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G-Sync: What have you been watching this summer?

Kurt Reppart, Executive Director of The Other Way Ministries.

Are we ready as a city for the changes coming in the next 15 years? Rapid Growth's Publisher and Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen discovers a few local organizations banding together to ensure the answer is "yes" for all.
What have you been watching this summer?
 
I'll go first.
 
I've been mesmerized by a new HBO miniseries by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Show Me a Hero, adapted from the 1999 Lisa Belkin book of the same name, about how the real life and struggles of Yonkers' policeman-turned-mayor Nick Wasicsko play out as he comes to grips with forced public housing. 
 
And the topic could not have arrived at a better time. Nearly every major American city is experiencing issues of income inequality and housing stress during a period when wealth creation is advancing at a rapid rate. The mirror of art is breath-taking.
 
Show Me a Hero characters, homes and the crisis around them could be written off as a big city matter if it were not for the fact that housing stress is happening everywhere, including here. These are not just my concerns. They're shared by many writers, CEOs, governments, and local community engagement organizations who have been speaking out about how the most vulnerable in society are falling through the cracks.
 
Over the years, Rapid Growth has cited the United Nations cities study predicting that by 2030 the majority of the planet's population will have moved, whether due to choice or planetary unrest, into an urban center. And the question still remains: Are we really ready as a city for the migrations that are happening and will continue to happen over the next 15 years? 
 
Locally, we have been navigating the choppy waters of community development by attracting industry as the hordes of new immigrants, driven by opportunities here, arrive for work, education, or simply love. We have done a remarkable job of building and setting up institutions that will make this city attractive long into the future. We have even retooled city government, enabling many new channels to be opened.
 
But civically we are lacking, and this is where we will need to invest in the years ahead if balance is to be restored.
 
Two groups, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRFC), have both enacted a lot of bold programs here – and  their newest collaboration is one we should all applaud.
 
The Kellogg Foundation's investment in the newly formed Westown Collaborative (run through The Other Way Ministries) helps fund the resident-led "connector" effort based within the West Side neighborhoods and enacted through the eight partner organizations making up the ever-expanding collaborative.
 
The addition of the GRCF as a partner in the expansion of this previously beta program will enable Westown to hire four community connectors to increase citizen engagement, develop civic leaders from within the neighborhood, and help advance opportunity between neighbors and the new businesses arriving in this community.  
 
"The Westown Collaborative seeks to ensure that the neighborhood's voices are a part of the West Side's transformation," says Grand Rapids Community Foundation Program Director Kate Luckert Schmid, whose organization has pledged a 3-year $450,000 grant to ensure the connector work expands.
 
Inspired by what organizations like LINC have achieved in the development of their (Madison Square) neighborhood, GRCF sees community organizing as the best method to address the stresses being experienced on the West Side.
 
Displacement has emerged over the last few years as the quiet sister to gentrification – a word so loaded it's impossible to utter it without having to explain one's intended meaning. But the term displacement is not so much up for debate, as more folks are discovering its appearance just prior to gentrification or occurring side by side. It almost never follows.
 
The impact of displacement on communities is summed up in a newly released study by UC Berkley researcher Miriam Zuk and city and regional planner professor Karen Chapple. Their report, the Urban Displacement Project, includes a data-rich online tool enabling us to see a snapshot of the housing crisis in California's Bay Area. The key finding is in order to shore up the gaps displacement produces in a city, it is vital to enact stronger development policies, like mixed-income inclusionary zoning, which has held up in California courts as legal. We need to be proactive on this topic, not reactive.


 
As more studies are released from all over the U.S., it is critical for Grand Rapids to lead on this matter with thoughtful dialogue and not play catch up with people's lives in the balance. According to Kurt Reppart, Executive Director of The Other Way Ministries, the path ahead for the Westown Collaborative partners is to stabilize residents facing displacement as well as to connect them to the services they need to ensure they are not falling through the cracks unnecessarily. 
 
"Just the other day one of our connectors met with a woman who went through the WMCAT job training program, received employment placement, has children enrolled in the GRCF's Challenge Scholars' program, is facing eviction due to rising rents and will not be able to stay in the neighborhood of the school where her kids attend. She cannot find affordable housing in her neighborhood," says Reppart. (Note: To receive the college money associated with the Challenge Scholars Program a family must reside in the neighborhood and attend the neighborhood school.)
 
Here's a woman who is doing it right and yet cannot catch a break. This is why the new connector program at Westown is so important. It's vital to make sure these folks are able to remain in their neighborhoods where they have access to the opportunities and programs they need -- but also where they have created community.
 
As Reppart also points out, this is not just about housing. This program provides a chance to connect local residents with the new and established businesses in the neighborhood for employment purposes.  
 
"We see up close what the recent United Way's ALICE Project has revealed to so many locally: folks are struggling to make ends meet," says Reppart, tiptoeing around the topic of minimum wage versus living wage. According to Reppart, within The ALICE Project a family of four needs someone working approximately 2.5 full-time jobs at minimum wage just to get by in the city. (This means they need to be making about $21/hour at 40 hours a week.) 


 
The expansion of the connector program is worth celebrating, but we need other leadership to step forward, too. We need others to figure out how they can shore up the gaps. This is the hard part, but one thing that has made me proud of this region is our ability to use design thinking to create a solution.
 
We need everyday leaders and we need them now. The Westown Collaborative (comprised of The Other Way Ministries, Westown Jubilee Housing, Servants Community Church, Gold Avenue Church, John Ball Area Neighbors, Esperanza Covenant Church, Bridge Street House of Prayer and Keystone Community Church and including participatory groups Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, Kent School Services Network and the Grand Rapids Public Library) is a place to start and a model to move us forward.
 
And maybe if we find a way to get this one right in Grand Rapids, then it might be a story we can export to other cities -- a story that HBO or David Simon will explore another day. 
 
The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor

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