Mackinac Policy Conference Returns Amid Competing Issues

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference in September.


The annual Mackinac Policy Conference brought together movers and shakers, your newsmakers and decision makers. The Detroit Regional Chamber made it happen during a pandemic, amid the climate of social justice, and efforts to rejuvenate an economy after it sat still for a year.

After the MPC was canceled in May 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference returned and with less people.

One of the nearly 1200 attendees for the conference made it his business to attend and network. Raising awareness on the need for access to capital for black entrepreneurs is the reason Dwan Dandridge, co-founder and CEO of Black Leaders Detroit Fund (BLDF), took the 370-mile bike ride to Mackinac Island for the annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

“For far too long black entrepreneurs have not being able to gain access to capital. They’ve been very creative in finding different ways to start, launch, stay afloat, and whether different storms,” said Dandridge. “We want to remove the need to be so creative. We just want them to be able to do the same things that entrepreneurs from other communities are able to do.”

Dandridge says his organizations work has been on the ground helping entrepreneurs well before the social justice efforts following George Floyd’s murder and the COVID-19 pandemic with highlighted economic disparities for the black businessperson, the reason he launched BLDF in 2019.

As Dandrige raises money, he raised and peaked the attention many people in the political, businesses and financial class on how he arrived to the very same conference they were attending. Dandridge says he bike wasn’t easy, but it had to be done.

“The journey was as challenging as anyone could imagine …we faced some adversity on the way here. We had eight miles of rain that we had to ride through on one occasion, we had power go out at one of the hotels we stayed in, but we just used it as motivation in realizing that there are adversities the black entrepreneurs we are looking to support go through on a daily basis.”

Back at the conference, there were many panel sessions or conversations which put a spotlight on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion across multiple industries.

Carladenise Edwards, Executive Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer at Henry Ford Health System, didn’t mince words in her rebuke of the notion companies and organizations are truly being more diverse and inclusive.

“It’s a lot of PR”, said Edwards, in response to a moderator’s question to what organizations are doing as it relates to their announcements on diversity and inclusion. “I just think the only way to get around this is for us to actually do what we say which is to create a plan, create a strategy, live in to the plan, and hold yourself accountable for the outcomes and you only do that if you tell people what it is. So many companies have done a good job of telling people what it is. Now, our job is to hold them accountable for it. Look at what they said in those earnings calls about what they were going to do and ask them if they actually did it.”

Edwards also took issue with the black hiring of diversity officers and calls on more black hires in C-suit positions. “If I look on Linkedin one more time and I see another black person take a another diversity job, I’m going to scream. I believe that women and people of color can do more than be your chief diversity officer. We’re scientist, we’re teachers, we’re economist.”

Edwards’ comments were made in a conference panel focused on Investing in Health Disparity.

During the Mackinac Policy Conference, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced her MI New Economy Plan on the big porch of the Grand Hotel. Her plans calls for reaching a 60% goal of adults with some level of post-secondary education by 2030, pulling 100,000 families out of poverty over the next five years, accomplish being a top 10 state for small business growth, and rehabbing housing units.

“It’s a comprehensive vision for the state’s economy and a plan to meet the opportunity of this moment by growing the middle class by supporting small businesses and by investing in our communities,” she said.

For what he once described as a “1,000-year storm”, Detroit Water and Sewage Director Gary Brown found himself at the Mackinac Policy Conference looking to talk less about flooding these days and more about infrastructure.

“We’re spending $100 million a year to rebuild the infrastructure,” said Brown. “When we had the big flood in June, I think it got missed that 90 percent of the city did not flood.” Brown refenced the recent 7-8inch rainfall and flooding along the east coast from the storm reminisce of hurricane Ida, saying Detroit similarly received just as much in a short period of time.

“It was traumatic for the 10 percent of Detroiters that did flood, I don’t want to undermined that statement at all. It was horrible what happen to them and we have to make sure we have a system that is more resilient that it never happens again.”

Brown said between the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) and the Detroit Water and Sewage department, hundreds of millions of dollars is being spent to upgrade the very aged water system throughout the city. Brown who attends the annual Mackinac Policy Conference every year, is seeking to share the positive strives that are made, and also noted the fight he’s under to secure permanent funding sources, including financial aid from Washington to help low-income water customers.

The attendees for the conference concluded with varying perspectives on their takeaway from the annual gathering.

“Everything is on the table,” said Portia Roberson, CEO of Focus: HOPE. “I think no one every expected that at Mackinac Policy Conference we would have to consider not only social justice issues, but public health crisis, and whether that can happen again. I think what we’re finding is everyone is talking about all kinds of issues and that there is no one topic that is more important than the other.”

Marvin Beatty of Greektown Casino believes we’re “a community that is crisis-driven through this whole pandemic. It doesn’t seem like there’s a theme I think the Chamber realized that they would move forward with a conference but by the same token it appears they struggled in bringing a neutral centrality experience to bring all these points together”.

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