No Topic Is Off Limits For The Michigan Department Of Civil Rights Chief
Reinvent yourself every seven years —that’s the philosophy of Dr. Agustin “Augie” V. Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR).
“When you change your course or career periodically it keeps you energized and at the top of your game because you bring all of your past experiences together to your new endeavor. That’s what I did with my position at MDCR,” Arbulu said.
Before being appointed to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission by Gov. Rick Snyder in January 2013 and then by the Civil Rights Commission to his current position in 2015, Arbulu was president of Metro Care Services, a home healthcare firm, bringing more than 16 years of senior management experience to his current position.
Arbulu follows Burton Gordin as the second Jewish director at MDCR. Gordin was gunned down in a parking garage in 1970 in what was thought to be a political retaliation although the case was never solved.
“I feel it was an isolated case,” Arbulu said. “I never thought of any correlation between the two of us except we are about finding the truth in situations and bringing fairness and justice.”
He brings to MDCR — a watchdog and educational organization for civil rights — a past that includes teaching graduate-level courses on organizational leadership, change management, finance and strategy.
Arbulu also earned an executive doctorate degree in management from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He also holds two MBAs — the first from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the second from Lawrence Technological University — as well as a juris doctor from the University of Detroit School of Law.
A Big To-Do List
“I’ve come aboard as MDCR director with a lot to accomplish,” Arbulu said. “Issues like the Flint water crisis, rising national and local racial tensions, and the upcoming presidential election issues all impact our state and need to be addressed face-to-face with community leaders, residents and law enforcement to get communication going and build more trusting relationships.
“I’m all about going out to the people, even the most militant groups, to hear firsthand what they have to say,” he added. “I’m not sitting back in my office waiting for them to come to me.”
One of the most pressing concerns he faces is trying to bridge relations between police departments and local citizens. Arbulu and MDCR support ALPACT —Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust — in a number of Michigan communities like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Holland, with more chapters to be established over the next six to 12 months.
“These efforts are taking place so we don’t have a situation like the ones in Ferguson, Mo., or New York,” Arbulu said. “It is our strong belief that by providing regular space for frank dialogue and accountability, we are helping Michigan avoid tragedies like we have seen in other states. We have regular meetings with co-chairs from all sides equally driving the agenda, and no topic is off-limits.”
Arbulu added, “Police chiefs and cops on the beat — the vast majority anyway — are proud public servants dedicated to protecting all citizens and are demoralized by some actions of their own ranks and the tendency of others to brand them all as racists and worse. They deserve to be heard, too.”
Another hot topic is the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which makes sex discrimination unlawful, and the push to amend it to include protection of the LGBT community.
“Although our commission is in support of this Michigan legislation that would ban discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, legislation so far hasn’t moved in that direction,” Arbulu said. “We will keep up efforts to support this amendment and see what happens.”
For more than 30 years, Arbulu, born in Peru and who moved to Michigan at 13, has been involved in a variety of civic and community organizations that make him a natural contact and liaison to groups representing diversity.
He was president and founder of the Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan and the Hispanic Business Alliance, and he has served on a number of boards, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Leadership Detroit and the Lyric Chamber Ensemble. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of St. Joseph-Oakland Hospital, which is part of Trinity Health System.
Conversion Of Faith
Another very important conversion came about in Arbulu’s life about 30 years ago. He married his wife, Marcia Nussbaum, and converted to Judaism, something he says changed him for the better.
The late Rabbi Sherwin Wine of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills was a great inspiration to him, he said. “Also, being part of the Jewish community and seeing people who have overcome so much has been equally as inspiring,” Arbulu said. “My heroes are everyday people who go about quietly doing things to bring about positive change.”
He and Marcia live in Birmingham and have three grown children: Sarah, Trey and Lucas. Family is the thing he values above all else. “After all of these years, I am still so excited to spend time with my wife and to talk with her when we have time together,” Arbulu said. “When you have a great partner in life it changes everything.”
As for what personal qualities Arbulu feels are his best assets to his position as director of MDCR — he says it’s his patience and persistence. “You have to be like a turtle going patiently in the direction you need to go, but you need to go slowly at times because the government doesn’t always work fast,” said Arbulu. “In the end, it’s about doing the best job for the citizens to help create a more just, harmonious and hopeful world to live in.”
By Susan Peck | Special to the Jewish News
Photography by Brett Mountain