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Unity, understanding, and hard work: GRCC President shares his viewpoint on race relations and how to combat inequality

Grand Rapids Community College (Sabrina Edwards/The Collegiate)

In indignation over racism, police brutality, and the tipping point, the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, people across the nation have taken their outrage to the streets. 

Is this the best way to handle the situation? How do we address and combat institutional racism? How do we handle these circumstances at home, at work, and at school? Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink has some ideas. 

Growing up, Pink described living in a “poverty household,” saying that he and his four siblings, along with his parents, lived with his grandmother. 

In reflecting back on his time in college and the years that have gone by since then, Pink said he believes there has been forward progress, considering that he himself is evidence of that: a black man with a doctorate who is the president of a community college. 

“I don’t think we can say that nothing has happened,” Pink said. “…Over the past decade, I think what we as a country have found out is that we haven’t progressed as much as we thought. I think what we have found out in the last week and a half is that we have really found out… that we certainly haven’t progressed as much as we had thought or hoped we had progressed.” 

Discussing the difference between overt and covert racism – the former being obvious and public racism compared to the latter being discrimination that is disguised and more subtle – Pink believed that, over the course of decades, overt racism was losing prominency. However, he said that in the last few years there appears to be regression.

“What you had in the last couple of years, though, has now migrated back toward overt racism. That, to me, is what we’re seeing manifest itself in these last several weeks,” Pink said, noting the death of Ahmaud Arbery and Floyd. 

“The danger we have is that we, as a society, as a country, we have found that we have not progressed nearly as much as we had thought we had nor as we had hoped we had in this question,” the president said. 

Pink said that he believes what was intended to be a silent and peaceful protest Saturday evening was “hijacked” by people who had varying ideas of how to protest and “by some people who took advantage of a situation to truly act unruly.” 

“I would not denounce at all the need for people to make sure that their voices are heard,” Pink said, “but there’s a difference in making my voice heard than in damaging property of someone who had nothing to do with any of the atrocities, who has built a business with their own hands and in some cases, those are African American people who built the business.”

“I have no regard for matching a horrible, horrible act of violence upon a man like George Floyd… with another selfish effort of damaging property and violence,” Pink said. “We can’t get there that way. That’s not how we’ll get there.”

How do we get there, then? Pink believes the answer lies in the community and “institutions like ours” (referring to GRCC). 

“In my mind the community college, GRCC, is the best source of getting that type of convening, that type of work (done),” Pink said. “…We have students on our campus, faculty and staff on our campus, who look at every different style of ethnicity, social orientation, sexual orientation, political orientation, we hit it from both ends of all those spectrums and everything in between.” 

The president compared the responsibility the college, community organizations, and residents of Western Michigan have to a simple, albeit challenging, lesson parents taught their children: you have control of yourself and no one else. 

“The work that we do here will not change the world, it will not change the world,” Pink emphasized, “but it will change Grand Rapids and it can change Grand Rapids. It can change West Michigan.” 

As someone who has been “plugging at it for a long time,” Pink said he does not believe this situation will resolve quickly: “you can’t solve a centuries long problem overnight,” though it doesn’t make it any less vital. 

“This is the part people don’t like to hear: it may take the kind of work that you nor I may not see in our lifetime actually succeed,” Pink cautioned. “That’s the hard part about these kinds of conversations because people want to see quick change.”

Diversify, Pink suggests, spend time immersed in other cultures, other faith communities. Take actionable steps to learn more about people who don’t appear to be like you are. 

“Forget everything you thought you knew and start over,” Pink said. “Wipe your slate clean of what you thought about black people, of Latino, Latinx people.” 

Call out injustices and racism when you see or hear them, Pink said, and if that doesn’t work, people may need to take a more proactive approach.

“You have to confront, and if necessary, get rid of those people in your life that you know have racist tendencies or racial biases,” Pink said, noting that it’s okay to distance from those who behave in a way you don’t agree with. 

“A) Calling it out when you hear it, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What did you just say?’… And then B) if the calling out doesn’t work, you’ve got to do something to say, ‘Look, I can’t hangout with you anymore because I’m trying to be better.’”

Pink thinks it’s important to “acknowledge that we are all on this journey and not only do we need to learn along the way, but we need to be intentional about how we learn.” 

“The thing that I have to make darn well sure of is that while I’m in this space, I need to figure out how we continue to lay, unfortunately, lay foundation,” Pink said. “I say unfortunately because we are still adding foundation… we should be working more on the building by now. And yes, I am convinced that we will get there.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 4:12 p.m. on June 2 at Pink’s request so he could add a comment to acknowledge the hard work of those who came before him at GRCC.