After being named executive director of Equality Michigan in May, Erin Knott is focusing in on efforts to expand the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ people. As well, the organization is watching policy issues around topics such as conversion therapy, among others. Knott, who also serves as the vice mayor of Kalamazoo, spoke with MiBiz about how Equality Michigan sees the business community as instrumental in advocating for expanding the state’s civil rights laws, ultimately making Michigan a more competitive and attractive state for a broader group of people.
What are your goals as the new executive director of Equality Michigan?
Outside of our legislative and policy goals, we have goals toward 2020, building the base, building local power among members of the LGBTQ community and getting folks engaged in public service. We have a department of victim services where last year we provided crisis services and support to over 400 individuals that were experiencing violence, discrimination or harassment. We have a goal this year to increase our outreach and crisis services to 500 individuals. We maintain six pop-up offices across the state of Michigan. We really feel like we are spread all over the state — east to west and as far north as Traverse City — trying to provide crisis management services to those in need.
What drove the expansion of the crisis services?
The need is that we don’t have a statewide civil rights law. In Michigan, unfortunately, we can say you can get married on Saturday and fired on Monday because of who you love. People are experiencing employment discrimination, discrimination in housing, and unfortunately we are seeing an uptick in violence aimed at the LGBTQ community. We know there is a need. We’re trying to eliminate some of the barriers that go along with reporting discrimination or harassment. As an example, we know that approximately 46 percent of LGBT workers report being closeted at work. That’s kind of a secondary victimization that happens to folks far too often.
With Gov. Whitmer’s announcement of a renewed push for expanding Elliott-Larsen, how do you think the legislation will fair in the state Legislature?
These are pieces of legislation that have been introduced dating back to the ’80s. The last time we had any real movement around expanding Elliott-Larsen occurred in 2014 when we had a committee vote in the House but never got as far as an up-or-down vote in the House. I think it’s no secret the majority leader and speaker of the house have publicly stated these bills are not going to move.
How can your organization try to get traction on the issue?
We’ve been working in coalition across the state with employers, with the business community, with faith-based organizations, as well as members of our community and allies to put pressure on the Legislature. Michigan should be open to all, and nobody should have to face discrimination or harassment because of who they love.
What is the business community’s role in this?
Equality Michigan, back in 2014, convened a coalition of businesses. Right now, we are working to expand that coalition of employers across the state of Michigan to work with us to amend Elliott-Larsen. We know that when LGBT employees don’t feel welcome at work, they are less likely to stay. Employee turnover is a drag on the state’s economy and business competitiveness. It costs companies an average of $9,600 to replace an employee in Michigan and it could cost $440,000 potentially to replace a senior executive. Businesses have a strong incentive to not only create an inclusive workplace, but also put pressure on the Legislature.
What happens if legislators don’t expand Elliott-Larsen?
If we want to compete, we need to be modernizing our state’s civil rights law. Businesses and employers know this. We know that Fortune 500 companies and companies that are smaller are already doing this work. They are providing inclusive workplace personnel policies. They are sponsoring Pride events all over the state during the month of June.
That being said, I talked to a rather large company based here in Southwest Michigan. They talked about how they recruit employees from all over the country. When they come to the area, the employee is protected by the workplace non-discrimination policies, but their spouse is not. The local community does not have a non-discrimination ordinance, and they feel vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. It’s been a real impact on (the company’s) bottom line, because their HR department is constantly having to attract, recruit and attempt to retain talent.
What effect does Equality Michigan’s policy work have on employers?
Joining Equality Michigan and working in coalition, it reduces the political risk by building critical mass. Because businesses have their own legislative agenda, speaking up on this divisive issue is often in opposition to elected leadership. It can create the risk of political retaliation. But if businesses or employers join their peers, the risk of being an isolated target drops significantly. This work we’re doing is going to require many voices. The emergence of the business community is going to be a major force for the LGBTQ community. It’s changed the conversation. Business leaders and the coalitions that convene them, I believe, are going to have a game-changing role to play in 2019 and beyond.
Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith.
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