Amyah Thompson, Alejandra Guzmanand
Steff Rosalez at Grandville Avenue Arts + Humanities
Our North Star: For West Michigan to grow and prosper, we must make sure that everyone can apply their talents and creativity to fuel our future. It is only by connecting across perspectives and overcoming inequities that we can build and sustain an inclusive economy and thriving community.
Today, Grand Rapids Community Foundation is an organization infused by the spirit and passion of countless partners working together to realize our North Star. Our North Star is the direction of our current and future work as we look to overcome the racial, social and economic inequities that persist today and act as barriers to opportunity, prosperity and belonging.
While we are not there yet, we have come some way. With this clarity of direction, Community Foundation staff and partners have found inspiration to boldly answer the call to be a philanthropic leader ready and willing to meet the challenges of today.
That means welcoming new relationships, while maintaining relationships with partners who have walked alongside us over the years and bringing them along on the Community Foundation’s equity journey. It’s a delicate dance and does not come without growing pains. It calls for greater transparency, collaboration and increased accountability. It calls for challenging conventional best practices and making room for more just and equitable practices. It also calls for intentional outreach for feedback from those best equipped to create solutions—qualified not just by titles and tenure, but by proximity and lived experience navigating the systemic inequities we are working to eradicate. It’s a shift from the way we have always known to do things. And the results have been transformational.
Today, we are putting in the work to realize our bold vision for change. We are preparing for tomorrow by growing our resources and deepening our investment in efforts led by and for community. We are also actively learning from our partners leading the charge in this work.
Dr. Brandy Lovelady Mitchell, a Community Foundation Trustee and deputy superintendent of preschool-12 learning and leadership for Grand Rapids Public Schools, says she sees the shift from traditionally charitable practices to more community grounded, social justice practices.
"Showing that they're asking that means that you can trust them and having good communication shows trust."
– Amyah Thompson
“There’s power in who gets to frame issues, who gets to frame what’s important, who frames a problem and, then, who gets to determine what success or impact is,” says Brandy. “Grand Rapids Community Foundation has more frequently left the comforts of their four walls to go to community that have not been heard and give them the mic or their platform and ask questions and then relatedly try to allocate resources. In that is the shift from addressing things at the surface issue [by] throwing money at stuff and having deeper conversations to identify what are the root issues that are causing these outcomes and then systemically change in order for us not to continuously be in a situation.”
The Community Foundation’s efforts over the last three decades were recognized in 2019 with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which provided an infusion of funds and allowed us to move forward efforts to strengthen relationships in Black and Latinx communities specifically. Since then, the funds have helped increase staff capacity to support volunteer-led committees from Black and Latinx communities.
They do the fundamental work of creating charters, recruiting new members and engaging with community through listening sessions. This ensures their work reflects the current needs of the communities they represent and serve. From the success of this work, we are working to steward additional resources to level-up our long-term commitment to this approach. We are reimagining our role in harnessing the power of our community to make Kent County a better place to live for all.
As we lean further into this approach, we are continuing to learn from nonprofit partners like Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities and African Resource Center about how to strengthen and sustain our commitment to and practice of community-led and trust-based philanthropy.
We have learned from partners like Steff Rosalez, executive director of GAAH, that doing things differently and prioritizing community and trust-building starts with being in authentic relationship with the people you are working for and with.
“You can't hear someone fully unless you know them. People have different signals and different ways of communicating and expressing their needs."
– Steff Rosalez
“You can’t hear someone fully unless you know them. People have different signals and different ways of communicating and expressing their needs. The best way to know what someone needs is through relationships, and we focus on knowing people,” says Steff. “I think a lot of people go into a situation where they’re trying to help someone and immediately jump to, ‘What do you need help with?’ instead of asking, ‘Who are you? How can we work together to build a relationship and support each other?’”
The team at GAAH has taken the time to get to know community members like student leader Amyah Thompson and local artist and community leader Alejandra Guzman, who can both attest to GAAH’s increased focus on building trust through authentic relationships. Amyah demonstrates a quiet confidence in her leadership and has felt empowered by GAAH, especially through programs like Girl’s Rock! Camp. “I always give my input because I really want this place to be amazing,” she says. “They always do an amazing job at getting with the community and asking them what we need to change. Showing that they’re asking that means that you can trust them and having good communication shows trust.”
Alejandra’s involvement with GAAH started when her daughters started going there and became student leaders. Now that they are grown, she is passionate about volunteering her time and passion to help and teach future leaders in her neighborhood.
“For me, I can say they accept you how you are. Where you come from, don’t matter. If you speak English, don’t speak English, you’re welcome,” she says. “I have come here many times with many things going on in my life, and they always say, ‘I welcome you here. What can we do for you?’ It’s so hard to have somewhere else, but we have here.”
"I have come here many times with many things going on in my life and they always say, ‘I welcome you here. What can we do for you?’"
– Alejandra Guzman
At African Resource Center, trust-based relationships and honoring the desires of community are especially important. The delicate nature of their work ranges across many immigrant experiences, often including various levels of trauma.
We have learned from Bernard Ayoola, ARC executive director, that trust comes in the form of relationship and collaboration. He says that funders need to come with the mindset of “I may have the financial resources, but you probably have some wisdom that you can share with me about your culture, about your values and things like that.”
“So when people come to us and say, we want to help you, and they show no interest in understanding the community or in understanding how to be part of the community, people now think, okay, you are just like a vendor, somebody selling some stuff, and then you go away,” Bernard says. “To build trust, and that’s part of how we approach that at the African Resource Center—you have to go into the community. There has to be a sense of ownership. That collaboration is very, very important. And I’m not saying that it is easy.”
There have been so many lessons from our community of partners that have shaped who we are today. As we step boldly into a new century of service and equitable impact, we are constantly reminded of one of the most important lessons we’ve learned from partners like Brandy, Steff, Amyah, Alejandra and Bernard: Doing things differently to bring about systems change may be hard and intimidating. But being open to change – taking time for self-reflection and taking action even when afraid – is transformational.
“Anyone can do it,” says Steff. “Take the time to process. Take the time to learn. There are so many resources out there. And I think that fear of getting it wrong or even saying something offensive, we’ve all done it. When I think of myself 15 years ago? Whew, I’m glad that’s not on camera! But, it had to happen for things to get where they are now, just like with any learning journey.”
“To build trust, and that's part of how we approach that at the African Resource Center—you have to go into the community. There has to be a sense of ownership."
– Bernard Ayoola