zylstra described what the county has lost. He said the DEI office’s purpose was “making sure that we at the county and county government were doing the best we could to make sure that, across the spectrum, folks felt welcomed to come to our community, to be in our community, to work in our community and to recreate in our community as well. So obviously in the short-term, there is no work being done at that level from the county side, which I think is obviously a big negative.”
Zylstra said it’s been left to residents of Ottawa County to make sure it’s welcoming.
“There’s been a community response and engagement,” he said. He added that although the DEI office had been dissolved, the community in Ottawa County had not abandoned its work. As an example, he pointed to Holland’s nondiscrimination ordinance. “There’s a hole that happened on January 3rd and this [DEI] office is gone,” Zylstra said, “but we can fill it ourselves in the short-term and work hard to make sure our LGBT folks as well as everybody else — whether it’s race or what have you across the spectrum of difference — knows that they’re welcome in Ottawa County.”
Community members are organizing. Vote Common Good: West Michigan announced it would join with the PAC Ottawa Integrity to launch and steer a new movement called the Unifying Coalition of Ottawa County to oppose Ottawa Impact and vote them out in 2024. In support of the cause, “Still where you belong” merchandise is available for order.
The Grand Haven City Council drafted a statement on Jan. 17 in support of diversity, equity and inclusion that they directed the human relations commission to send to the Ottawa County Commission. And in Hudsonville, as a preemptive measure, the school board has pledged to act transparently after several Ottawa Impact-affiliated members were elected.
Still, business leaders are questioning the county’s ability to attract and retain talent in an environment hostile to what DEI represents. Last year, Ottawa was the fastest growing county in the state, and the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce has expressed concern about the impact recent changes will have on the business community.
Meanwhile, just west of Ottawa County, in Allegan County, lesbian artist and Allendale alumnus Ruth Crowe discovered the effects of Ottawa Impact reach beyond county borders. Two Allendale Public Schools board of education trustees affiliated with Ottawa Impact voted against allowing Crowe to bring parts of her work, The Journal Project, to Allendale high school, which includes Crowe in its athletic hall of fame, for an educational program when her exhibit shows at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts (SCA) next month.
Crowe said there was pushback from the schools. “I think the number one reason was because of the gay issue, but I also think the mental health issue is part of it.”
When the project was presented to the board by the SCA, nothing was said of Crowe’s sexuality. “The Journal Project is not just about me as a gay person,” Crowe said. “It’s about what I went through and what I experienced as a gay person, but it’s really about all the different things: our relationships with our parents, with the world at large — with ourselves, really more than anything.”
As a distinguished alum, Crowe said she was “appalled” that two members voted against her project. “I really had a hard time with that,” she said. “So it just really bothered me, and I let it go at the time, but the more I thought about it, and then when this whole thing started happening with the Ottawa County commissioners, I knew that I had to do something.”
Crowe has decided to speak at the Feb. 13 meeting. When they met Jan. 9, the school board voted to hire the Kallman Legal Group as counsel for the district, just as the county did.
The reaction by some members of the board to Crowe and her art is proof of why her work is needed, she says. Where Crowe lives, in Saugatuck-Douglas, “a lot of the people around here, they just think life’s easy for gay people, like everything is fine; nobody cares anymore. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, no, that’s not true.’”
Crowe said folks in her area are paying attention. But she believes the original takeover by Ottawa Impact was due to low voter turnout. Of 224,301 eligible voters, 34.3 percent voted in the August primary. And while the turnout for the general election was record-breaking, the Ottawa Impact-aligned candidates were heavily favored to win in a district that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1864.
“Before you know it, all these people that didn’t vote are going, ‘Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute. We don’t want that. We want that.’ And guess what? It’s too late. You weren’t paying attention and they snuck in there and they have a lot of money.”
Crowe said Trump and his cast of characters were bad enough. She thought maybe once he — the big dog — was gone, it would be over. But she was wrong. Now she is fighting against the “little dogs.”
“You just have to keep fighting back,” Crowe said. “And that’s why I’m going in front of the school board. I want them to look me in the eye and see everything and be able to see everything that I’ve done in my life, which I’m very proud of. I’m very proud of who I am, and I’m very proud of what I had to go through to get here.”
“I’m not gonna change their mind,” she added. “I’m not trying to change their mind. I’m just trying to get other people to look at that and go, ‘Yeah, she’s right.’”