Ideas to Consider #19 – A Community Rock: Wayman Britt

In July 2005, my life changed for the better. I started working for Wayman Britt.  For 15+ years we worked together as a team.  He was the Head Coach and Captain. I tried to be one of his go to players.  Last year, my health caused me to retire early.  On Thursday, July 22 I am fortunate to attend Wayman’s well-deserved retirement party.

It is hard to describe how fortunate I was to participate with, learn from, and experience several incredible adventures with Wayman. Some events that come quickly into my mind:

  • The beginning of the West Michigan Sports Commission.  
  • The quiet and loud conversations that created the Kent School Services Network and KConnect. 
  • The collaboration with the Road Commission to create a soil erosion ordinance.  
  • The detail required to figure out how to merge Kent County’s Community Development Department and Housing Commission with West Michigan Works! Community Action Division to create Kent County Community Action.  
  • The relationship building skills necessary to see specific millages passed for veterans and early childhood services while increasing the senior services millage to expand its reach.

I also saw his passion emerge as he worked day after day to reduce racial disparities and the ‘pipeline to prison.’  His connection to urban Scouting and the significant fundraising he did and does to support opportunities for young people has been and continues to be incredible.  Wayman’s behind the scenes leadership to get Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy (GRUPA) off the ground is a story that needs to be shared more broadly.  Without him, I am not sure it would have happened.  He had the right linkages to business, philanthropy, and public institutions to make it work.  The effort that he and another colleague in our office did regarding alternatives to incarceration by the 17th Circuit Court and Sheriff’s Office was priceless. Along with the judges, Court Administrator Jack Roedema and Sheriff Larry Stelma, they showed how Kent County did such a good job with successful alternatives that the Board of Commissioners accepted the recommendation to replace old dilapidated jail beds, instead of the presumed outcome that the County needed to increase the number of jail beds.  Today, the Court and Sheriff’s Office continue their efforts and the Correctional Facility average census is less than it was in 2007 when they issued their report.

Another skill I saw time after time was his negotiating prowess.  I saw him negotiate and close a complex deal with the State of Michigan, Grand Rapids Public Schools, the City of Grand Rapids, West Michigan Works!, ICCF, and community neighbors to get the Kent County Human Services Complex built which improved services to tens of thousands residents annually.

We also spent a good year working on and chasing down $100 million in a federal grant competition related to GR Whitewater, parkland acquisition, and other resilience related projects only to learn we did not get it.  Unfortunately, the federal announcement came the same week the Flint Water Crisis hit national news.  How do you give Kent County municipalities $100 million to improve flooding resilience when another community in Michigan cannot deliver clean water?  The optics were terrible and the federal award went to another community.  Talk about going from a high to a low in a matter of a few hours when we learned what happened.  But Wayman reminded me continuously how we could use what we learned because we went through the submittal process.  His perspective during difficult times often turned a defeating moment into an optimistic vision.

Wayman trusted me to lead a process to improve Michigan’s child welfare system by creating a data-driven, accountable system.  In some ways, this turned into a battle (my word) against many entrenched institutions (where one person with significant power told me they would ‘like to rip my heart out’).  Ultimately, the West Michigan Partnership for Children was created.  

One of the most important memories I have about my time in Kent County was related to this effort.  Wayman testified in Lansing on child welfare policy, and after his remarks we walked from the hearing to the Capitol for the Governor’s State of the State address.  There, we saw first hand how power works and the reality we were up against.  As we walked around meeting state Senators and Representatives from both parties, our noses led us to a smorgasbord of incredible food.  Prime Rib provided by XX Bank. Shrimp Cocktail on behalf of XX Corporation.  Dessert tray and fruit provided by XX Law Firm.  When we walked back to Wayman’s car that cold February night, we heard protesters in the distance chanting ‘Stop the Foreclosures’ outside of the State Capitol.  It was February 2008, and little did we know yet that the Great Recession was in its infancy.   

As I remember it, we both remarked that we were in a unique spot caring about and for abused and neglected children in the midst of the grandeur we just experienced.  And as we drove home, I kept thinking about how we would need to break through the time challenges of legislators who were bombarded with issues related to the financial interests and power of corporations that could spend lavishly.  This was going to take some incredible effort.  Fortunately, Wayman has the most incredible endurance and tenacity of anyone I have ever met, and we broke through.  It took almost a decade from that hearing to when WMPC was officially launched.

Last, before the pandemic raged its ugly head and my illness flared again, we were digging into difficult, county operational areas.  We prepared a Facilities Plan that replaced a ridiculously outdated Parks Office trailer with a modern, first-class building (I understand that it’s on track still) while also recommending the creation of a new Fleet Management facility and a combined northern Kent County outpost for the Sheriff, Health Department and other County departments. We were also ready to share plans on a new downtown County office building along with a revised Master Plan for the County’s Fuller Campus.  

We also began the groundwork to review another divisive issue – the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) – by considering other options like the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), and the impacts of housing policy on farmland. To do this, we made a change to the staffing model and insourced the staff position after the program used an outsourced consultant for roughly 20 years.

That’s a lot of teamwork in 15+ years.  But there is so much more.

My language changed during the course of my relationship with Wayman.  I learned the term ‘Running a Boston’.  I started using ‘Waymanisms:’

  • For my children:  ‘Be a leader, not a follower.’  And ‘Embrace the work.’
  • For my wife and other close friends:  ‘We have to learn how to tell people what they need to know, but in a way they can receive it.  We have to learn how to step on their shoes without them losing their shine.’
  • In meetings:  ‘You are who you are because of what you were when’ or ‘A system is powerfully designed to get the results it gets’
  • With close colleagues talking about teamwork:  ‘Two heads are better than one, even if one is a butt head.’
  • In my mind talking to myself:  ‘Lean into the conflict.’

I met incredible people from the national stage solely because I worked for Wayman, and we always tried to learn from them:  

  • University of Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin and Senator Richard Lugar when we were preparing the Sports Commission report
  • The real Coach Boone of ‘Remember the Titans’ fame on education and opportunity prior to when he spoke at the Fair Housing Center Luncheon.
  • Senator Gary Peters and Secretary Julian Castro on the environment as were researching the $100 million grant opportunity.
  • Coach John Beilein of the Michigan Wolverines on teamwork and culture (Fortunately, we met three times …. I definitely benefited from having a boss who has the Michigan Basketball Defensive Player of the Year Award named after him!)

As leaders, many of us have read or heard about the leadership traits Stephen Covey describes in his book:  The Speed of Trust ( i.e. – Talk Straight.  Demonstrate Respect.  Create Transparency.  Right Wrongs.  Show Loyalty.  Deliver Results.  Get Better.  Confront Reality.  Clarify Expectations.  Practice Accountability.  Listen First.  Keep Commitments.  Extend Trust).  In my view, Wayman has and will continue to live out these principles.  

He always showed up for me when I was sick and ended up in the hospital, and then went beyond to call my wife to check in on her and the kids too.  He demonstrated respect to others even after they disrespected him.  I remember calling out several people because of race related comments they made that I found to be insulting toward Wayman.  While I was hot, angry and bothered, he was able to somehow brush it off his shoulders like President Obama described.  I know it hurt him, but he kept moving forward despite it.  Doing the work, the hard work to make this world a better place.

This website/blog was created to discuss public policy and ways to make the world a better place.  This week though, it needs to be dedicated to the public career of Wayman Britt.  My idea to consider this week is this: 

  • Let’s look inside ourselves and figure out how to live a life similar to Wayman Britt.  

His public leadership will be missed, but I’m confident that the important things he does behind the scenes will continue forever.  It is who he is.

Thank you Wayman for being such a rock in my life.  I will forever be grateful.


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