Equality Michigan steps out

In unprecedented videoconference, merged agency reveals new name, new plan

by Jessica Carreras

Though the players are the same, it seems to be a whole new game for Equality Michigan.

Yes, that's right - the name of the organization created by the merger of the Triangle Foundation and Michigan Equality is finally public. Announced in a May 13 videoconference that was cyber-attended by over 50 LGBT and allied Michiganders, Equality Michigan also revealed their rewritten mission statement and goals and objectives, as well as answered questions from participants.

Though the merger was official in January, the group has spent the last few months gathering a committee comprised of people all across Michigan, as well as conducting surveys and town halls, aimed at shaping their future - and deciding their new name.

The response for the name was "overwhelmingly" supportive of Equality Michigan, but answers to questions about what the group's priorities should be, what programs they should beef up or discontinue and which legislative goals trumped others were widely varied from the over 1,000 participants ranging from Traverse City to Kalamazoo to Detroit.

"The tremendous and substantial response we received was humbling, and we really appreciate that you wanted to participate in this process," said Executive Director Alicia Skillman, who conducted the videoconference with board Chair Denise Brogan-Kator. "What it really showed us was that you wanted to be engaged and involved."

Thusly, their conference included of-the-moment questions shot at them from participants. Here's a look at what we learned:

What are the primary objectives of the new agency?

Alicia Skillman:

Our first goal is to achieve full equality under the law in Michigan regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Goal No. 2 is to engage and activate communities in support of equality for Michigan around those same core categories. Goal No. 3: We need to build political power in support of Michiganders around those same categories - the LGBT community and their families. And we need to build a strong, effective, inclusive organization - Equality Michigan - capable of achieving our mission.

Will programming change?

Denise Brogan-Kator: We are in the process of developing a strategic plan, and naturally, as we go through this strategic plan, it's possible that we will enhance our programs, modify our programs, etc. But we remain committed to the core values that drive us that we listened to in the development of this plan that we got from you. Those values and the core programs of victim advocacy, education, outreach - to fully inclusive anti-discrimination protections - absolutely will not change.

Motor City Pride, of course, we think is core and central to our mission and this year's planning is in full gear. We will continue to produce this event that is so beloved to our community.

A.S.: And we'll see you in Lansing for Michigan Pride this summer.

Where are Equality Michigan offices located now and where will they be located?

A.S.: The current headquarters will still remain in Detroit, however the plan is to open offices in Grand Rapids and in Lansing. We are looking for locations currently. We also are in discussion about having an office up north.

What is Equality Michigan's stance on bullying?

D.B.: Equality Michigan's stance is consistent with both Michigan Equality and Triangle's stance on bullying. We care most about the protection of our children. We care about making sure our kids do not get bullied.

There has been some discussion about enumeration versus non-enumeration. Let me be very clear: Equality Michigan only supports an enumerated policy. The fact that the law may be non-enumerated - that would not be our first choice, but we can work with that as long as we understand that on the street, where the rubber meets the road, bullying occurs in schools. As long as we have an enumerated policy at that level, we will stand behind it and support it and work to make that happen.

Will Equality Michigan provide legal services for the LGBT community?

A.S.: We believe it is important that our community receive respectful legal representation from knowledgeable attorneys who know what our issues are, who know how to treat our clients. However, we do not provide legal services.

What we do is find attorneys who are competent, who are comfortable with our clients and we match people together. Whenever we have a client that needs an attorney, we search for an attorney who knows the issue and who knows the work.

How will you handle advocacy and presence in Lansing?

A.S.: Part of our goal is to have our legislative presence headquartered in Lansing, disseminating across the state. In this way, we'll engage you with your legislative representative, we'll be in Lansing with that legislative representative, but we will have contact with you in your home areas. So we have a complete process: no one is missed in your home area, no one is missed in Lansing.

How will Equality Michigan help us move forward regarding marriage?

D.B.: When we did our surveys, it was very clear to us that marriage equality is very important to the LGBTQ communities in the state of Michigan. It is not everybody's top priority.

Clearly, we all understand that there is a marriage amendment in our constitution. Overcoming that amendment will be a challenge in and of itself. But we will continue to work on that. Our No. 1 priority is a fully inclusive non-discrimination policy within three years, and we think that is a key step on the way to achieving marriage equality

What's the plan for statewide election involvement this year?

A.S.: We are currently working with other organizations and strategizing about the political landscape of Michigan this year. We want to ensure that the candidates out there know our issues and understand what this particular community needs to come out of Lansing.

We hope you are involved, and stay tuned to us so you can get ongoing information about the political landscape in Michigan this year.

D.B.: This is, in fact, your organization. You wrote the business plan, you wrote the strategic plan for our organization. You set what our goals are and how we're going to achieve them. Don't quit now. We need you involved in this organization. We need you volunteering. We need your dollars. We need your voices in Lansing. We need you to pick up the phone. We cannot achieve this goal, we cannot move this mission forward and achieve equality for all of us in this great state without you.

What kind of university or college outreach does Equality Michigan hope to have? Will there be speakers on a variety of topics that we can bring to campus?

A.S.: There's a piece in our strategic plan that speaks to developing a network throughout the state that involves all GSAs on campus, that involves every university so that we all can work together and energize the youth that are on campus.

And yes, we are creating a speakers bureau so we can educate people who want to participate in the speakers bureau and have you in every part of the state so that whenever anyone needs a speaker about the organization, we can rapidly respond to your request and get someone out to speak to you.

I understand that Equality Michigan is now part of the Equality Federation. What does that mean and what benefits and resources will that provide?

A.S.: The Equality Federation is a group of statewide organizations, and each statewide organization is very similar to Equality Michigan - a statewide organization that's fighting for equal rights in their own state.

We pay a fee and it provides us with lots of training, technology - when you interact with our new website, the interaction you have with us will come through technology provided to us through the Equality Federation.

There's an annual meeting every August and we discuss policy and legislative action. We all get to sit down together and discuss federal legislation, state legislation. We get to compare notes and figure out what has worked in one state that maybe we should bring to another state. The Equality Federation makes it easier for us to speak to each other across the country. It's a great organization and a great benefit to us.

Will Equality Michigan take specific steps to encourage Ford and Chrysler to formally endorse the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as GM has done?

D.B.: One of the things that we are geared specifically for is to reach out to the business community to engage them actively and proactively in not just the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but Elliott-Larsen, which is the state non-discrimination law.

We have a difficult time in our state of Michigan right now. The economy is, as everyone knows, as battered as any economy can be. And yet, at the same time, organizations such as these are having a difficult time attracting employees.

We have a tremendous supply of people and of talent - people that might consider moving to Michigan if they felt like this was a welcoming and encouraging state. That's part of our mission - to reach out to these companies and help them reach out to their potential employees as well as current employees in helping us to move our mission forward.

To learn more about Equality Michigan, watch their website for updates: http://www.equalitymi.org. The full videoconference can also be seen at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/triangle---michigan-equality.
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