Grand Rapids resident Kelsey Perdue was one of 16 people appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month to the state’s newly created Black Leadership Advisory Council. The group will advise the administration on policy recommendations and also “identify state laws, or gaps in state law, that create or perpetuate inequities.” Perdue brings to the council experience in grassroots organizing for equitable policies in West Michigan. In addition to her position as director of storytelling and communications at the Grand Rapids-based Urban Core Collective, Perdue also serves as project director of Kids Count in Michigan at the Michigan League for Public Policy. She spoke with MiBiz about how her experience will fit with more than a dozen appointees from across the state, and the challenges and opportunities ahead.
What are some policy recommendations you expect to discuss with the Black Leadership Advisory Council?
From a policy perspective, I bring a varied approach to grassroots activity, being focused on voices that are closest to the pain, power and solutions, as well as more formal advocacy work with the (Michigan League for Public Policy) on state budget related policies.
From an agenda perspective, I’m really focused on seeing policies that are equity focused. I do not believe policies or state budgets are color blind. It’s not a fiscal document, but a moral document. Whatever we discuss, advise or recommend — if there’s an investment to be made and justified, that will come along with it.
You come to this role from a public policy and health angle, but what perspectives do you expect from the business or economic community?
One thing I love about this committee is bringing folks together from different sectors. I think that’s so critical. When we talk about equity and social justice, voices from the business and economic development community might be missing, but we really need everyone at the table. I’m a true believer that when you talk about any agenda, you need to consider both social and economic issues — they all work hand in hand. Having those perspectives and appointees is just as critical as a public policy appointee.
How do these issues around representation differ in West Michigan compared to other parts of the state?
In terms of the Black community on this side of the state, we don’t have the same sort of numbers or percentage of the population we do in Southeast Michigan, particularly Detroit. When it comes to issues on this side, our communities might be less out, but it’s a really great representation of the challenges we have throughout our state and the nation. Just because a racial or ethnic group is not ‘in the majority,’ doesn’t mean they should have less access to opportunities to power and influence. On this side of the state, with Black folks not in the majority, the challenge is: How do we still get things done that benefit the community? Are we making sure we keep all members of the community in mind? That includes Black communities and many others.
When announcing the advisory council, the state noted potential recommendations that might address state laws that create or perpetuate inequities. What are some that come to mind?
We as a state should consider strengthening our safety net. When we consider any budget priority and know policies alone are not color blind, do they have disproportionate impacts that are often unintended? Another thing is thinking about how we fund our school systems. Right now, there are so many disparities in funding for our schools. It hits low income and communities of color the hardest.
When we talk about equity, particularly racial equity for Black folks in this country, we did not get to this place overnight. Throughout history, it has been through intentional policies and decisions, many very recent. We’re not going to get out of it overnight. I can’t tell you one or two policies that will automatically make life better for Black folks. It is a cross-sector, multi-issue challenge. I plan to be a champion and the Black Leadership Advisory Council will be a champion. And we need buy-in from communities, businesses and every sector in order to make any real change.
What are some misconceptions that the council will need to address?
Often when we talk about racial equity, we tend to conflate race and class. The safety net, for example: That’s a class issue that has racial implications. Education funding is also a class issue that has racial implications. Also, Black folks who are not living in poverty also suffer with the current state of our policies and outcomes. I want to correct that to not conflate race and class. I don’t have all the answers — that’s why there’s such a diverse group of stakeholders called to really be champions around some we think we can successfully make an impact on, as well as achieve buy-in to move the needle.
The research around the Kids Count program has shown Michigan ranks basically in the middle of U.S. states for childhood well being. What is happening here that places Michigan in the middle of the road?
As a state, we need to make some bolder movement on the policy side with access to resources for families, strengthening our safety net and revising how we fund schools. That will really help us move ahead. We’re doing well in some areas — health is one. We have some of the highest rates of children with health insurance.
While poverty has gone down or improved, the number of families struggling to make ends meet has actually gone up. That has huge implications for business. We talk a lot about child care right now and as we recover from the pandemic, access to childcare and affordable childcare is getting the attention it deserves. Access to childcare is a women’s rights issue, it’s a business issue, it’s a talent pipeline issue. Tackling that will allow more families to work, allow stronger and sustained talent for businesses and, I think, can really help move Michigan forward.