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Q&A with Shannon Cohen

Shannon Cohen

Shannon Cohen is founder and principal of Community Ventures, an all-purpose local consulting firm. Smart, compelling and passionate, she is also a fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network. In this Q & A, we asked Shannon about her work, the challenges and assets of Grand Rapids, racial equity, creating community change, and, of course, kids.
Shannon Cohen is founder and principal of Community Ventures, an all-purpose consulting firm located in Grand Rapids. Smart, compelling and passionate, she is also a fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network. In this Q & A, we asked Shannon about her work, the challenges and assets of Grand Rapids, racial equity, creating community change, and, of course, kids.
You seem to be part motivator, part business guru, and part healer. Is it difficult blending “heart” work with hard-driving business principles?
In today’s contemporary leadership construct, it's all too easy to be a rock star in the marketplace and out balance behind closed doors in one’s home, family, and personal life. The toll of leadership impacts leaders across every sector: public, private, and nonprofit. Expectations and demands placed on senior leaders grow increasingly more complex in today’s knowledge based economy.

So I have a passion for helping today’s overextended executive navigate the industry -- the emotional, mental, and, physical strain that often accompanies a life committed to being a difference maker. It bothers me that saying “yes” to living a life of being a change maker by default means making a commitment to being burned out.

I'm passionate about changing the narrative around winning and doing well.  Doing well must translate beyond metrics and corporate bottom lines. Doing well is optimized when the actual frontline leader does well as a person. I believe that winning is about achieving industry outcomes and metrics and those in leadership being strong, well, and optimal in the process.
In your eyes, what are Grand Rapids' greatest assets?
I secretly nicknamed Grand Rapids the Philanthropy Capital of the World. There is a spirit of neighbor helping neighbor and giving that is very alive. I also believe there is an air of innovation in Grand Rapids. We are a city in the midst of expanding a brand that started regionally and is now garnering national attention. I believe Grand Rapids is a community where new ideas and new approaches can be incubated and birthed. We are a large metropolitan area with some small town norms. We are a community where there is often less than six degrees of separation. Combined in a dynamic way, there is room for greatness to be achieved for and by all. 
What are its greatest burdens?
We still have highly concentrated and closed pockets of power in our community.   There are still too many spaces of power and influence where everyone looks alike, comes from similar backgrounds, and is highly homogenous. As a result, the real decisions are brokered offline in meetings before the meeting or in casual settings and fellowship amongst these closed power sects. This dynamic then undercuts true opportunities for authentic connection and collaboration.  This dynamic also results in pockets of growth and prosperity but not widespread prosperity, investment, and inclusion for every community, neighborhood, and resident.  
What is your role, as an emerging leader, in boosting those assets and unloading the burdens?
My job is to stay on the wall, to continue pushing the envelope to leverage my influence and networks to open doors for others. To challenge norms and speak up where I see injustice. I also think my role is to give grace and space for us as a collective to get it right. I have to continue to support with time, talent, and treasure the people, causes, and movements that help make my community, my city a more just place for all. I am not one for diagnosing a problem without investing equal intensity in contributing to the development and implementation of the solution.   
You are well schooled and practiced in building community. How can we best engage community members in creating change?
My mentors in this work often talked of building trust, transparency, and transfer of knowledge. Sometimes the best place to start is by asking the difficult questions: Who’s missing? Who’s present and still voiceless or disenfranchised?  What are the informal and formal power structures? Who holds the power of the purse?  When you start asking and then wrestling with these types of questions, you realize that making a decision to ‘go together’ is slow work. Fostering collective decision-making and ownership takes time and you can’t ignore or hurry past the systemic and institutional factors at play.     
As a black female and a community leader, what are your thoughts on racial equity and healing?
There is some great synergy happening in our community: Equity Drinks, the Racial Action Network being birthed with support from the National Equity Project, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation: These movements give me hope. But we also live with the duality of the battle fatigue that emerges from not only the toll of leadership and organization and industry demands, but the additional challenges, barriers, and informal and formal power nuances that affect me as a black woman in ways that are vey different from my white counterparts. These additional stressors can lead to premature leadership tracks, burnout and overextension for leaders of color.
I’m glad conversations regarding racial equity and healing are emerging from the shadows, but I would hate to see us as a community become terminology and theory proficient and action deficient.
What is your wish for Grand Rapids youth?
Around town and in my neighborhood there has been this lawn signs movement that says, “Drive like your children live here.” This speaks to the importance of collective ownership in the health, wellness, and opportunities made available to all of the children who call this city home. It’s one thing to mentally assent to children having equal opportunities to be successful, but its another to let that belief guide how you vote, where you live, how and where you spend money, the businesses you patronize, and the charitable organizations you give. 
Children are connected to the health of their parents and communities. So we have to take holistic approaches to addressing the root causes affecting community youth. As long as a person’s zip code remains a significant indicator of quality of life, social conditions, green infrastructure quality, access to healthy food systems, and economic opportunities, we have a problem that will require the energy, expertise, and resources of us all.
This profile is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.

Photograph by Adam Bird

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