OAKLAND COUNTY — The message at Oakland County’s inaugural Welcoming Week Friendship Games Sept. 14 was “be you.”
“A lot of people have hidden themselves. Maybe they’re afraid of ridicule or any kind of judgment, but that’s not Oakland County anymore,” said District 14 Oakland County Commissioner William Miller, who organized the inaugural event and spearheaded the Welcoming Week resolutions. “This is Oakland County welcoming you, so just be you. Be what you want to be and who you want to be.”
On April 18, the county’s Board of Commissioners passed a resolution, with a 16-5 vote, to join the Welcoming Michigan initiative and designate the county as a welcoming place for all residents, including immigrants and refugees, which received some bipartisan support across the aisle, Board Chairman David Woodward said
District 3 Commissioner Michael Spisz said he voted no because the board majority voted against passing an amendment to include the word “legal” in the resolution.
“We agreed in principle to the concept, and they probably would’ve had a unanimous vote if they put the word ‘legal’ in there,” Spisz said.
On Sept. 5, the board passed a resolution declaring Sept. 13-22 Welcoming Week in the county.
Welcoming Michigan is an organization that works with municipalities toward the goal of building mutual respect for foreign-born and U.S.-born residents who call Michigan home. Overall, Welcoming Michigan works with 22 municipalities that have currently passed resolutions, and a handful of others that are taking steps to get there.
Despite less attendance than Miller had hoped for at the Friendship Games, a pickup soccer game that kicked off at 2 p.m. at Harrison High School, he said he was pleased with the inaugural event.
The event was well-attended by state and county constituents, Farmington Hills city staff members, and cultural organization leaders, but residents were few. Miller chalked it up to only having a short timeline to plan and promote the event.
“We were hoping for more people, but hey, as long as we get people here and we’re starting it — you have to start somewhere,” Miller said. “It only takes one to move forward.”
Miller and Woodward said they will work toward a bigger, better event next year and put in place some tangible, action-based ideas in the meantime.
“The words matter, and it’s important to stand up and declare that Oakland County is a welcoming county,” Woodward said. “But we’re going to be judged by our actions and how we live up to it.”
Woodward said county officials are going to be working with Welcoming Michigan to identify policies that will help shape, develop and implement actions that show the county is living up to its word. The county also plans to seek to strengthen its partnerships with already existing cultural organizations and schools that share the county’s mission in welcoming all residents and providing them services.
With Oakland County having the largest population of foreign-born residents in Michigan — at 12.4% — Welcoming Michigan Director Christine Sauvé said it makes the county’s participation in this statewide initiative “even more important and exciting.”
“Making a formal commitment to welcoming and including all residents I think helps communicate to those who live in the county already, as well as those who might be considering moving to the county, that there’s a place for them,” Sauvé said. “They can become part of the social fabric and it makes a difference for them.”
In the upcoming year, Miller and Woodward are hoping to continue to work with the Board of Commissioners to initiate open communication channels, actionable conversations, and work toward facilitating a county that makes every resident feel welcome and safe. Miller also already has another idea planned for next year’s Welcoming Week.
“An idea is to potentially do a big circus tent with different tents inside of it, where when you walk into a tent, you’re actually walking into another country,” Miller said. “Where you can actually experience, whether it’s through food, music or dance, the cultures of other countries represented here.”