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'How are you going to be uncomfortable today?' Female leaders on building a more inclusive GR

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss gives the opening remarks at the Women + City Building event.

How do we build a more inclusive Grand Rapids? How do we create a city where anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or ability can thrive? A group of female leaders who are shaping the city tackle this, and more, at the recent Women + City Building event.

It’s a question that needs to be asked time and again: How do we build inclusive cities? And how do we actually do that and not just give lip service to it?


The answer is a complex one, and one that includes tackling historical and current racism, segregation, poverty, deeply rooted biases, and power structures that have long marginalized and disenfranchised people of color, individuals with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants, among others.


Photo by April Ruiz, Candy APEL
And, as a group of female leaders stressed during Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.’s
“Women + City Building” event last week, it’s a question that bears repeating when considering new development and the need for affordable housing, when addressing diversity (and the lack thereof) in the workplace and throughout our city’s spaces, when supporting the local economy, when building stronger systems of education and transportation, and so on.


It bears repeating because there is no city in the world that has entirely succeeded at being inclusive. Made great strides? Sure. Been at least somewhat successful in addressing such issues as public transportation that’s accessible to those with disabilities or fighting employment discrimination for individuals who are LGBTQ+? Sometimes. But created a city where anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or ability can thrive? That certainly has yet to happen. So we must keep asking: How do we build inclusive cities?


And, specifically, how do we build a more inclusive Grand Rapids?


Stacy Stout“It’s about looking at the city as a whole -- downtown is awesome, but that’s not the whole city," Stacy Stout, the assistant to the Grand Rapids city manager who has a special focus on building neighborhood capacity, said during Women + City Building, held last Thursday, March 30, at Linc Up. “So how do we invest in neighborhoods and invest in people?”


“We’re really good at building buildings, but how are we at building up people?” continued Stout, who also is a co-founder and strategy team member of the Latina Network of West Michigan. “People are the city. I would ask how are we lifting up people? People are our sustainability plan; people are our economic development plan. How do we lift up people to have influence in positions of power?”


Stout was one of five panelists at the Women + City Building event, which is annually organized by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and included Grand Rapids Community Foundation President Diana Sieger, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women Program Manager and Business Consultant Mary Catherine Hartfield, Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education Member and Mini Mogul Academy Owner Kristian Grant, and longtime East Hills neighborhood activist and volunteer Rachel Lee, who will soon be opening Citizen, a restaurant in Cheshire Village.

Kicked off by Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and moderated by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Community Relations Coordinator LaTarro Traylor, the discussion focused on city building efforts among the panelists and the concept of women in city building in general.


“We need a whole lot more women stepping into leadership positions,” Bliss, the first female mayor of Grand Rapids, said during her opening remarks. “Sometimes, women, we can be our own worst enemies. We need to come together to support one another; we rise and we fall together.”


The idea that it’s critical for women to support and empower one another -- and people, particularly those who are disenfranchised, in general -- was a theme that was reiterated throughout the event.


“City building to me is really about paying attention, and at the Community Foundation we are hyper paying attention,” Sieger said. “We are so committed, and all our work is focusing on not just inclusion but inclusion and growth for all. City building is about making sure there’s hope and opportunity for everyone to prosper.”


Hartfield, who has an extensive background in community involvement, entrepreneurship, strategic planning, and Kristian Grantleadership training, stressed that, for her, city building must put “the tools in place and the resource in place so women can thrive in the city to do what they want.” And Grant noted that “city building is manning your station.”


“That means starting where you are, where you have influence -- because we all have influence somewhere,” Grant continued. “That could be your household, raising the children to be productive citizens; that could be in your organization or whatever sector you’re in.”


Lee emphasized that the city must focus on its residents above all else.


“I think of the three p’s, the first being people,” Lee said. “Putting people first when making decisions regarding development, regarding green spaces, regarding where you send your kid to schools -- it’s always about people first.”


Rachel Lee“The second is participation: We need to get more women’s voices participating, at City Commission meetings, at historic preservation meetings, at public hearings,” Lee continued. “Get out there and get your voice heard… And the last one is passion. We all have different passions, and there’s opportunity for us to take that passion and figure out how we can participate in the city.”


A need for difficult conversation


Of course, an emphasis on diversity and inclusion is something that is easily said and not so readily done. Thursday’s participants understand this well: they have had to break many a glass ceiling in their positions and continue to do so. Bliss, for example, is the first female mayor; Stout is the highest-ranking Latina in the history of Grand Rapids city government; Grant is the youngest person ever elected to the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education; and Sieger noted that, when she became president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation about three decades ago, she would often be the only woman in the room at various meetings throughout the city.


So, how do you keep breaking those barriers and making room for individuals who have long lived outside of the area’s dominant power structure, particularly in a city that, like metropolises across the country, can be notorious for its exclusion? (Grand Rapids was, for example, ranked as one of the worst cities in the entire country for African American residents.)


At least part of the answer lies in an ability to have open discussions about topics like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and more.


"How do we work together really authentically with honest conversations?” Stout said. “To have sister talk, that means we have to challenge each other and we have to be uncomfortable.”


For white women (and men), that can mean being very intentional about being allies with women of color, who face far higher rates of unemployment, barriers to healthcare, and more in Grand Rapids.


“Two years ago, we started Black Women Connect GR, and part of that was we were seeing black women, young and older, leaving the city because they weren’t getting support at their jobs,” Hartfield said.


“This week, when [U.S. Rep.] Maxine Walters was attacked, it became personal because when you look at the hashtag #blackwomenatwork, I was saying, ‘Yup, yup, I’ve been through that,” Hartfield said, referring to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s comment last week during a morning television show that he “didn’t hear a word” Walters said during a speech because he “was looking at the James Brown wig.” This statement about Walters’ hair drew ire across the country, with many black women taking to Twitter to discuss the constant onslaught of racism and sexism they face in the workplace every day.


“How do you support the woman next to you, the woman next to you at work?” Hartfield said.


Part of that support will inevitably translate to those in the dominant culture rescinding power, panelists said.


“Ask yourself: How are you going to be uncomfortable today?” Stout said. “Don’t just invite [women and women of color] to the table, but require that we are at the table.”


“We are degreed, confident and capable -- and we’re not getting positions,” Stout said, adding that she recommends individuals go to Sisters Who Lead, a website that’s part of a research project conducted by Shannon Cohen and Pat VerDuin that shines a spotlight on the experiences of female leaders of color in West Michigan’s workplace.


Part of the honest discussion about race and gender relations in the city includes people coming to an understanding that “inclusion and equity is not just diversity,” Stout emphasized.

“It’s not just about celebrating our foods, flags and festivals,” she said. “How do we lift up people? Are people employed and in positions of power?”

Why supporting neighborhoods matters


Creston. Roosevelt Park. Madison Square. Eastown. Baxter. Garfield Park. Midtown. Alger Heights. And the list goes on. Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods are vibrant, unique spaces where people are directly participating in democracy and making their communities better, whether that’s by serving in their neighborhood association, coordinating volunteer efforts or something else. Neighborhoods, and individuals living in these communities, need just as many resources and accolades as Grand Rapids’ downtown, panelists said, noting that neighborhood empowerment is inextricably intertwined with equity and inclusion.


A recent event that highlighted the power and importance of the city's neighborhoods was the Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit, which Stout was instrumental in helping to organize. The summit was a day-long forum attended by about 400 people that focused on increasing resident awareness, skills and networks in order to strengthen neighborhoods and the city. As part of the event, numerous workshops were held, including on: how to get involved in politics, tenants rights, addressing trauma in the Black community, mobilizing racial equity in policy, being an ally in the struggle for racial equity, supporting schools, and more.


“There was an incredible energy,” Stout said of the summit. “Information is power.”


At the end of the summit, the city formally launched the new Neighborhood Match Fund, which the Grand Rapids City Commission established to strengthen neighborhoods through the financial support of community-based projects.


“The grants treat residents like experts, because they are,” Stout said. “Residents are experts of their blocks.”


The need for affordable housing


It’s no secret that Grand Rapidians are struggling to afford housing, and this is particularly evident in neighborhoods facing gentrification, such as the West Side, Heartside, Eastown, and others. Since 2000, rents in Grand Rapids have increased by about 35 percent, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. So, while the local economy is growing and some are able to afford $2,000 downtown apartments, that certainly is not the case for everyone, and longtime residents are being pushed from their homes because they can no longer afford to live there. [To learn more about the affordable housing crisis in Grand Rapids, see our coverage here, here and here.]


Panelists at Women + City Building stressed that a healthy, sustainable city must include access to affordable housing.


“Since we started Challenge Scholars, the West Side has taken off, and the impact around Harrison Park School has been amazing,” Sieger said, referring to the Grand Rapids Community Foundation that provides some GRPS students with free college tuition. “Families have had to move out to Kentwood and Wyoming because they can’t afford rents. It is devastating.”


Stout too stressed the need for affordable housing -- and the need to determine what ‘affordable’ actually means in the city. As part of the fight for accessible housing, Stout said community leaders need to go to Lansing to advocate for inclusionary zoning, better minimum wage laws, and more.


“People need livable jobs,” Stout said.


Saying that, “if there was something I could have changed my focus on 20 years ago, it would be housing,” Lee stressed that the city cannot thrive with “one-income housing.”


“I’m trying to help elevate residents’ voices when developers come in,” Lee said. “They come in and say ‘We’re going to save this building,’ and it’s like, no, no you’re not."
The future of city building
Interested in getting involved and making your voice heard in the city building process? There are a myriad organizations and individuals you can reach out to, including those mentioned in this article:
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss's office
Stacy Stout at the City of Grand Rapids [See a video from her about applying to boards and commissions here.]
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation
Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women
Kristian Grant at the Grand Rapids Public Schools
Your local neighborhood association
To watch the entire video of the Women + City Building event, you can click here or watch below.


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