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RapidChat: Brandy Arnold

Brandy Arnold

In this week's chat with an interesting and insightful Grand Rapidian, we sit down with Brandy Arnold. She works at Kids' Food Basket, but she has her hand in a virtual buffet of community organizations. Read on for her perspective on the important conversations you might be missing out on -- and how you can get involved.
RapidGrowth: You're a program coordinator at Kids Food Basket, but that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as your community involvement. Outside of Kids Food Basket, what other activities and organizations are you involved in?
Brandy Arnold: A lot of my involvement focuses on equal opportunities in education and giving students the tools they need. I was a longtime volunteer for the Challenge Scholars program. I helped Harrison Park Coordinator Gwen Heatley start a media team there. I have a journalism background, so it was really fun working with the students on editing and writing skills. I’m on the board for the East Hills Council of Neighbors and am on the East Hills Loves Congress (EHLC) committee, advocating for the Congress school. I’m on the board for Spoke Folks, a local nonprofit that’s providing bicycle education and affordable bikes for people in the community. I also recently joined the GR Symphony Community Engagement Committee. We’re trying to get more young professionals involved with the symphony.  
RG: Do these organizations influence your current role as Kids Helping Kids program coordinator at KFB in any way?
BA: Yes, definitely. I started on the East Hills Loves Congress Committee a few years ago, before I started working at KFB last summer, but working with kids every day through KFB has really opened my eyes to why supporting students is the work of the whole community and us working to make Congress a community school is so important.
RG: Can you tell me more of what the East Hills Loves Congress Committee is all about?
BA: Strong neighborhoods need strong community schools. As a neighborhood association, we want to make sure Congress has what it needs to educate the children and support the families who go there. Bridget Cheney, who was principal of the school until last year, really welcomed our committee and was a fantastic partner as we worked to increase community engagement in the school and make it the first choice for parents in the area. The committee has helped get a historic designation for the school, put a community garden on the grounds, planted trees on the property and worked with the district for building improvements, partnered with the Creative Youth Center to add writing classes, brought in other community partners like Brewery Vivant, and holds parent engagement events like Kids Day in the fall. Because of Bridget’s leadership and the neighborhood rallying behind Congress, the school has really turned around - higher attendance, increased test scores. I’ve worked with the students both through East Hills Loves Congress and KFB. Those kids are amazing. They deserve our support.
RG: What other topics within our community are you passionate about?
BA: I’m really passionate about racial equity and inclusion in Grand Rapids. How can we make the success and opportunities in our city accessible for everyone? Because right now it’s not. Historical residents of neighborhoods, many of them people of color, are being pushed out by new developments and rising rent. There’s limited workforce housing. Many families can’t survive off the wages they’re making, if they can find jobs at all. Black people in Grand Rapids earn less than half of what white people do, and about 70 percent of black children in Grand Rapids are born into poverty. I know many of our Hispanic/Latino residents are facing the same issues. It’s not only economics, but health as well. Black and Latino children are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and lack of access to healthy food. There’s also higher infant mortality rates for children of color in Grand Rapids. I could go on and on because it’s all so intertwined. It’s unacceptable.
As far as inclusion, my neighborhood and downtown are perfect examples of this. I love East Hills, but why don’t I see many people who look like me frequenting the restaurants and boutiques in the area? Wealthy Street is such a dividing line.
RG: What do you think developers and the city of Grand Rapids can do to help facilitate a change against this?
BA: More workforce housing, taking into consideration the historical residents of a neighborhood when developing, so we’re revitalizing and not gentrifying, less of a disparity in pay and employment, more investment in our urban schools. Let’s bring some more people of color to the table where big decisions are being made.
There’s so much work to be done, but we’re moving in the right direction. Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB), Grand Rapids Chamber, and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber are advocating for minority owned businesses. LINC does great work supporting neighbors and residents. I was really happy to see DGRI reaching out to minority groups like the Hispanic Chamber, the GR Chamber group, Black Women Connect, Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network (GGRREN), and Jamiel Robinson, founder of GRAAB, for the GR Forward Plan. There really is a movement building around equity in Grand Rapids. I go to equity events and see people from all backgrounds and professions. I’m trying to support this movement as much as I can. 
RG: For those who are unaware of those organizations, or are simply uninvolved in them, what conversations are they missing out on?
BA: They’re missing out on conversations about the future of this city. Grand Rapids is changing. The fastest growing population in GR is the Latino population, but Latinos in GR are also the most likely to not graduate high school. The majority white baby boomers are retiring and a younger, more diverse population will need to be able to fill those roles. It’s doing a disservice to the future of GR and its growth if we do not acknowledge that we are not properly equipping the next generation. It’s doing a disservice if we do not admit that there are systems in place that are keeping people of color of all ages from equal opportunities. There’s a tendency in this city to overhype the good and gloss over the bad. I don’t care if it makes you uncomfortable to talk about institutional racism. We need to admit it exists and figure out how to dismantle it.
RG: What do you suggest is a first step to getting involved, for those who are interested in learning more?
BA: Show up. It’s that simple. GGRREN meets the 4th Tuesday of the month at Spectrum Health Healthier Communities from 1-2:30 p.m. It’s not intimidating. You don’t have to attend every month. We’re all just trying to learn from each other, support each other, and collaborate. There’s a group called Equity Drinks. Like the page on Facebook. They meet at various locations for happy hour, discussions and speakers about the issues facing our city. They also sponsor events and panel discussions. You can find out a lot about what’s going on and about organizations you might want to get involved with by attending these events. Non-profits like Kids’ Food Basket and WMEAC have committees that are dedicated to working on equity and inclusion issues from within our organizations and are always looking for more people who would like to get involved.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media
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