Pancakes & Politics Unites Michigan Leaders in a Transformational Dialogue on Race, Culture, and Religion

The final forum of Michigan Chronicle’s Pancakes & Politics 2023 series left a lasting impression on the attendees, as it delivered a thought-provoking message that delved deep into the realms of race, culture, and religion.

With a packed house, 10 distinguished Michigan leaders took the stage, sharing their personal experiences and reflections from a recent pilgrimage to Georgia and Alabama organized and led by Gary Torgow, Chairman of Huntington Bank. The diverse cohort of Michigan leaders and executives embarked on a transformative journey exploring the nation’s history, pealing back layers of oppression, racism, inequality, and systemic injustice creating a necessary dialogue to catapult change.

Following the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Torgow, driven by an overwhelming sense of urgency, initiated a series of conversations to address the unfolding events and their impact on society. Gathering a diverse group of colleagues, he sought to understand their personal experiences, coping mechanisms, and emotions during the challenging time. He describes it as “one of the most impactful moments” for the group.

Motivated by a deep yearning to enact meaningful transformation, Torgow seized the opportunity to assemble a group of influential figures from Michigan. Their collective mission revolved around embarking on a profound journey into the annals of the nation’s history, courageously venturing into its most shadowed chapters marred by hatred, misconceptions, and prejudice. Through their dedicated endeavors, they sought to ignite transformative dialogues and confront the unsettling truths that reside within the core of the country’s past, all with the ultimate aim of constructing a future that embraces inclusivity and justice.

The encounter during that journey forged a heavy but essential backdrop for the event, wherein the fearless leaders courageously posed difficult questions, provided candid answers, and openly emphasized the significance of elevating these discussions to larger platforms. They recognized the necessity of grappling with uncomfortable truths and engaging in meaningful dialogue as a means to foster greater understanding and drive positive change in and around Southeast Michigan.

The event was moderated by Dennis Archer Jr., who set the stage by delivering a compelling message on the intrinsic value of fostering understanding in the world, highlighting its potential to cultivate a more efficient and equitable economy. His words resonated deeply, emphasizing the crucial role that comprehension and empathy play in driving positive economic outcomes for all.

Hiram Jackson, the CEO of Real Times Media (RTM) and publisher of the Michigan Chronicle, took charge of setting the stage for the profound “Why” behind the initiative. With his characteristic poise and conviction, he captivated the audience, speaking with unwavering confidence and truth, effortlessly capturing their attention and eliminating any distractions in the room.

“Usually, people run away from conversations about race and culture, but these people here today and a few others that joined us, not only immediately agreed to join the trip but participated enthusiastically. It was a very emotional experience over the two days, and I hope that comes out here in the discussion. We are going to use this trip to hopefully spark a deeper conversation. A community wide conversation. The trip was important and we’re using it as a opportunity for us to share with you so hopefully you will go back to your respective organizations and create this type of energy.” said Jackson.

Rev. Wendell Anthony, the President of the Detroit NAACP, skillfully portrayed a vivid picture of the past as he dug into the taxing struggles and intricate facets of the civil rights movement. His insightful commentary and active involvement proved crucial in seamlessly connecting the dots between our historical legacy and the present world we inhabit, as well as the future we ardently aspire to achieve. By weaving together, the threads of our past, Rev. Anthony illuminated the significance of understanding our collective history as a means to shape a more inclusive and just future.

The conversation flowed relentlessly like a rushing faucet, with each panel member engaging in thoughtful reflection and offering their responses on various pressing topics. They passionately addressed issues concerning unjust economic initiatives, inadequate access to educational resources, the dire consequences of mass incarceration, and the heart-wrenching plight of homelessness, often stemming from traumatic experiences. The discourse was rich with profound insights and genuine concern, shedding light on the urgent need for systemic change in these areas.

“Detroit schools are segregated. They are underfunded and under resourced. Where is our voice in Detroit schools? Where are each of us standing up and saying we need more money? Equal funding isn’t enough. We need equitable funding for our schools. Where are each of us standing up and saying we have responsibilities to bring young people into our world, to volunteer and turn Detroit into a campus of learning?” expressed Angelique Power, CEO of Skillman Foundation.

Power articulated the profound impact of the journey, highlighting the stark contrast between stating desired changes and implementing them. She acknowledged the inherent challenge in turning aspirations into actions. Power further shared that their foundation had taken a significant step forward by conducting an internal racial equity audit, thoroughly examining their position on the precipice of change. With a sense of pride, they publicly disclosed the audit findings, demonstrating their commitment to accountability and aiming to inspire others in their pursuit of equity.

Jeff Donofrio, the CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, echoed the importance of accountability and taking proactive steps to drive meaningful change. He shared his personal reflections on the profound impact of learning about lynchings and mass incarceration, which ignited a resolute determination within him. Donofrio fearlessly confronted the issues he had witnessed, striving to change the prevailing narrative surrounding them. Describing the experience as “solemn, powerful and moving.”

“To realize some of these lynchings took place not too long ago, but within many of our lifetimes here. Sometimes we think the civil rights movement was in the past, but it’s today. It’s everything that we are trying to do. We drive that widely shared prosperity that’s part of our mission.” said Donofrio.

Chad Newton, the CEO of Wayne County Airport Authority, passionately expressed the belief that even a slight shift, just one degree, could have a profound impact on our world. He emphasized the transformative potential that lies within everyone to effect change. Newton shared that the trip had a deeply insightful and moving effect on him, further reinforcing his dedication to making a difference and contributing to a better future. 

Also sharing in the sentiments of change were panelist Jerry Norcia, CEO of DTE Energy, Kenneth Nixon, Director of Community Outreach & Partnerships Safe and Just Michigan, Father Tim McCabe, Executive Director and President of the Pope Francis Center, and Pastor Sharinese Jackson or Vernon Chapel AME.

The impactful forum on conversations and exposure to our collective pasts served as a catalyst for understanding the power of historical knowledge in illuminating the way forward. By acknowledging diverse historical narratives, cultivating empathy, promoting reconciliation, and adopting guiding principles for progress, societies can pave the way for a more inclusive, tolerant, and harmonious future. The forum provided a platform for valuable discussions and offered hope for a transformative approach to collective memory and shared histories.

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