Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared Wednesday “Juneteenth Celebration Day” after kicking off festivities with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at Lansing Community College last week.
The governor spoke with the Advance exclusively on Wednesday about the importance of commemorating the day slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865.
It was also the same day in 1982 that Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American man, was killed in Highland Park by two white autoworkers angry about the growth of the Japanese auto industry. Whitmer said she believes part of her job as governor is “to take on hate.”
She also declared June Pride Month in Michigan and is flying the LGBTQ rainbow flag outside both the Romney Building and the governor’s residence in Lansing.
Whitmer discussed challenges her administration is facing, including diversity issues with the Michigan State Police and the crisis in Benton Harbor Area Schools. The state has proposed closing the high school while the district deals with academic performance issues and an $18.4 million debt.
“We’re having an ongoing dialogue with the school board and with leaders in the community. What we put on the table was a proposal. It wasn’t an ultimatum,” she told the Advance.
Whitmer, Gilchrist, state Treasurer Rachel Eubanks and state School Reform Officer Bill Pearson attended a town hall meeting at a Benton Harbor church this month in which residents protested the plan.
And the governor talked about her commitment to having a diverse cabinet and staff, stressing that “when government reflects the population; it’s more mindful and responsive and representative and real.”
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: How important is it for you to lead an agency like the Michigan State Police that is committed to ethnic, religious and gender diversity?
Whitmer: It’s incredibly important to me and a top priority. When I was making a determination as to who the director of MSP would be, it was a frequent question of me for each of the candidates, acknowledging that we’ve got work to do.
And I think that MSP Director Col. [Joseph] Gasper had the most thoughtful strategy and was innately focused on it as well before I even prodded on the question. And so running a [state] trooper schools is incredibly important.
And that’s why that’s reflected in my budget — identifying people within the agency who might not automatically have a leadership development opportunity, but seeking that out and ensuring that we’ve got real paths for growth and ascending the ranks for people of color, for women, for religious minorities.
These are important and thoughtful things that we are doing across state government but with MSP, in particular, it was a critical component of my decision to make Gasper the colonel.
Michigan Advance: On Benton Harbor, some have argued that the local school board should have the opportunity to create a solution to what ales the school district. How do you speak to that position?
Whitmer: We’re having an ongoing dialogue with the school board and with leaders in the community. What we put on the table was a proposal. It wasn’t an ultimatum.
We put a lot of thought into it. We talked to a lot of people in the community before we introduced it. It was reflective of our commitment to maintaining the district in Benton Harbor, but also giving them the support and giving them the ability to get their debt under control and turn around outcomes for kids.
Benton Harbor and a number of other districts that fall under this category have suffered from a historic inequity in funding for education, where wealthier districts get more for students than districts and people in poverty get less. And it’s the exact opposite of what all the science tells us that we should be doing.
And that historical inequity that has been exacerbated by the fact that there has been a theft of the School Aid Fund and total disinvestment of education, generally. And so communities like Benton Harbor that are feeling the worst of the brunt of these historic decisions.
I’m determined to fix it. And that’s why we’re working with the community. They rejected the proposal that I put on the table and that’s fine, but we are going to continue to work together because we’ve got to get this right. The children of Benton Harbor need an education to be successful and we’re failing them.
Only 3% of third graders are at reading level in Benton Harbor Area Schools. Of the last five 11th grade classes, zero [students] tested [as] college ready. That means that doing nothing is not an option. We have to continue to be thoughtful and collaborative, but also determined to turn this around.
Michigan Advance: You proclaimed [Wednesday] as Juneteenth Day in Michigan. Why was that important?
Whitmer: I’m grateful to have this opportunity to be the 49th governor of Michigan and I’m determined to be a governor for everyone.
As a legislator, I worked very closely with the Juneteenth Committee in the Lansing area who have been long organized in educating the public on the importance of recognizing when abolition [of slavery] was finally recognized by the rest of the country.
So many people don’t know the history of why that is important. And so I’m going to use my platform to educate the public to recognize this important milestone, but to also highlight the work that we have yet to do together.
Michigan Advance: In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was fatally beaten by autoworkers in Highland Park who were angry about the growing success of the Japanese auto industry. What are you doing as a governor to make sure that this type of tragedy doesn’t happen again?
Whitmer: First and foremost, anyone with a platform — whether it is in the private sector or the public sector — has to be very mindful that it is critical to live our values. To really act the way that we hope and expect the public to. To use every opportunity in our reach to infuse that across our organizations.To level barriers to ensure that state government looks like and reflects the values of the population statewide.
We have the most diverse state cabinet in the history of the state of Michigan. If you look simply at my legal team on my executive team. … I was sitting at the table sort of marveling the other day. There is, for the first time ever, a Native American as a part of my legal team. There’s an African American woman. There’s an Albanian American woman.
I think that it’s exciting when government reflects the population; it’s more mindful and responsive and representative and real to the things that people want to see. But we also have to use these platforms to take on things like bullying and hate.
For the first time ever, we’re flying the Pride flag at the Romney office building where my office is [located] and in my home, the official governor’s residence.
I’m going to take every opportunity to use this platform to lift up communities across the state that haven’t been noticed or recognized, but also to take on the hate that was shown in the Chin murder, and also in our schools and communities every day in this environment right now. It’s more important than ever.