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How an 'organic collective of Latina support' can bring more talent to the table

From left, Mindy Ysasi, Allison Lugo Knapp, Stacy Stout, and Rebeca Velazquez-Publes

What do you do when you and a few friends notice a need for more Latina faces around certain tables? If you're this foursome, you take it upon yourselves to create a new space for leadership development and culture by forming the Latina Network of West Michigan. Rapid Growth's Stephanie Doublestein sat down for coffee with this creative collective and found out what the buzz is about.
There's an energy inside the Mayan Buzz Café on this early summer morning, and it isn't just from the coffee. Four women gather at a table near the back, setting down briefcases, admiring a sleeping newborn, and catching up on the gossip of one another's lives. Seen from afar, they look like four friends getting together before work, which is partially true. But there's another purpose to this gathering. When Stacy Stout, Rebeca Velazquez-Publes, Allison Lugo Knapp, and Mindy Ysasi get together these days, it's usually to plan on behalf of the Latina Network of West Michigan, an organic collective of Latina support they started almost a year ago.
 
"What I was seeing was I kept running into these amazing women who want to help our community – they have skills and talents they want to bring to the table – but I kept being at tables where I was the only Latina," says Stacy Stout, program manager with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Stout met Rebeca Velazquez-Publes a few years ago when they were both earning their master's degrees in public administration from Grand Valley State University. After Allison Lugo Knapp and Minday Ysasi ran into each other at a holiday function and discussed the idea for the network, Ysasi reached out to Velazquez-Publes, whom she knew from her undergraduate years, and the foursome was formed.
 
The Latina Network of West Michigan held its first event in October 2014 in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month. Since that first meeting, which attracted nearly 40 people, the network has met monthly, grown to a mailing list of around 100 local women, and evolved into an informal organization with a broad purpose. Members set the agenda collectively, and meetings have included a speaker series, time to make connections and promote events, conversations about community service, opportunities for learning, and even a book club that's branched off. This kind of organic evolution is exactly what the four women hoped would happen.
 
"It's really creating a safe space," says Velazquez-Publes, director of programs at Health Net of West Michigan. "Traditionally, first-generation Latinas are not taught to network, so unless you witness it in your environment, you don't know."
 
Aside from the regular meetings and ongoing networking, the women say the group is largely about relationships. "I feel like there are these great spaces in Grand Rapids for leadership development but not a space for leadership development and culture," says Lugo Knapp, a philanthropy consultant who was born in Peru, grew up in the U.S. and overseas, and claims Colombian heritage. "As a Latina I was missing it in my professional and personal life. So it was really natural: we made this space where we could bring together women of the same background and culture who wanted to support each other."
 
These kinds of relationships are intangible but invaluable; they assist early-career women with advice about how to negotiate pay or find new positions, for example, and create important mentor/mentee situations that make people feel welcome and help retain talent in the community.
 
"What we see is people of color don't find that tie in Grand Rapids and they leave," says Velazquez-Publes, who grew up in the Detroit area and moved to West Michigan seven years ago. "If I didn’t have my husband, I wouldn't have stayed – not for lack of community and spaces and the philanthropic sector is great here, but I would have left. It took me six years to find a group of women that I had something in common with, that I could relate to and have professional conversations with."
 
Ysasi, executive director of The Source, concurs: "There is a real, greater value when you can have mentors and mentees who have that same cultural identity. So we try to take as many barriers as we can away. It's just really exciting when you can see someone else learn from what you wish you would have known ten years ago." The Latina Network itself is surprisingly intergenerational, including college-aged women all the way up to Latinas in their 60s.
 
The women nod their heads when Stout talks about making "the cultural commute" and it's clear they share more than just a common heritage and some hard-earned business wisdom. At the heart of this network are professional relationships that look more like friendships, and friendships that look like extended family. All four talk about the need for fellowship as well as a goal of creating more opportunities and exposure for the women who share their experience.
 
"We're trying to solve a problem that exists," says Ysasi. "If we get another call to be on a board . . . . 'We're not the four Latinas in this community!'" She laughs. "We're making a place to help grow talent because we think it's important. We've taken that upon ourselves."
 
Stout says a real measure of success for the fledging group would be if, in five years' time, there were four completely different women leading the group. "We have amazing talent in Grand Rapids so how do we integrate them into the leadership tables?" she asks.
 
"At the end of the day this is built on trust that we value the same things, all want better – not just for ourselves but for this community – and really that we have an opportunity to continue to provide exposure to one of the greatest resources in this community: people," says Ysasi. Whether they're gathering to talk about a new job or a new baby, this foursome is pouring their impressive energy into filling a gap in West Michigan by nurturing one Latina at a time.

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird
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