Dorla Bonner reflects after one year as Kalamazoo’s Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion

Before taking on a leadership role in diversity, equity and inclusion for the City of Kalamazoo, Bonner had a plan, which would eventually lead to hard conversations about race. She certainly didn’t expect to dive into these conversations so soon after entering the position. After George Floyd’s murder, those conversations couldn’t wait.

The City of Kalamazoo began the new year by committing to a diversity, equity and inclusion assessment with the Michigan Public Health Institute. The assessment will examine processes and employee experiences to pinpoint where city government could improve in matters of equity and inclusion. 


Completing an assessment had been Dorla Bonner’s first goal when she entered into the role of the City of Kalamazoo’s first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director in February 2020. 


“The only way (our city government) can be transformed is to make sure you hit the spot; and without an assessment we don’t know where ‘the spot’ is,” said Bonner.


Bonner describes trying to create equitable change without an assessment like a doctor trying to prescribe headache medication without finding its cause.


“It would be like doing one implicit bias workshop and expecting transformation without knowing what really needs to be transformed,” Bonner said.


She isn’t sure yet if implicit bias in city government is just a simple migraine or something worse. That’s for the assessment to decide. 


Bonner’s goal to complete an assessment was put on the back-burner when the world changed drastically in 2020: first due to a global pandemic, and again when the murder of George Floyd caused social unrest. Other projects regarding diversity, equity and inclusion suddenly took priority. 


During her first year as director, Bonner helped amend civil rights guidelines in Chapter 18 of the City Code of Ordinances and helped seat and staff the Civil Rights Board which enforced it. She helped create the ordinance allowing recreational marijuana sales in Kalamazoo and a social equity policy to help break down entry barriers into the marijuana industry. Bonner is also part of a subcommittee to review police response to protests and other events which occurred during the summer.


All of these accomplishments, including the recent commitment to a city government assessment, are signs that the City of Kalamazoo is getting better at working toward diversity, equity and inclusion. However, Bonner worries that conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion are still not organic enough. Bonner hopes that someday the conversation surrounding race will be normalized.


Dorla Bonner discusses topics mentioned in this article in her own words. 

Making equity organic


Before entering her role as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Dorla Bonner spent around 30 years in workforce development, housing, education and youth services for marginalized communities. Her work then was transactional, Bonner says, because she worked with people on an individual basis, but not affecting systems. 


Bonner describes her current role as transformational, because her goal is to impact systems which may contribute to systemic racism in city government. 


“My job isn’t to change people’s hearts,” Bonner said, “it's to change systems, so that a person’s heart is revealed regarding diversity, equity and inclusion.”


But to create lasting change, work involving race and equity can’t take a tragic event to trigger them, Bonner says. A surge in media coverage and conversations about race followed the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. For Bonner, this moment was reminiscent of many other moments that she, and all Black people, keep experiencing. She doesn’t want to keep experiencing this moment.


“It made me cry to think about how many times in my lifetime we have been at that point. And it made me wonder what we need to do to keep the momentum for change. That’s why I work so hard at my job.”.


Bonner’s goal is to make sure that diversity, equity and inclusion are considered in everything city government does, and believes strongly that the assessment would provide the direction for transformation. Part of this work includes taking a closer look at current processes.  Among other things, the assessment will look into the process for filling City Boards. 


“A lot of our boards are very homogenous. On purpose or by accident?; We don’t know yet.” Bonner said.


Commission meetings provide another example. Prior to the meeting’s current virtual model, resident comments at in-person meetings displayed minimal diversity.


“Who comes to the Commission meeting and complains? Mostly white people,” Bonner said, “so they get heard and they get their needs met.”


The online meeting format has leveled the playing field, says Bonner, because more people feel comfortable stating their opinions from home. It is also more convenient for single parents, those without transportation, or people with disabilities who may prefer an online option. Virtual coverage provided a more equitable way, and Bonner is hopeful that it stays even after the commission begins meeting together at city hall. 


“We don’t want to go back to what was, because what was wasn’t representative of who we are,” Bonner said.


To keep making diversity, equity and inclusion an organic part of our lives, Bonner says we need to normalize conversations surrounding race. These conversations are less likely to happen because of demographics in Kalamazoo, and the nation as a whole. White people are the majority of the population in Kalamazoo, with Black people making up 20 percent of residents, according to the US Census Bureau. 


“When the majority is comfortable, it is not organic for them to consider the uncomfortableness of another group,” Bonner said.


Since white residents make up the majority in Kalamazoo, it is important for them to keep the conversation going. To do this, Bonner says they have to get past a barrier of being uncomfortable that can halt progress in its tracks, and may keep white people from participating. 


“People are going to be uncomfortable, and that's okay; we as Black people have been uncomfortable all our lives,” Bonner said.


Bonner stresses the importance of having white allies to drive conversations on race, but says it is important to know how to act as an ally.


“I don’t need a savior, I don’t need you to come rescue me. I need someone who will work with me.”


In 2020, Kalamazoo City leaders and many staff members completed an ERACCE (Eliminating Racism and Creating/Celebrating Equity) introduction to systemic racism training. Normalizing conversations about race is still a work in progress, but Bonner is thankful that 2020 made the conversation a little easier


Riding on the Shoulders of History


Before taking on a leadership role in diversity, equity and inclusion for the City of Kalamazoo, Bonner had a plan, which would eventually lead to hard conversations about race. She certainly didn’t expect to dive into these conversations so soon after entering the position. After George Floyd’s murder, those conversations couldn’t wait. 


Conversations surrounding race take place during meetings. Bonner often finds herself saying things like, “that doesn’t sound right,” or, “this is what that means to me, as a Black woman,” in response to colleagues, who continue to be receptive to her feedback.  


Bonner has become comfortable being raw and honest in this capacity, but it took her some time to get there.


“The first time I said something to someone, I went home and I was really uncomfortable because in other employment situations I would have been fired for that,” Bonner said. 


It can be conflicting to work in a government system that viewed her ancestors as property rather than people, and spent years actively trying to take away her rights and opportunities, Bonner says.  Especially since racism may still be a structural part of the institution that employs her. 


“American government was built on racism, and we inherited that,” Bonner said. 


Despite the emotional toll of these implications, Bonner says her participation in city government is building off of history; a history of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King who cleared the way for change. Bonner is humbled thinking about the work and struggle that brought her to where she is today. 


“People don’t think the civil rights era worked, but there would not be a seat, and I wouldn’t be sitting in that seat, if the struggle did not have an impact,” Bonner said.


2020 was another step in our path to social equity. Though the year will be remembered by many as a dark moment in our nation’s history, it shined a light on racial disparities which had been long ignored by those with enough privilege not to notice. Bonner appreciates the year for allowing her to say things she would have never been able to say as she did.


“This is pretty cool, and pretty scary, because you still don’t know how far you can go. How honest you can be,” Bonner said.


Bonner calls her position not a job, but a calling. She was surprised in herself to find such raw passion for her work.


“It's interesting to be the Black person doing this work, and you're the Black person that it's happening to, all at the same time,” Bonner said.


It's impossible to separate herself from her work, because in so many ways her life is her work. She cannot craft policy and tackle systematic racism in Kalamazoo without remembering how it has affected her life and her family in the past and present. She can’t help but think of her granddaughter, and hope that she won’t know those same experiences in the future. 


It is not surprising that Bonner works with tenacity to create transformational change in Kalamazoo, something that feels more possible with the support of her colleagues. Bonner says she often receives calls of encouragement from her fellow city leaders, and offers to help in whatever way they can. Support from fellow city leaders is hope that Bonner may see her goal of normalizing conversions around race realized. 


This work is no sprint, Bonner says, but a journey. It has been a long time getting to where we are now, and there are still many miles left to go. During her first year as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Bonner has learned to pace herself for the long road ahead.