KALAMAZOO, MI — Pressure continues to mount on Southwest Michigan First, as institutions organizations across Kalamazoo County have announced separations from the influential economic development group.
The Kalamazoo Promise, which oversees the administration of scholarships for free college tuition to Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates, is the latest to separate from Southwest Michigan First, announcing the decision on Friday, Feb. 19.
Last week, Southwest Michigan First announced it hired former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield as its new CEO.
Chatfield, a Republican, has since taken criticism for policy stances while a legislative leader, such as when he opposed legislation that would expand civil rights protections to include gender identity and sexual orientation in 2019, saying at the time he believed it would infringe on religious freedom.
“Given the recent hire of Southwest Michigan First’s CEO, and the position he’s held in regard to matters of diversity, equity and inclusion, The Kalamazoo Promise has decided to separate ties from the SWMF Board of Directors,” The Kalamazoo Promise said in statement sent Friday.
Though a representative from The Kalamazoo Promise serves on the Southwest Michigan First board of directors, The Promise did not participate in the selection or hiring of the new CEO, the scholarship organization said, and believes the new leadership “brings to question the level of value that SWMF places on diversity, equity and inclusion.”
It underscores misalignment with the work The Promise values, and goes against the values of The Promise, the organization said.
“We know that to strengthen the local economy it requires intentional focus toward the work of economic development especially with communities that have been systematically left out,” The Kalamazoo Promise said.
The first of its kind, The Kalamazoo Promise began in Kalamazoo in 2005 when a group of anonymous donors recognized the hurdle that college tuition poses in determining the futures of young people, and formed the group that has a mission to provide free college tuition to qualifying residents in perpetuity.
“We are reminded in these times how important our work is in transforming our community,” The Kalamazoo Promise said in the statement. “We are committed to leaning into hard conversations and working with partners (public, private and non-profit) to break down the policies and biases that perpetuate inequities.”
The group said it will work to address inequalities and will be persistent, but not patient.
“The time is now to address the injustice and lack of equity in our community,” The Kalamazoo Promise said in the statement.
Von Washington Jr., executive director of community relations at The Kalamazoo Promise, is listed as a Southwest Michigan First board member. Washington could not be reached Friday for comment.
The Kalamazoo City Commission was the first to pull its funding from Southwest Michigan First. The county’s Board of Commissioners has also discussed pulling its funding of the group.
The Kalamazoo Community Foundation recently cut ties, and the president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College resigned this week because of the CEO selection. Western Michigan University President Edward Montgomery, a Southwest Michigan First board member, criticized the CEO choice in a statement issued to MLive this week.
KVCC president resigns from Southwest Michigan First board over CEO hire
Western Michigan president: Southwest Michigan First CEO’s policy positions don’t align with WMU’s values
Kalamazoo Community Foundation ends membership with Southwest Michigan First over misalignment of ‘values and vision’
Kalamazoo County will consider cutting annual $75K payment to Southwest Michigan First
Kalamazoo commissioners cancel membership with Southwest Michigan First over CEO selection
Former House Speaker says politics not a factor in new role at Southwest Michigan First
Kalamazoo city commissioner says new economic development CEO does not share the region’s values