Leading the Charge: Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist

We sat down via Zoom with Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist to discuss being first, equity, family – and how 2020 has changed everything.

Garlin Gilchrist
Photos by Boswell Hardwick

BLAC: We understand that the community is incredibly proud of your accomplishment and what you’re doing. What is it like being first? What type of pressure comes that? 

Gilchrist: I appreciate that. People have been immensely supportive of me especially in the Black community, but frankly, the state of Michigan has been proud of the diversity of our leadership team. People have their political differences, but the state of Michigan has represented well. I’m thankful for my partnership and friendship with Gretchen Whitmer.

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I see the importance of being first when I’m working with young people. Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time in elementary and middle schools working with students. And it’s been really cool because you can see it. You know, I look like I could be somebody’s older brother or cousin or uncle. Kids will have a different type of conversation with me. 

Most people have never met – or get to meet – an elected official. And, so, my goal, as part of the success in my service, is making this more accessible to more people so that people who may see me in office believe that this is a path that might make sense for them, and they’re going to be smarter and more talented. They will be able to be even more successful.

I won’t be an anomaly, but, instead, I’ll be an opening. I’ll be an on-ramp for other people to be able to do big things, whether it’s wanting to be an elected official, wanting to be successful in business or wanting to do whatever they want to do in art, et cetera. My role is really one of trying to have an impact now and to create space for the future.

B: Talk about Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. What do you think that means for our community?

G: It’s amazing. On the night that the election was called for Biden and Harris, I took a picture of my 17-month-old daughter, and she had this celebratory look, hands up, looking at the screen. It’s a baby, right? But I know that I’m going to show her that photograph when she’s older because that was a meaningful moment in history.

I think it’s important because there have to be people at the vanguard. And, so, having someone like Kamala Harris at the vanguard, someone who is as conscientious as she is, someone who is as understanding of how important her success is to our community, I expect her to do a phenomenal job.

You know, I know a little something about being somebody’s running mate and breaking a barrier. Her and I have actually spoken about that phenomenon. Most importantly, what I’m looking forward to out of her service is that she’s going to show that it’s not that she’s in that position because of her identity – it’s that her identity will actually make her better at being vice president.

She will have more perspective to bring to the role. That’s going to lead to people having, perhaps, a different perception of the vice presidency after she’s done. That’s really important. One mark of a history maker is you leave the thing better than you found it.

B: Talk to me about that, about history being made. How do you navigate that with your own family, knowing that you’ve made history? What does that look like? How do you have those conversations?

G: Well, it’s actually very simple because in the Gilchrist household, where I am one of five, I am the least important person in my household. There’s nothing more humbling than your spouse and your children. And, so, actually, none of that matters. I am the father who is just here and happy about changing diapers, who messes up in the kitchen, who didn’t take the trash out soon enough.

I’m that person at home, and that keeps me grounded. That balance is very healthy, because you don’t want to get too caught up. You have to recognize that we elect people to public office, and they can’t lose their personal life. That disconnection from reality is quite dangerous if that happens. My family keeps me really grounded in that. And, so, no worry. You don’t have to worry about me getting too far out there ‘cause my 7-year-old daughter will correct it.

B: They are going to put you right back in your place. That’s the beauty of family. So, this is probably the most important question that I’m going to ask: When you’re making dinner or doing your chores around the house, what’s your playlist? What’s your go-to?

G: Oh my gosh. I’ve got a certain era of Detroit hip-hop that I enjoy. Any Royce Da 5’9” or Elzhi, I’m here for all of it. That’s typically a staple. It goes between that when I’m listening by myself or maybe I’m listening to a news or politics podcast or what’s playing very often. Our baby girl, she likes to dance and she really likes electronic music to dance to so a lot of electronic stuff is going on in the Gilchrist household, too.

B: What’s your go-to when you’re making dinner?

G: Oh my gosh. This is going to be so underwhelming. For breakfast it’s straight bacon and eggs, but if I’m struggling, they are going to get some chicken nuggets from the freezer. That has not been a skill that I’ve developed well, unfortunately. I don’t have anything to do unlike vice-president elect Harris, who I understand is quite good. So, yeah, I don’t have that.

Garlin Gilchrist
Photo by Boswell Hardwick

B: You mentioned leaving things better than you found them. As we look to the future, what can we look toward as you start thinking about your legacy?

G: The first thing that’s important is that I want people to recognize that the lieutenant governor is an important partner and ally and resource, not only to the governor but to the state, and that it’s a role to be taken seriously. When a person is in that role and is empowered, they can have a positive impact, and I think our administration is going to set that example.

Specifically, I would like it to be true when I am out of office – or out of this office – that we have a deeper, more empathetic understanding of what racial justice actually looks like. I’ve been very transparent in articulating my experiences as a Black man, especially earlier this year when there was such a public conversation around law enforcement and bad interactions between law enforcement and people of color. I talked about my own experiences that started for me when I was 9 years old and persistent through my adulthood. 

That we can have a better understanding of what we need to do to fix that, not only in terms of policing, but in terms of how our people interact with one another overall. The stuff with racial disparities that we’re looking at when it comes to health, but, also, when it comes to access to economic opportunity, educational pursuits – these are things that we’re trying to lay a foundation for.

We put in place some infrastructure to do that. The Black leadership advisory council is one example of that. How we make decisions as state government, I think, will be different. It will be more grounded in looking toward equitable outcomes for communities. I’m really proud of that. 

The other piece I’m going to be thinking about in 2021 is with this public health crisis. We have seen it coupled with economic calamity for people of color, for Black folks and for people period. And, so, I’m going to be spending a lot of time – I spent a lot of time in 2020, frankly – trying to get internet access for students and small businesses.

The state of Michigan has been one of the leading states in terms of providing state-based resources to small businesses to be able to get some money to try to stay afloat during this pandemic. Going forward, we want to focus on what the economy looks like going forward? What can we correct about the economy that was broken before the pandemic? How can we course correct that to make sure that there is more access to opportunity for more people? How can more people with ideas see those ideas as viable, as possible in the state of Michigan?

No matter what your professional dreams are, what your profession is, I want people to feel like their future is attainable in the state of Michigan. When I graduated from U of M College of Engineering, I wanted to be a software developer, and I thought I had to go to the West coast.

I don’t want anyone in any profession to feel like that’s true. Whether you’re an engineer or an architect or an artist, whatever it is, I hope that you can see that there’s a path for you here in our state. And, so, there is infrastructure to be laid to do that. There are policies that need to be enacted to do that. There are training opportunities that need to be made available to do that.

I’m going to be focusing on making that true and making that possible so that we can retain the strongest assets that the state of Michigan has. And that is our people and the diversity of our people. Whether that’s in Detroit, like I am, or whether that’s in Iosco County in the northern lower peninsula or Delta County in the upper peninsula.

Wherever you are I want you to feel like Michigan can be your home to raise your family, to build your future. And doing that from this position is an exciting challenge that I look forward to every single day.

B: I don’t know that anyone came into 2020 expecting this sort of chaos with a global pandemic leading into other issues. How have you had to shift your priorities with all of this coming in unexpectedly? 

G: You know, it’s interesting. At least three big things happened in Michigan this year: obviously, the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, this generational call for racial justice, and we also had a once-in-500-years flooding event happen in Midland. That happened, and, so, I’ve spent time there and in Sanford, and working with people who were helping to recover from that. I just mentioned that to say that, no, we didn’t see this coming in 2020.

But the truth is, I believe that all of us are in the positions that we are for such a time as this. Some people’s leadership never gets tested, and I believe ours has this year. I think Gov. Whitmer and I have done our best to try to rise to the challenges that we’ve faced, and we have been able to do so, frankly, because the people of Michigan have really stepped up in a big way all across the state.

You’ve seen in this unprecedented challenge unprecedented attempts for people to come together. There were billboards in the city of Detroit calling for volunteers to go to Midland to help with the flood. There were people joining the movement for Black lives in Escanaba, Michigan. That shows that these calls for justice, these calls for help, these calls for healing, they transcend certain things that have divided us over our history.

If we can think about what can transcend, if we can think about what connects, if we can think about what we share and if we can then use that as the foundation to build upon when we’re moving forward, we’re going to have a better state. We’re going to have better connected communities. 

My priority from jump has always been how can we better connect our people and better connect our communities. Now, sometimes that may have been in these explicit ways with public transportation and the internet, but then we also can zoom that out to a higher level. So, I won’t say that my priorities have shifted, but maybe the pathway to making progress from those priorities has had to change because of the events that have happened.

B: What else has 2020 taught you?

G: We’ve been reminded of the importance that every person has the capacity to influence and impact our communities for the better. The individual choices that people made in 2020 have either made their community safer or put their communities at risk.

In taking that a step further, the choices that people made to step up and solve problems and stand in the gap for people, the leadership that people have shown, that makes a difference. I hope that we retain that spirit, that desire to lean in going forward, to step up and to lead, and to fill the gaps when you see them.

That’s what we need to make sure that our society is actually working to the best of our potential. And we need that because there are so many people hurting. And when you specifically want to talk about the Black community, there are so many of our brothers and sisters that need support and there is a role for all of us to support them.

Whether that is checking in on your people, supporting that business you love down the block, throwing a couple of extra dollars at your barber or the person at the beauty salon – doing what you can. We all have something that we can do to help somebody else get through another day. I really think that’s the big takeaway from 2020, that we all have the capacity and capability to do it if we match it with the desire. I hope that I think about that every day as a servant.

And I hope that all of us recognize that we have that within us. My challenge, frankly, to everyone in the community, is to step up and find your path to doing that, it’s to step up and do it in a way that makes sense for you. It’s not going to look the same for everybody, but it is as important for you as it is for me.

One of the things that I work to advocate for at the state level and the federal level is financial support. We need direct financial support money in people’s pockets. And, so, we’ve called on that from the Michigan legislature, which has been led by Republicans and has refused to take that kind of economic measure.

We’ve called for the federal government to at least revisit, if not build upon, the direct financial assistance that they provided for people across the country earlier in the year, whether that was in the form of the $1,200 check or the expanded unemployment benefits and eligibility. That supported the economy. That kept people out of poverty during this pandemic, that coupled with the relief for utility shutoffs and evictions and foreclosures.

There’s a lot of policy work to do. Elected officials have a role to play in this response, and we’re trying to do everything we have the authority to do here at the state level because our economy is our people. We have to take care of people so that people can then participate in commerce and be confident that they’re going to be healthy when they do so.

That’s why we’re trying to have a fact-based approach to the pandemic and a fact-based approach to the economy. And if we do both of those things, I believe that we will get through it, we’ll establish a new normal going forward and everybody will have a place there.

B: Detroit has been home. You’ve been clear that you want to be here. Why was that so important to you?

G: I’ve lived in two other cities, not counting college when I was in Ann Arbor. I lived in Seattle and I lived in Washington, D.C., and those are nice places. I was blessed to have positive experiences in both of those cities, but Detroit is home. It’s what made me who I am. It’s where I became who I am. It was important to me as I got educated, as I gained professional experience, to be useful to the place that made me who I am. That is what drove me to want to bring my family back home in 2014 to raise my children in Detroit.

I believe that we had a role to play in making sure that our city and our state was as strong as it could possibly be. We thought that we could help make that. So, I am still probably the happiest person in the city to be here with my babies. To have them be able to come of age in what I think is the best city in the world.

Even with all of its challenges, I still think that this is an amazing place to live and amazing place to be and an amazing place to grow. We still have things that we can do to make that more true for more people. I think that’s part of my responsibility as a public servant. 

Editor’s note: Portions of this interview have been condensed for length. 

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