Michigan never had a black lieutenant governor until Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist won the election in 2018. Gilchrist grew up Detroit and surrounding suburbs before launching his career in technology development. He turned to advocacy and is now the ranking African American in state government.
Political Reporter Mikenzie Frost interviewed Gilchrist in his Senate President Office in the Michigan State Capitol to find out from him what it’s like, as a state leader, in a time of civil unrest and change.
Below is a portion of the interview:
Frost: This is an important topic for a lot of people, especially right now. You’re the first African American lieutenant governor, the highest ranking African American in state government. Do you think about that every day when you go to work?
Gilchrist: Thank you for having me, thanks for the opportunity. It’s something that is certainly that is on my mind, especially in this moment. We think about there are so many communities across our state, communities of color, the black community in particular in Michigan, really feeling like this is a moment of exhaustion, mixed with anger mixed with the need for change. I want to make sure that I’m setting a good example of leadership and reflect the kind of leadership that only happens when you have true representation. Like, I think about that every day.
Frost: What do you think is at the root of the frustration and like you said, the exhaustion of people right now?
Gilchrist: When people think about when they felt the most safe, it’s because it’s when they felt invested in. because they felt nurtured, because they felt supported. We want that for communities across the state of Michigan. I don’t want your ZIP code or the name of your city to dictate whether or not you feel invested in as a person or as the community to feel invested in. That’s why, I think, this moment is just the culmination of that call for justice and that call for equity.
Frost: You’re a parent. What worries you about your children growing up right now?
Gilchrist: Well, yeah. My baby girl will be one next week. I have first grade twins. Actually, it’s been an interesting moment because we’ve been able to talk about what it means to demonstrate. We’ve been able to talk about what it means to be in the street. Literally have them outside or have them look out the window of our home in Detroit, we can actually see where the demonstrators have been marching. But, my goal ultimately as a public servant, is to create the conditions where my kids can live their dreams and be their best self in Michigan. I want that for every child in the state.
Frost: What does implicit bias mean to you and do you see that at play during your day-to-day work?
Gilchrist: Children aren’t born biased. They’re not born racist. They’re not born prejudiced. Those are learned behaviors. But those behaviors can be learned and become so ingrained that you make choices without even understanding why you made those choices. That’s where that implicit comes in. Research has shown that you can tell people about that to help them recognize that it may be present in the decision-making process, which can help them at least be a little more thoughtful about how they make choices, or how they chose to be relational. How to build relationships in a more intentional way and choosing to invest differently to try and overcome those biases. I think that’s a good thing, especially when it comes to talking about law enforcement or any other kinds of leadership. I think it matters that you are mindful of those biases when you are working to build relationships in communities. I think that building relationships is the foundation of making sure, that people experience everybody in the community being on the same team. Everyone in the community supporting one another. I think that’s an important step to take and I’m happy that the Michigan Senate has stepped up and supported legislation to reform the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and add implicit bias training and to add continuing education requirements. Law enforcement is a profession, just like engineering, just like teaching or other professions that require you to hone your craft. I think that it’s important that it’s a standard in Michigan as well, so I support that.
Frost: When you were growing up, did you ever experience prejudice in any aspect of your life?
Gilchrist: Yes, directly. The first time I had an interaction with law enforcement was when I was 14. And then the first time I got pulled over by the police unjustifiably for going 24 [mph] in a 25 [mph speed limit zone] on my way to high school when I was 16, making me late for school, with an officer questioning me why I was a block away from my high school with a backpack in the passenger seat.
Frost: What do you think it says that you’re in such a high position in state government, and yet you’re still having some of the same experiences that people across the country are having with law enforcement right now?
Gilchrist: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, and frankly, that is still possible. If I go outside with a different outfit on, I could have one of those experiences today. So, I think that we need to be really cognizant that this is people’s real lived experiences. This is not a theoretical exercise for people who are calling, who are yearning for reform and yearning for change in this very visceral way. We are capable of designing a way for us to do relationship building between law enforcement and the communities that law enforcement serve; to remove that wall of separation, that wall of fear, that wall of prejudice. We can break down those walls in Michigan and show how this can be done, when we are all aligned on the same team, moving forward, investing in our communities, investing in our children, and building that brighter future. We can do that.