Steve Spreitzer is not a cynic or a screamer. He believes we can overcome. He believes we can all get along — and perhaps one day will.
He has a little bit of kumbaya in him and a lot of tolerance for disagreement and conflict. His knack for having the tough conversations that most people naturally avoid has led him, at age 58, to become the CEO of the Michigan Roundtable, a Detroit organization that’s been trying to bring together groups and individuals of different races, religions and ethnicities for 74 years.
That’s never been easy and probably never will be, because talking to people who fundamentally disagree with you is hard. It’s often emotional and unpleasant. And Spreitzer’s gift is excelling at work that others would find maddening or just downright impossible.
“Taking on race in this town is a tough assignment,” says Richard Homberg, president and CEO of Detroit Public Television. “What I admire in Steve is this relentless, unfailing 100 percent commitment to bridge the gap between people. I’ve known him for 10 years, and he’s never lost an ounce of that drive.”
He says as much as he describes the “addictive quality” of “stopping harm.” “Living together fairly and equitably takes your whole head, heart and soul,” he says. His job is bringing people who wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths into the same room. It’s also leading an organization that has worked to make communities like Canton — with its growing ethnic minority populations — more diverse in its schools, police department, and government.
There is a tendency to think of organizations dedicated to “diversity and inclusion,” as the Michigan Roundtable is, as largely ineffectual. But U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade, a member of a law enforcement group begun by former U.S. Attorney Saul Green and now convened by the Roundtable, says the effort to reach out to the community does enhance understanding in clear ways.
“It makes law enforcement more sensitive when you know that you have to go back in a few weeks and be accountable to people who live in the community and are upset about what you did,” she says, praising Spreitzer’s ability to maintain an atmosphere of trust and respect, even as it enables sometimes angry community members to ask hard and uncomfortable questions.
Spreitzer, who is 58, married, and the father of three, says he wasn’t born with understanding: In fact, growing up in Livonia, he was in his teens before he even had a sense of racial injustice or the possibility of changing it. But he sees the organization focused on solving problems, not talking about them as a proxy for solving them.
Says Reuben A. Munday, the group’s chairman of the board and chairman of the Detroit law firm Lewis & Munday: “Steve’s instincts are very much about social justice. He’s deserving. He’s got a track record. He knows how to walk among people of different faiths and different races. We know him and we believe in him.”
While Spreitzer is gratified to be at the helm of an organization he has long worked for, he wants most to be seen as someone who “stops the harm.”