Suburban bridge builders
As minorities grow, so may tensions. But not if these three have their way
BY JOHN GALLAGHER
Diversity is not something we celebrate only on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Nor does it concern only the city of Detroit.
Detroit's suburbs, though still about 90 percent white, have seen their minority populations increasing. The newcomers include blacks, Asians, Hispanics and people of Middle Eastern origin.
"It's a very positive occurrence," said Kurt Metzger, director of the Michigan Metropolitan Information Center at Wayne State University, which tracks demographic trends. "We are living in an extremely diverse country. People in the suburbs need to experience what they're going to be experiencing in the years to come."
Sometimes this trend sparks tension. But many suburbanites greet this growing diversity with open hearts.
Today we profile three such people. Their backgrounds vary. But each strives to advance harmony and understanding among all people.
Some immigrants come to Detroit to strike it rich. But Azar Alizadeh believes the American dream means more than just making money.
The quiet native of Tehran, the capital of Iran, came to Detroit with her husband, Hormoz, in the early 1970s. They opened a rug importing business from their home in Ann Arbor and, around 1980, opened the first of three stores in downtown Birmingham. Today, Azar's, a large showroom with piles of colorful and intricately designed rugs crafted in Asia and the Middle East, is a fixture on Old Woodward in downtown Birmingham.
But Alizadeh's entrepreneurial success has not blinded her to the racial divisions that bedevil her country.
Beginning around 1990, she and her husband began hosting monthly dinner seminars at their home. They would invite 30 or 40 guests. A speaker might be scheduled, or Alizadeh would generate a discussion among the crowd. The ongoing theme: how to translate America's ideals of racial harmony into everyday living.
It distresses her that many Americans see people of different races only at work.
"They are really not knowing them," she says. "We should really open our hearts, open our homes, to know that other person better. It is really time for America to do that."
So stimulating were the seminars that Alizadeh was recruited to serve as cochair of the Birmingham-Bloomfield Task Force on Race Relations and Ethnic Diversity. The group brings together police, educators, home owners, ministers and government officials for discussions each month. One recent all-day seminar drew 300 people.
The task force's goal mirrors that set by Alizadeh for her dinner seminars -- translate America's creed of equality into everyday reality.
Gale Colwell, executive director of the Community House in Birmingham, which sponsors the task force, says, "Azar has been a catalyst in our community for better understanding between people of different races and ethnic backgrounds."
Does it work? "We learn and grow from each other," Alizadeh says. But she remains a realist. "Race is America's most challenging problem. There is a lot of denial out there."
Alizadeh attributes her zeal to her Bahai faith. "The basis of the belief is the unity of mankind and seeing everybody as one, so I'm always interested in working with a group or a task force to further that," she explains.
But her devotion also stems from a gut understanding of the problem. Practicing the Bahai faith in Iran, where it is a minority faith, subjected her family to discrimination.
"Being Bahai, we had suffered in Iran," she says. "Thank God, freedom of religion is wonderful."
When Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson named a director of minority affairs in 1995, his critics dismissed the move as mere window dressing. After all, hadn't Patterson achieved notoriety representing anti-school-busing activists in the 1970s?
But since then, Richard Williams, the man named to the post, has won over skeptics. A Chicago native and former business owner, the husky Williams brings an entrepreneur's zest to a role that he largely had to define for himself.
A typical day may find him mentoring at-risk teens or cajoling bank executives to make more loans in poorer neighborhoods. Each day is different.
"Sometimes the office makes the person, and sometimes the person makes the office," says the Rev. Douglas Jones, pastor of Welcome Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, who has worked with Williams on youth programs. "I think over the past couple of years Rick Williams has shown that he's making the office."
With many affirmative action programs disappearing, Williams relies on moral suasion more than regulatory sanctions. For example, the county has no jurisdiction over how municipalities award contracts. But Williams still tries to influence such decisions.
"Because we see the whole county," Williams explains, "'we're saying, 'Listen, how can we work with your purchasing division to help small business?' "
Jones says Williams also works with the Greater Pontiac Community Coalition, a group of business, church, social and government organizations that tries to improve housing, recreation and educational opportunities for minorities.
"He's committed and dedicated," Jones says. "I think that he's making a significant difference."
Williams grew up on Chicago's west side. As a youth, he met with Dr. King during the civil rights leader's visits to Chicago. Once, escorting him to a podium, the teenage Williams asked King whether the dream could apply even to him. King's affirmative reply inspired him.
He earned an MBA but chased the dream "beyond the classroom," as he puts it, working in student government. Later, he moved to Milwaukee, where for years he ran his own business and dabbled in local politics.
After his wife, a General Motors Corp. employee, was transferred to Detroit, Williams volunteered as a mentor for Oakland County's economic development effort. "Next thing you know, they called and offered me a job," he says.
He's just entered his third year in that job -- longer, perhaps, than either he or Patterson's critics might have expected. But he's clearly inspired by the challenge of proving that King's dream of equal opportunity does indeed apply in the suburbs.
Kids always tease one another. But in the early 1990s, Al Qualman, a parent and youth volunteer, became concerned that the hazing at Northville schools had taken an ugly turn.
Some kids got hassled because they were black. Others were teased about being adopted, or fat, or of foreign birth. His own adopted daughters, two Korean sisters, suffered name-calling.
To Qualman, a stay-at-home dad with extensive experience working with troubled kids, the growing litany of complaints was like a calling.
"I thought, 'Gee, the Lord must be telling me something here,' " he recalls.
What Qualman did was round up parents, educators, police, church leaders and others. Together they formed ACORD -- A Community Organization Recognizing Diversity. Qualman became chairman and holds that post today.
The group holds monthly teach-ins about race and other issues. It also organizes special events like tonight's candlelit march in downtown Northville to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Qualman said many of ACORD's activities are aimed at familiarizing Northville -- long known as a white middle-to-upper-middle-class suburb -- with a variety of races and ethnic traditions. "It's more education than problem-solving," he says.
Mary Ellen King, a cofounder of ACORD and vice chair of the group, agrees.
"I believe that familiarity breaks down prejudices," she says. "It's a way of learning that we're more alike than different."
"And of celebrating our differences," Qualman adds.
Qualman has always been something of a bridge-builder. Trained as an engineer, he helped create one of the first-ever quality circles at General Motors, in which UAW members worked side-by-side with managers. He has been active for years in church youth groups, including counseling substance abusers.
When he and his wife, a teacher, decided that one parent would stay home with their children, Al agreed to be a Mr. Mom. He has no regrets. The freedom allows him to work on an issue of importance to a community he has called home for 26 years.
"One of our mottos," he says cheerfully, "is 'Keep the unity in community.' "
Staff writer John Gallagher can be reached at 1-248-586-2606.
©Copyright 1998, Detroit Free Press