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Leadership and Civil Discourse

By Dean Whittaker

The August 19, 2020 meeting of the Holland, Michigan city council was very dramatic. I watched the live stream of people speaking their truths with vulnerability and eloquence for nearly five hours. Ten years ago, the city council voted down the non-discrimination amendment under consideration on a 5-4 vote. The issue had resurfaced with the election of a new mayor and several new council members. It was time to hear public comment on an amendment to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation protection. The amendment was the culmination of 8-months of staff work, numerous city council working sessions and now 5 hours of public comment by over 30 people speaking of their lived experiences regarding discrimination on one side and others of their strongly held beliefs that this group not be given special protection. Many people sent letters to the council, including me. Attracting and retaining a diverse and talented workforce is essential to a thriving community. Simply put: a non-discrimination ordinance protecting all people will help Holland thrive.

What struck me most during the process were two things.  First, was the leadership by the newly elected mayor, Nathan Bocks, and second was the testimony of the people. To set the tone of the meeting, Mayor Bocks reminded those in attendance, and a large group of people waiting outside the chamber, that Holland is a civil community in which we treat each other with respect and that the purpose of the public comment time was for those who wished to address the City Council to express their concerns. He maintained this posture throughout the seven-hour meeting treating each and every person with respect and equality. He led by example. 

Many of the people testifying during the public comment portion of the meeting made memorable impressions and I could go on for pages if I detailed each one. For now I will make note one person who quoted from a 1965 speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s landmark speeches are familiar to me, but in their timeliness, these particular words at this particular time gave me goose bumps: 

It may be true that you cannot legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation

It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. 

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. 

Today we are still struggling to be better at accepting—and embracing—people who are different from us. I am pleased that the Holland City Council in 2020, at 1:30am, on a 8-1 vote, passed the amendment to the ordinance assuring LGBTQ+ people and their families that in Holland, Michigan the law gives them equal rights to employment and housing and thereby acknowledging, just as they are, they are fully human. 


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