Rebeca Velazques-Publes, a resident of the southeast neighborhood, shares how making Grand Rapids a welcoming city has, for her, involved building an intentional community and raising awareness of the ways people of color are excluded in the area.
“If Grand Rapids wants to be intentional in being a welcoming city, they need to be supportive of our communities of color. It is one thing to say Grand Rapids is a welcoming city and another to actually be a welcoming city,” says Rebeca Velazquez-Publes, resident of the southeast neighborhood of Grand Rapids.
From her work in her home neighborhood of southeast Grand Rapids to jobs that have connected her with residents throughout Kent County, Velazquez-Publes has dedicated much of her life to the latter and has strived to make Grand Rapids a city that is intentionally welcome and inclusive for everyone. She is making this city actually welcoming.
Velazquez-Publes is the current director of the Urban Core Collective, a collaborative between six community organizations: Grand Rapids Urban League, Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, Family Outreach Center, Baxter Community Center, United Methodist Community House, and the Hispanic Center of West Michigan. She believes systemic change happens through the strength of a collective voice of people of color.
The community advocate and activist was born and raised on the east side of the state in the city of Detroit. A daughter of Latinx immigrants from Puerto Rico and Mexico, Velazquez-Publes was a witness to the struggle many immigrants face as newcomers to a country far away from home. For Velazquez-Publes, fulfilling her American dream meant graduating from high school, securing a job, and working hard to make ends meet in order to help support herself and her family. Going to college was not something she had considered, but when her younger brother, Hector Velazquez, came home from his first semester in college, she remembers the thrill and excitement in his voice when he said to her, “You have to go," encouraging her to apply to a university. That was the beginning of her journey to learning more about her Latinx identity, finding her voice, and calling to advocate and dismantle institutions created to keep people of color out of opportunities, meaningful employment and economic capital.
Soon after completing her bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Central Michigan University, Velazquez-Publes moved to Grand Rapids with her partner, Sammy Publes, and began her career in the non-profit world of Grand Rapids. As a resource coordinator at First Steps Kent, a public-private partnership that works to strengthen and coordinate early childhood services in Kent County, Velazquez-Publes was in charge of helping frame and develop a health resource program connecting underserved populations to basic resources and healthcare. After three years, the program split away from First Steps Kent and evolved into what is today known as Health Net of West Michigan.
From 2014 to 2016, the organization was led by Velazquez-Publes. She ensured the work was led and informed by those experiencing the greatest barriers to accessing healthcare, including undocumented residents of Grand Rapids who do not have access to federally funded healthcare insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Throughout her career, Velazquez-Publes has sought to uplift the most marginalized voices and organize communities of color to address disparities they face.
“How do we rally for one another? How can the Latino community stand up when they see their black brothers and sisters get targeted by the police? How can the black community defend their Latino neighbors when they are confronted with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) at their doors?” says Velazquez-Publes.
In 2012, Velazquez-Publes and her partner were looking to buy a home in Grand Rapids, and they were intentional about living in the southeast neighborhood of Grand Rapids. This is a neighborhood where people of color make up the majority of residents, 59.6 percent, according to data obtained from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
The southeast resident believes her efforts need to begin in her neighborhood and her community.
“To get out there, our communities need to understand their history, regain their narrative, and start to heal from all systemic oppression bombardment,” says Velazquez-Publes.
According to a 2015 Forbes article, Grand Rapids ranked 51 out of 52 as worst places economically for African Americans. In Kent County, black residents make up the largest demographic of unemployed individuals, per the 2015 report from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, “The High Cost of Disparities."
“I stay in Grand Rapids because I am hopeful and see the opportunity to make change happen,” states Velazquez-Publes.
For the southeast resident, the efforts to help Grand Rapids become a welcoming city need to involve understanding the wealth disparities between communities of color and white communities, and taking steps to address these.
Velazquez-Publes is passionate about empowering and connecting Latina women, and seven years ago, she, along with Allison Lugo Knapp, Mindy Ysasi, and Stacy Stout, helped form the Latina Network of West Michigan.
“Because of all of the women in the group, I am continually encouraged to be a professional and a mother,” says Velazquez-Publes.
As Velazquez-Publes works to create a more welcoming Grand Rapids, she hopes one day this community can serve as an example by the way neighbors support one another. Through empowerment, awareness and respect, the southeast resident envisions mobilizing her community to take action and seek out resolutions.
"My family chose to live on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, and we are proud of that," Velazques-Publes says. "I want others to feel the same way each morning they walk outside their front doors. I want my daughter to grow up in a community that respects her culture, her ideas and provides her an equitable not equal path for success. By demonstrating that we respect and value each of our community members, care for the organizations and businesses that support us daily we can create a place for each individual member of Grand Rapids not only to survive but to thrive."
On The Ground GR
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.
Photography by Dreams by Bella.