More than a place where you work and reside, a community is where you form relationships, make memories, express a culture and build a life. Thriving communities have mirrors and windows, which means residents see themselves reflected and are exposed to different experiences. Grand Rapids Community Foundation is working to help create a true sense of place and belonging for everyone in Kent County. For many, West Michigan isn’t a place where they “see” themselves. We are committed to uplifting our neighbors who feel the harsh realities of discrimination, isolation and underrepresentation daily.
Building place is one thing, building and nurturing community for all is another. To do our part, the Community Foundation commits to dismantle “West Michigan Nice” and learn from our accountability partners.
Hear our partners speak about community building.
A Sense of Belonging...
Mercedes Barragan moved from Imlay City to Grand Rapids to attend Grand Valley State University. “When I graduated in 2010, I wanted to leave Grand Rapids. I didn’t feel like a member of this community, and couldn’t connect with other people of color. I thought that if I went to a bigger city, I could find my people,” she says.
But she stayed because of BL2END, an organization founded by three GVSU graduates who didn’t see themselves reflected professionally or socially in West Michigan. “I left my first BL2END event with a sense of belonging and hope that there were people here who looked and thought like me,” she says. Joining the Latina Network of West Michigan deepened her community connections. “Together we can build a community that we really want to live, work and play in,” she says.
Mercedes is now a senior talent program specialist at Spectrum Health. She is a Community Foundation donor partner and volunteers on the Fund for Community Good Committee.
Jennifer Pascua, a Filipino American who grew up in Northern Illinois, was warned against moving to West Michigan to become a broadcast news anchor. “People told me that Grand Rapids had a lot of growth to do to become more accepting and welcoming,” she says. Nevertheless, she spent 13 years at WZZM 13 and is now a digital content strategy manager at Serendipity Media.
She encourages her sons, who are now young adults, to attend cultural events. “My goal as a mother and also as a woman of color is to expose my children to the beauty that is the USA. I want my kids to know they’re not in a bubble. I hope to inspire them to follow my lead and do the same,” she says.
Jennifer is highly involved in local diversity, equity and inclusion work, including the Grand Rapids International Network and Artists Creating Together. She donates to the Community Foundation and volunteers on the Advisory Council.
...for Rosie and Paige
Rose “Rosie” Quist and Paige Nastaj are best friends who met in middle school. They have found a larger community at Artists Creating Together. The nonprofit offers visual and performing arts programming to empower individuals with disabilities to learn, grow and celebrate together. Through a recent grant partnership with ACT, the Community Foundation provided funding to support a new permanent space and a mobile art studio, The Creative Cube.
Paige Nastaj, Rose “Rosie” Quist and Shay Kraley
Rosie and Paige express themselves through art while making new friends. They love painting, drawing and yarn. Rosie and Paige say they love the teachers and making new friends at ACT. Outside of class, they like to watch movies, go out to eat and sing in the choir.
“When participants and families come to ACT, we want them to not just learn a new art form, but feel like they’re in an emotionally safe place where everyone is really encouraged to express creativity and take some risks,” says Shay Kraley, ACT program director. “The students get to know each other, spend time together and become friends. I feel really fortunate to be with ACT, where I get to see friendships like Rosie’s and Paige’s blossom.”
The Problem with “West Michigan Nice”
“West Michigan Nice” is a term used to describe this region’s tendency to deflect difficult conversations about tough issues. Oftentimes, West Michigan Nice means topics such as race, religion, sexuality and politics are especially uncomfortable. When topics so closely connected to identity and building community are off limits, what message does that send?
Mercedes and Jennifer agree that such reluctance isn’t welcoming. “My role in community and business is to break West Michigan Nice,” says Mercedes. “We need spaces that are safe for people. When we tell people they can’t talk about these things, we’re asking them to hide part of their identity. That’s not equity. That’s not social justice. West Michigan Nice is hurtful. We joke about it, but it is incredibly painful.”
Doing away with West Michigan Nice is the first step to creating the thriving community we hope for. For Jennifer, this means narrowing her philanthropic involvement to organizations, like the Community Foundation, that address social justice issues head on to bring positive change. She says people in West Michigan talk a lot about changing and being welcoming. “But do we actually do that?” she asks. “Keeping conversations going about diversity and inclusion is a big deal. If you stop those conversations, nothing will change.”
Accountability Partners for Equity
The Community Foundation is changing our narrative around how we support community, and we’re looking to our partners to hold us accountable. Our partners show us that our role is not to create space, grant permission or solve problems in a bubble. They are reminding us that people in the community are the experts. Our role is to be a bridge, facilitator, convener, ally and champion.
“I look at organizations like the Community Foundation to be supportive, not to give permission,” says Mercedes. “Let’s not give anyone a seat at the table, but let’s go ahead and give them the table. Let’s give them the conference room and let them work it out.”
We take the same approach to our grantmaking and sponsorship. We still support traditional projects in the arts, environment and other public spaces, but we’re becoming more intentional about doing so through an equity lens. We ask about how community informs decision-making and how projects reflect the cultures of underrepresented communities. A recent example is our partnership with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks to focus on community engagement and environmental justice. We celebrate our neighbors’ unique contributions and needs through sponsoring initiatives like Sisters Who Lead, Young Professionals of Color Conference, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s OutPro, Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses Summit, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony with Soul and others.
By listening more and engaging in true partnership, we are maximizing our impact. “The Community Foundation has done a really good job at listening. There’s always room for improvement, and I love that they are open to that feedback,” says Mercedes.