Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has appointed more than a dozen Black leaders from across the state to the newly formed Black Leadership Advisory Council.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has appointed more than a dozen Black leaders from across the state to the newly formed Black Leadership Advisory Council.

The diverse group of established leaders prove that Black Michiganders are not monolithic—and they’re ready to disrupt the status quo.

LANSING, Mich.—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made appointments to the state’s newly-formed Black Leadership Advisory Council on Monday, bringing together a diverse group of Black Michiganders to serve advisors to the governor’s office.

The group has been tasked with the development, review, and recommendation of “policies and actions designed to prevent and eradicate discrimination and racial inequity in Michigan.”

Kent County Commissioner Robert Womack has been selected by Gov. Whitmer to co-chair the advisory body along with City of Detroit arts and culture director Rochelle Riley. He says he’s proud to add his 30 years of activism to help lead the Council. 

“I am committed to helping our governor close the gap in educational, housing, health, and equity disparities that historically have existed in the State of Michigan,” Womack told The ‘Gander. “I am proud to help lead this Council on a successful  endeavor to address systemic racism in Michigan.”

Groups like the NAACP have existed for decades to help legislate on behalf of the Black community, but Saginaw branch president Terry Pruitt says the Advisory Council is a necessary step forward.

“COVID-19 exposed significant disparities that exist throughout our society,” Pruitt told The ‘Gander. “It’s important for state leaders to understand these disparities—not just from a data perspective—but by those who actually experience it and are much closer to it, and can give their input.”

He pointed out that much of the work done by civil rights organizations like the NAACP, United Council of Negro Women, and the National Urban League has laid the groundwork for potential future accomplishments of Michigan’s Black Leadership Advisory Council.

“We’ve moved past the equality issue and into the equity issue,” Pruitt explained of the need for such an advisory body.

His branch of the NAACP is lending its first vice president, Carl Williams, to the Council, and Gov. Whitmer expressed similar hope for the work to be done.

“Listening to a diverse group of leaders and creating partnerships in our communities has been a priority for my administration since day one,” Whitmer said in a statement. “In order to confront systemic racism head on, we need members like those on this Council to inform our work in state government. This group of leaders includes experts in economics, public policy, health, technology, the environment, and more.”

Karen Carter, chief human resources and chief inclusion officer for Dow Chemical, joins the Council as chair of its business advisory committee, saying the appointment left her “truly humbled and honored.”

“This work is necessary,” Carter told The ‘Gander.  “This work is critical…I will leverage our journey, learnings and progress at Dow, as well as our partnerships to elevate best practices and strive for meaningful change across industries in Michigan. I look forward to working collectively to make a difference for all.”

Carter brings more than 20 years of corporate experience to the Council and says she is “incredibly passionate about creating a future that is built on diversity, inclusion, and equity to positively benefit business, community and society as a whole.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchist, Michigan’s highest-elected Black official, said the Council’s creation affirms “a truth that Michigan has benefitted from for generations.”

“The leadership shown by Black Michiganders in all areas of life and work is critical to the vitality and prosperity of our state,” he said. “The Council affords the state’s largest racial minority group an empowered presence at the tables of policy- and decision-making.”

The Work to Be Done

The Black Leadership Advisory Council is one of several state-created ethnic commissions in Michigan. Though Black Michiganders are the largest racial group aside from the white majority in the state, the Council is the first of its kind to elevate Michigan’s Black leaders. 

The Black Leadership Advisory Council falls under the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and will act in an advisory capacity to the governor and “develop, review, and recommend policies and actions designed to eradicate and prevent discrimination and racial inequity in this state.” 

The Council will also work to identify state laws—or gaps in state law—that create or perpetuate inequities, collaborate to promote legislation, and regulation that ensures equitable treatment of all Michiganders, serve as a resource for community groups, and promote the cultural arts in the Black community.  

According to the governor’s office, the appointments are not subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.  

RELATED: Gov. Whitmer Creates Task Force to Address Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Deaths

Meet the Leaders 

Gov. Whitmer appointed the following 16 Michiganders to the represent their respective fields on the state’s Black Leadership Council: 

James E. Atterberry, Sr. | Benton Harbor | Faith-based Leaders

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2022
Rev. James E. Atterbery, Sr.
Photo via Facebook

Atterberry is the founder and pastor at the Brotherhood of All Nations COGIC Church and is a former Berrien County Commissioner. He holds a Certificate of Achievement in Ministry from Moody Bible College. 

Donna L. Bell, Ph.D. | Southfield | Tech Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2022
Donna L. Bell, Ph.D.
Photo via LinkedIn

Bell is the global director of technology and features strategy and planning at Ford Motor Company. She holds Master of Science degrees in Engineering Management and Electronics and Computer Control Systems, as well as a Ph.D. in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Wayne State University. 

Teferi Brent | Detroit | Community Safety Chair

Term: Undisclosed
Teferi Brent
Photo via Twitter

Brent is co-chair of Dignity 4 Detroit, a coalition of community leaders created to address violence in Detroit. Mr. Brent is the founder, leader, and member of several criminal justice reform organizations and has been organizing against urban violence for over 25 years. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Eastern Michigan University and a Master of Business Administration from Baker College Center for Graduate Studies. 

Christopher Burtley | Flint | Law & Youth Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2021
Christopher Burtley
Photo via LinkedIn

Burtley is an associate attorney with Foley & Lardner LLP. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Michigan State University’s James Madison College and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School. 

Karen Carter | Midland | Business Leaders Committee Chair 

Term: Undisclosed
Karen Carter
Photo via Dow Chemical

Carter is the chief human resources officer and chief inclusion officer for Dow Chemical Company. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Howard University and a Master of Business Administration in International Business from DePaul University.

Jerry L. Clayton, Sr. | Ypsilanti | Community Safety & Preparedness Leaders

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2021 

Clayton is the Sheriff of Washtenaw County. He also serves as a training consultant for the National Institute of Corrections and CEO of The Cardinal Group II, a policing and corrections training company. 

Alexis Dye | Muskegon |  Health Committee Chair 

Term: Undisclosed
Alexis Dye
Photo via Facebook

Dye is the communications and development manager for Hackley Community Care. She currently serves as chair of the Muskegon Health Disparities Coalition and as a board member with Community enCompass. 

Kelli A. Ellsworth Etchison | East Lansing | Economic Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2023
Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison
Photo via LAFCU

Ellsworth is the chief marketing & diversity officer for LAFCU. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Northwood University. 

Terrence D. Martin | Detroit | Education Committee Chair

Term: Undisclosed
Terrence D. Martin
Photo via Twitter

Martin is the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) and a former elementary teacher for Detroit Public Schools. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from St. Francis University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Marygrove College. 

Justin N. Onwenu | Detroit | Environmental & Youth Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2021

Justin Onwenu
Photo via LinkedIn

Onwenu is an environmental justice organizer for Sierra Club. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Health and Policy from Rice University. 

Kelsey Perdue | Grand Rapids | Public Policy & Youth Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2022
Kelsey Perdue
Photo courtesy of Grand Circus Co.

Perdue is the project director of Kids Count in Michigan for the Michigan League of Public Policy and the director of storytelling and communications for the Urban Core Collective. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Human Development from Howard University. 

Kathy Purnell, Ph.D. | Kalamazoo | Law Immigrant Experience Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2021
Kathy Purnell, Ph.D.
Photo courtesy of Western Michigan University

Purnell is a staff attorney with Justice for Our Neighbors-Michigan, a non-profit providing immigration legal services. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Harvard University, a Ph.D. in Government from Cornell University, and a Juris Doctor degree from the DePaul University College of Law. 

Rochelle Riley | Detroit | Media & Communication/Arts & Culture Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2023

Riley is the director of arts and culture for the City of Detroit and a former award-winning columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Governor has designated Ms. Riley to serve as Co-Chair of the Council.  

READ: Museums, Arts and Culture Institutes Are Opening Up In Detroit. Here’s What to Know and Where to Go

Theresa Roach | Flint | Health & Wellness Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2021
Theresa Roach
Photo via the Neighborhood Engagement Hub

Roach is the program director of active communities for the Crim Fitness Foundation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Central Michigan University and a Master of Arts in Communications & Digital Media Design from Saginaw Valley State University. 

Joel Rutherford | Warren | Government Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2022
Joel Rutherford
Photo via LinkedIn

Rutherford is the chair of the Official Democratic Black Caucus of Macomb County. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force where he served as an air traffic control specialist. 

Michele Samuels | Farmington Hills | Health & Wellness Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 and expiring Dec. 31, 2023

Michele Samuels
Photo via Blue Cross Blue Shield

Samuels  is the vice president, general auditor, and compliance officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Windsor and an Executive MBA from Michigan State University. 

Seydi Sarr | Detroit | Educational & Immigrant Experience Leader 

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2022

Seydi Sarr
Photo via Facebook

Sarr is the founder of the African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs (ABISA). She also works as a program associate for the Detroit Public School Community District. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Wayne State University and a Master of Arts in Social Justice from Marygrove College. 

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2023

Michelle Sourie Robinson | West Bloomfield | Economic Leader

Michelle Sourie Robinson-1-8106pp
Photo via Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council

Robinson is the president and CEO of the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Administration from Oklahoma State University and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Kansas. 

Carl M. Williams | Saginaw | Public Policy Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2023
Carl M. Williams
Photo via LinkedIn

Williams is the vice president of the NAACP Saginaw Chapter. He previously served as a state representative for the 95th House District, mayor pro tem, and a member of the Saginaw City Council. Mr. Williams retired from Delphi Automotive Systems where he was a production supervisor. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Central Michigan University. 

Robert Womack (co-chair) | Grand Rapids | Public Policy Leader

Term: Nov. 12, 2020 and expiring Dec.31, 2023
Robert Womack
Photo via Kent County

Womack is a county commissioner in Kent County where he serves on the Finance and Physical Resources Committee. He is also the general manager and program director for WYGR 94.9 FM and Community Empowerment Radio, Inc. Gov. Whitmer has designated Commissioner Womack to serve as co-chair of the Council.  

Additionally, Rep. Brenda Carter (D-29), of Pontiac, will serve on the council as an honorary representative of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus.  

Michigan State Rep. Brenda Carter D-29)
Photo via BrendaJCarter.com

On Monday, Gov. Whitmer expressed excitement for the work the Council can do.

“I know that those on the Council will continue to be a force for change in Michigan, and I am excited to work closely with them to create a more equitable and just state for all.” 

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist echoched the governor’s sentiments.

“These leaders’ diverse perspectives will be essential as we work to fight to against systemic inequalities experienced by far too many Michiganders,” Gilchrist said. “I am eager to work alongside them to create a Michigan that enables all Michiganders to pursue their fullest dreams and potential.” 

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