Millennial Robin Carter-Cooper is looking to help forge a better tomorrow in a county with a checkered past.
Even in turbulent times, silver linings can be found in the most unexpected places. On July 1, Oakland County welcomed Robin Carter-Cooper as the county’s first ever chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
“I think I’m most excited to build authentic relationships with the community. I’m coming with my own thoughts and ideas, but this isn’t a one-woman show. It has to be collaborative and connected. This is a big step and a really good sign for Oakland County,” Carter-Cooper says. Before taking this post, she worked most recently as the executive director of instructional equity for Rochester Community Schools.
She was born and raised in Flint and says she became an equity activist in large part because of what she experienced “just being a Black woman in Flint.” She says, “I do this work of equity activism, but I also live it from multiple ends. I was exposed to inequity from a young age, and it was like a crash course. I saw a community full of good people that had no resources, access or proper opportunity to fairly thrive. We had obstacles that stopped us from progressing and cost us our freedom, and I saw people beat impossible odds that they couldn’t control. That’s why I challenge unjust systems today wherever I see them.”
Carter-Cooper reports directly to Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, who took up the appointment last year after the sudden passing of previous executive L. Brooks Patterson. By the time he died, Patterson had developed a reputation as a hard-nosed transplant from Detroit with a grudge against his hometown as well as most policies that would connect Oakland to the rest of the region.
Echoing the community of the county he adopted, Patterson was a staunch opponent of transportation reform and integrating schools via busing. And who could forget the infamous “blankets and corn” comment?
Frank Russell, publisher and content editor for The Pontiac News, worked as a human resources analyst in Oakland County for 34 years. He served that last 15 years with Patterson and says it was “a nightmare.”
He says, “The main problem was the HR department. We tried for years to instate a program or policy of inclusion, but there were so many people there who were apathetic to diversity and people who actively fought it. When Brooks passed, I made it my personal commitment to talk to several board members about addressing these issues. I went down with some people like Commissioner Janet Jackson from Southfield, and we emphasized the importance of a position that would fight to educate the higher-ups.”
According to census data, Oakland County is a 14% Black and 4% Hispanic, and Russell says those citizens haven’t felt fully represented or served for a long time due to a mixture of stereotyping, lack of contact and context, and lingering tension between Democrats and Republicans.
“I have issues sometimes discerning Democrats from Republicans, as (Democrats) take us for granted and Republicans just ignore us,” Russell says. “But I’m happy and elated that Robin is on board, and I can’t wait to meet her and let her pick my brain, and to pick hers. This is a great opportunity, and I know she’s got excellent ideas.”
Carter-Cooper says she knows a quick fix is not the answer. In her senior advisory role to Executive Coulter, she’ll provide information and insight about the state of diversity, inclusivity, intersectionality and equity in areas of Oakland, like the job market and the education and health care systems. She’ll also work to increase diverse hiring and employment sustainability practices in the departments.
“In order to look at dismantling and restructuring systems, you have to be willing to understand the roots and the history of the systems. Who were they created to support and oppress?” Carter-Cooper says. “Talking to the community and gathering data first is important because without connecting it to a system change, initiatives aren’t effective. This is 500 years of injustice. We have to be really intentional in our plans and go deeper than the surface.”
In addition to championing equitable treatment and opportunities for students, Carter-Cooper has been dedicated to working with the National AIDS Education & Services for Minorities for and alongside the LGBTQ+ community.
She also spent time at the University of Michigan as the director of the health careers program, engaging Black and minority students to foster and grow their interest in medical professions. While there, she says she got an “intimate look” at the problems plaguing Black Americans in health care.
“I saw the school-to-prison pipeline working right in front of me,” Carter-Cooper says. “I had the honor of learning about gender and sex discrimination through the eyes of the most vulnerable in the LGBTQ community. When I went to work for primarily white people in Rochester, I saw that there were inequalities there as well, poverty and things like that. Understanding the intersections of systemic inequity is essential to this work.”
Coulter, who was mayor of Ferndale before becoming Oakland County’s executive, says that Carter-Cooper’s new position will be “a free and non-restricted” role that plays to her knowledge and strengths, and will allow her to work internally and externally to rectify years of misunderstanding and segregation.
Coulter was “pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response” when the position was announced, both from jobseekers and the community at large. “There’s a lot that’s great about Oakland, but there’s ways we can be more successful and progressive. Supporting all of our residents means everyone has a seat at the table. That’s the only way Oakland is going to be collaborative partner in the region,” he says. “The relationship hasn’t always been positive, but making sure everyone is respected and heard is integral to my leadership style.”
Carter-Cooper says she has a great feeling about moving forward as a partner with the Coulter administration and that they showed genuine promise even prior to her hiring. “The Coulter office really went above and beyond with the COVID-19 response, particularly when it came to evaluating how the virus was affecting minorities and African Americans. It’s exciting to work with a culturally knowledgeable team that’s as passionate about the work as I am,” she says.
For a longtime public servant like Russell, Carter-Cooper’s appointment is a breath of fresh air for everyone involved. “I lived through the ’60s and the (civil rights) movement. There were aspects of it I didn’t agree with, and I felt at times we fell for the civil rights okey-doke,” Russell says. “But now, we have scores of young and liberal white people caring and getting out there. It’s a long time coming, and if it didn’t happen right now, it probably would’ve never happened.”
Arianna Smith is Detroit-based freelance writer.