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Mackinac Conference adds conversation on race, class to business agenda

From: Crain’s Detroit Business

By Lindsay Vanhulle

May 7, 2015

This year’s Mackinac Policy Conference will close with a panel discussion on what organizers hope is the start of a broader national conversation about race and class in Michigan — and beyond — and is prompted by the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

Organizers of this year’s conference, to be held May 27-29 on Mackinac Island, say they don’t expect to resolve the tensions that have led to riots and protests elsewhere after the death of black men while in police custody.

But at least talking about the underlying racial and economic tensions that have simmered and erupted in cities around the country is important, said Mark Davidoff, Michigan managing partner of Deloitte LLP and this year’s conference chairman.

Ferguson and Baltimore — which generated headlines after protests and riots spurred by the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, respectively—  parallel Detroit, which has its own history of racial unrest.

“We think this is a national discussion,” Davidoff said. “If we don’t talk about it, it might get ahead of us, and we can’t afford that.”

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said the session is important because it acknowledges that corporate and community leaders are aware that parallels do exist.

Panelists have not yet been announced, but Davidoff said conference organizers are working to ensure that the panel is diverse and authoritative.

The Mackinac conference, now in its 35th year, has key themes, or conference pillars, of talent, with a special emphasis on skilled trades; urban revitalization trends; and cohesion — more regional thinking and regional efforts on policy topics.

Mackinac will host state and national policy leaders who will talk about trends and research in areas ranging from education gaps to Michigan’s burgeoning food manufacturing industry.

Among the session highlights:

  • The team that steered Detroit through its historic bankruptcy will lead a panel discussion on the city’s future Thursday morning. Panelists are Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s former emergency manager; retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes; Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of U.S. District Court; and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.The Detroit Grand Bargain team has been making the speaker circuit, but this appearance will be a great way to capture “how those that crafted Detroit’s bankruptcy see Detroit’s future,” Baruah said.
  • Gov. Rick Snyder will open the policy conference Wednesday and give a formal keynote address Thursday. His topics have not been released, but organizers say it will touch on efforts to expand the skilled trades workforce. Snyder proposed increasing funding for career technical education and job training by 75 percent in his budget for the next fiscal year.
  • Vocational training and Michigan’s skills gap will be the topic of several other sessions. Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” and the new show “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” on CNN, will discuss his MikeRoweWORKS Foundation, which awards scholarships to students who plan to study skilled trades.The conference also will host a panel discussion on the subject Wednesday with Stephanie Comai, director of Michigan’s Talent Investment Agency; David Dauch, chairman, president and CEO of Detroit-based American Axle & Manufacturing Inc.; and John Russell, president and CEO of Jackson-based CMS Energy Corp. and Consumers Energy.
  • The conference will have more national speakers than it has in prior years, Baruah said, to bring a wider perspective to a conversation about Michigan. Those speakers will include Nate Silver, an East Lansing native, statistician and former New York Times columnist who now runs the website FiveThirtyEight.com; Doris Kearns Goodwin, an author and presidential historian who plans to speak about lessons from past presidents that are applicable to today’s leaders; Mellody Hobson, president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments LLC and chairwoman of the Glendale, Calif.-based animation studio DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.; and Walter Robb, co-CEO of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market.

Other topics of note:

  • The 2016 presidential election will be a topic of conversation in a Thursday panel featuring Harold Ford Jr., a former U.S. representative from Tennessee, and Dan Senor, author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.
  • Expect to hear a discussion about fixing Michigan’s roads before the conference closes Friday. Panelists haven’t yet been announced, but Davidoff and Baruah said a “what’s next” discussion would be added the agenda because of the timeliness. Proposal 1, which would have raised the sales tax and removed it from fuel sales while also raising fuel taxes, failed by a 4-to-1 ratio in Tuesday’s statewide election.
  • A congressional panel with U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, David Trott and Brenda Lawrence.