Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, is known for his advocacy work around clean air and water for Detroiters. (Courtesy photo)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer selected 20 Michiganders for the Black Leadership Advisory Council on Thursday; five are Detroiters.

The advisory council will develop, review and recommend policies and actions designed to prevent and eradicate discrimination and racial inequity in Michigan, according to a news release. While there are several other ethnic commissions under the Whitmer administration, the Black Leadership Advisory Council is the first of its kind to uplift Black leadership across the state.

Justin Onwenu of the Sierra Club, Rochelle Riley from the City of Detroit, Teferi Brent from Dignity 4 Detroit, Terrence Martin from the Detroit Federation of Teachers and Fatou-Seydi Sarr of the African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs were selected to represent Detroit. Flint and Grand Rapids are the only other cities to have more than one representative.

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Sarr said she was originally working to create a similar council for Black immigrants in Michigan but was told the governor was going to create the leadership council. A native of Senegal, Sarr has lived in Detroit for almost 17 years. She said the Black community has “everything to gain,” from this council and that it makes her proud to know that Black people have “access to a table where we can try to dismantle, re-create, imagine,and imitate how we move forward.”

Terrence Martin is one of five Detroiters who will serve on the Black Leadership Advisory Council. Martin is president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union and has advocated for equitable education policies in Detroit. (Courtesy photo)

“Black is Black,” Sarr said. “So, it’s good to be at the table, it’s good to have the perspective of the Black community and to continue to work and build with other Black folks. And I think the state of Michigan is overdue.”

There were more than 650 applicants from across the state. Those chosen come from myriad sectors and issue areas including law, health and wellness, technology, media and communications, and the environment. The council, which is housed under the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, will also include four committees: Education, Health, Community Safety, and Business Leadership.

Martin will serve as chair of the education committee, Brent will serve as chair of the community safety committee, and Riley will serve as co-chair of the council.

Martin said he’s excited to see Detroit representation on the council and to head the education committee. He said racial disparities in Michigan’s education system are “apparent,” but he hopes the council can make recommendations to create a model of success for Michigan.

“I was born and raised here in Detroit, I’m a Detroit resident,” he said. “My son goes to Detroit Public Schools and I am personally invested in a positive outcome from this council.”

“So, it’s good to be at the table, it’s good to have the perspective of the Black community and to continue to work and build with other Black folks. And I think the state of Michigan is overdue.” – Sarr

Whitmer announced the creation of the advisory council this summer after coronavirus highlighted barriers and disparities affecting Black Michiganders. Detroit was one of the hardest hit cities with over 1,500 confirmed deaths.  

“The coronavirus pandemic showed just how stark a lot of racial disparities are when it comes to health care, to access to adequate education, to access to clean air and to water,” said Onwenu. “And I just wanted to be able to work with state leaders and other community leaders to address these racial disparities.”

Onwenu is an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club. He says Sarr is the only other person he has worked with but he’s aware of the work of the others. Onwenu said he hopes to include others in the process so that Detroiters, and other Black people across Michigan, know their voices and opinions are being shared.

“I see that as part of the responsibility is to reach out to other activists, other parents, teachers, doctors in Detroit who are also doing great work and can also share what we should be pushing for as well,” Onwenu said.

Other members of the 20-person advisory council include:

James E. Atterberry Sr., Benton Harbor

Donna L. Bell, Southfield

Christopher Burtley, Flint

Jerry Clayton Sr., Ypsilanti

Kelli A. Ellsworth Etchison, East Lansing

Kelsey Perdue, Grand Rapids

Kathy Purnell, Kalamazoo

Theresa Roach, Flint

Joel Rutherford, Warren

Michele Samuels, Farmington Hills

Michelle Sourie Robinson, West Bloomfield

Carl M. Williams, Saginaw

Robert Womack, Grand Rapids

Alexis Dye, Muskegon

Karen Carter, Midland

Rep. Brenda Carter, Pontiac, *honorary representative of Michigan Legislative Black Caucus

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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