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Innovation + Job News

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Revolution Farms challenges traditional agriculture methods with aquaponics farming

Revolution Farms, located on 76th street in Caledonia, is the second largest aquaponics farm in the United States. Just last month, the farm harvested its very first crop of produce, and on average will harvest 350,000 pounds of produce a year, with a focus on salad greens.

Initially, the company distributed their salad greens to 16 different SpartanNash stores; however, they now distribute to all 82 stores across Michigan, which include D&W, Family Fare, and VG’s.

Revolution Farms founder and CEO Tripp Frey explains that the two long-term, positive impacts of aquaponic farming are its sustainability and overall quality of product.

Essentially, aquaponic farming consists of growing produce in nutrient-rich water instead of soil and uses aquaculture, the breeding of underwater animals, to supply the nutrients for the water. Revolution Farms specifically breeds tilapia and filters out their naturally produced fertilizer, which is then used to saturate the foot-high pool of water in the greenhouse in which the vegetables are grown.

“When I talk about sustainability, the policy of environmental impact, this farm uses 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture,” says Frey. Additionally, “There’s nothing unnatural in our system because we have to have the fish and the plants survive together. So any kind of synthetic fertilizer or chemical could potentially be dangerous to both of our living organisms and our ecosystem that we’ve created.”

The facility is also 85,000 square feet, about an acre of land, whereas more common forms of agriculture such as field growing can use up to 30 acres of land to produce the same amount of crops.

Another benefit of Revolution Farms is its means to distribute salad greens locally. Generally, most of Michigan’s salad greens are imported from California and Arizona. The biggest issue with this long-distance sourcing is the time between harvesting and their actual arrival on Michigan’s grocery shelves.

“By the time it’s even on the rack, or the shelf of the store, it’s seven or more days old already,” says Frey. “So our goal is to get it on the shelf within a couple of days of being harvested.”

“And there’s a lot of evidence that the more fresher produce equals more nutritious produce, so those are kind of big advantages for the consumer. But obviously by supporting us, you’re supporting local community and supporting jobs.”

Although hydroponics is not the most popular method of farming, it is gaining more traction than before, especially since the practice is still developing new efficiencies. Frey reasons that because places like California and Arizona naturally have useful growing environments and have been reliable supply chains of greens, “No one ever challenged the assumption of us growing it under one person and trucking it around the country.”

“Aquaponics is definitely pushing the envelope here. There are more and more folks growing produce in greenhouses. The whole movement is about the decentralization of our food. Instead of having all of our ingredients come from California, we should be growing it locally around the country, year-round, in greenhouses or buildings, and giving our consumers fresher, healthier food.”

Images courtesy of Revolution Farms.

The Comedy Project set to open after New Year's

In this crucial time of development, where Grand Rapids’ identity is shifting toward something more definitive, the landscape for innovation in all forms is becoming more tangible. Spaces like the Comedy Project, an idea that planted itself only two years ago, is able to exist, and is set to open just after New Year’s. The site, which will also serve as a LaughFest venue, is located at 540 Leonard St. NW, and essentially, will be the only venue in Grand Rapids whose sole focus is on the art of comedy.

“The space essentially has three areas: there’s the classroom space, the main theatre, a space we’re calling the comedy cubicles, and we’ll be having a pretty thorough curriculum –– one for improvisation, one for comedy acting, and one for comedy writing,” says Comedy Project co-founder and artistic director Joe Anderson. “We’re going to really be pushing that training center as a way for people to either experiment to see if this is something they want to do, or if someone already does think they want to do it, it’s a way to challenge them and push them to be better.”

Anderson has been doing comedy for over 15 years. He has traveled across the country to perform, both alone and with his sketch comedy group the Don’t We Boys. Anderson’s management of the Comedy Project will draw from his years of experience, both good and bad, technical and comedic, the things he has seen, and the things he wishes he would have seen.

In addition to workshops and regular comedy performances, the venue will also be open to hosting corporate and private events and retreats. It will be open every day, with varying price admissions and hours depending on the day. The main acts will consist of a core group of six to 10 performers, whereas an opportunity will be given to newer, less frequent performers to fill in remaining slots. Additionally, there will be certain nights designated for student-only shows for those who are practicing their craft.

One of the hopes is that people who practice comedy in this space will grow more comfortable experimenting with their form.

“I feel like with a lot of art disciplines, but specifically comedy right now in Grand Rapids, I feel like a lot of people are worried and they’re being careful, and what I have been saying is you can’t do careful comedy,” says Anderson. “You should be doing responsible comedy, but there’s a big difference between that. You can talk about awful stuff, and you can play awful characters but as long as you’re doing it for a reason –– because if you’re just going to be an awful character saying awful things, then you’ve lost me.”

One of the expectations, however, is that each of their staff members can get paid doing what they love, even if that means going beyond the definition of what their actual job title is.

“Grand Rapids in general doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for people to do something like this as their job, and the truth is that for that job to exist, even with the Comedy Project, it’s going to mean doing some of the parts of the work that just aren’t fun,” says Anderson.

Alongside Anderson, the Comedy Project’s management is made up of four other individuals: Ben Wilke, Eirann Betka, Amy Gascon, Stevie Sahutske, and Cara Powell. In addition to their backgrounds in comedy, they each possess other valuable skills or are willing to contribute their time to tasks other than the comedy itself.

For example, Sahutske has experience in tech and event production, and Betka and Gascon have experience teaching at Civic Theatre and other organizations.

“Our goal is if less people are doing more duties and one of those duties is performing, then that group of people can make more money. Some of them, they’re gonna make money because they were also helping with the garbage, but we can either pay someone else to do that, or we can keep it in that little circle, so that we're at least making something significant.”

In part, this financial structure is necessary to maintain the space for something like the Comedy Project to exist, but the true end goal rests in delivering quality shows, which tends to reflect the likelihood of an audience continuously paying to support and maintain a venue like this.

“...I guess I would say because of the growth of the city, I do think artists are feeling emboldened, maybe because there’s potentially more support for it –– and by support, I really mean money,” says Anderson. “ If there’s more buildings, there means there’s more walls, and those walls need murals and art. So if that’s a true cause and effect, then that’s promising for artists.”

Images courtesy of the Comedy Project.

Ferris State University receives $1.2 million grant to increase STEM retention rates

Ferris State University (FSU) recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a new initiative called Project S3OAR (pronounced SOAR three), short for Sustainable, Scalable Scholarships, Opportunities, Achievements, and Results, in collaboration with Northern Kentucky University (NKU). The initiative will focus on low-income STEM major students, funding up to $10,000 toward their degree. Beginning in the fall of 2019, 36 students will be enrolled in the program, continuing for the next five years.

Although there are many initiatives across the country that encourage students to pursue STEM disciplines — some beginning as early as middle school — many educational institutions struggle to retain these majors at the higher level.

Across the country, retention rate percentages for STEM majors range from high 60s to the low 70s, and at Ferris State University, that statistic sits at 73 percent. One of the objectives of Project S3OAR is to increase this rate to 90 percent. Ferris State University’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Kristi Haik says the main reasons these retention rates are low is due to a combination of STEM disciplines being generally challenging to succeed in and a lack of academic preparedness from students.

Dr. Haik reflected on her journey as STEM major, and connected her own experiences to those of the students with whom she works.

“When they get here and run into some really intense challenges, it’s hard and they might not know where to get the help,” she says. “I had great grades in high school and I thought I knew how to study, and then had a rude awakening. I have worked with students to do this program for years, and they all say exactly what I said ... ‘I thought I knew what I was doing, and then I got to college.’”

Prior to FSU, Dr. Haik was working at NKU, where the program was originally established in 2009. A year ago, she proposed that the grant-funded program continue at NKU, and would use that as a model to implement at FSU.

One of the important lessons learned from the program at NKU is that students need a support system to succeed.

“They’re not going to always want to seek help, even though they might need it,” says Dr. Haik. “So working with them, meeting with them, having somebody who is their champion on campus… really serves as that support system.”

The program will also give students the opportunity to shadow employees in the STEM field early in their program, for four to eight hours long, to decide if they want to commit to that career path.

“A lot of times, we hear from students, it was in their internship or junior year when they got connected to somebody at a business, when they ‘got it’ –– that this is something they really want to do,” says Dr. Haik.

Project S3OAR’s other objectives include increasing the enrollment of low-income and underrepresented groups by 10 percent, thus bringing STEM retention and graduation rates for these populations in line with the rest of the university; documenting the program’s sustainability and scalability; and conducting research on the effectiveness of job shadowing in increasing the retention rate from the first year into the next.

In response to the program’s success at NKU, the target goals of the program being met in the next few years to come seem likely. Overall, the program will allow students to think about a wider range of career paths –– a more optimistic future that opens the doors for underrepresented students.

Photos courtesy of Ferris State University.

Independent Living homes offer a solution to youth aging out of foster care

“A lot of times, older kids have been in the system for many years so they have a lot of behavioral issues, they’ve burned a lot of bridges, whether it’s with family members or people they’ve lived with, so they don’t really have a great support system there to help provide housing options as well,” says Samaritas’ West Michigan Director of Child Services Trisha Sverns. “...something that typically you or I might do if we are in difficult times, we might move back in with our parents or stay with a sibling, something like that. They don’t have those options available.”

Sverns is referring to the challenge older teens face, who are more difficult to place in foster care homes.

“It’s just hard because [foster parents] generally come into foster care wanting to take care of younger kids, so there’s a shortage of homes,” Sverns says.

As a result, the non-profit human resource organization Samaritas opened its doors to a new type of service as a way to address these needs. In 2015, the organization opened their first Independent Living Plus home for teens in the Southfield area, a program where they house four to six teens aged 16 to 19 who are in the foster care system.

The teens are placed in these homes on a referral basis through the Department of Health Services or other private agencies looking to place youth in adequate homes, and from there, a caseworker interviews the individual, assessing their capacity to successfully finish the program and in some sense, how well they will fit in with the other teens already there.

“What we’ve been able to see is that we have kids that are sometimes placed in residential settings like a treatment facility, and kids that age [out] have nowhere to go so they stay there longer than they need to,” says Sverns. “So we’ve been able to see a lot of kids come out of those programs because of this housing option, so they can then transition back into the community.”

Since opening up their first Independent Living Plus home, they have expanded in Lansing, Flint, Taylor, Holland, and more recently, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids this past year. Overall, they are able to house 49 teens, and plan to expand even more in 2019.

What separates these Independent Living homes from a foster care home is the importance they places on building life skills from a place of practicality. The homes are staffed 16 hours a day to provide guidance when needed, and each teen is paired with a case manager and a life coach to ensure their personal needs are being met. The staff may be called on to assist with skills as basic as learning how to do laundry, helping with homework, or doing meal prep. The case manager is responsible for referring teens to resources they may need, making sure they are enrolled in school, and helping them with funding for things like driver’s education or a computer for school, etc.

The life skills coach even goes a step further, “[assessing] each of our youth and figuring out where their individual deficits are in terms of where they need to learn some skills in order to work successfully on their own after they leave our program,” according to Sverns. They educate teens on how to use the bus system, how to apply for resource benefits, or even how to apply for jobs.

Overall, in the three years that the program has been in effect, there has been measurable improvement among youth after leaving the program seen through the KC Life Skill Assessment, taken every quarter. Using this tool, staff are able to understand what skills each child has acquired or how much their skills have developed.

Something not as easily measurable — something that these Independent Living homes try to develop — are support systems for when teens leave the program. By introducing youth to community organizations and services while they are in the program, the hope is that they continue to use those resources and maintain those relationships long after.

“We had people who wanted to mentor kids, and that’s definitely something we would love to do, but I think it’s tricky because people care and they want to get involved and help, but really these kids need long-term support,” says Sverns. “I think it’s more helpful if we can find a way to connect them to the community or even churches or other organizations that would be there for them in the long run.”

Images courtesy of Samaritas.

Lessons in creativity and entrepreneurship with Carbon Stories

Carbon Stories, the creative agency focused on storytelling through photo and video, has grown in size, audience, and content in only three years. As the company continues to shape its identity, learning at a young stage what it takes to be better, more innovative each day, there is one thing that is certain:

“There are times where I’ll sit here and just watch videos about cameras or about lighting or about process, but really, in order to grow, I have to be producing it,” creative director and founder Erik Lauchié says. “I could watch these videos all day, or sit in a class all day, but our field is what you’re creating, so I’ve got to create more.”

Carbon Stories’ monochromatic space sits on Bridge Street facing the road, where large windows pull in just the right amount of sunlight. A friendly husky named Bella strolls around the front room, waiting to be tended to. Only four of the 10 Carbon employees are physically in the building, not counting the reservoir of 17 creators called upon for projects. Lauchié says, “On an average day, there’s something going on in the studio, people in here working, and [there’s] always stuff outside, shoot-wise.”

Carbon creator Allayah Quinn says one of her favorite things about being at Carbon Stories is that someone is always there creating.

“You could come here at 6 a.m. and someone will probably be here until 2 a.m.,” Quinn says.

This approach to the workplace is one of many elements that makes Carbon Stories stand out. It allows freedom for each employee to develop their skills the best way they know how, fostering their creativity in whatever form it may come. Additionally, their can-do attitude forms a team of people comfortable with where they lie on the spectrum of creativity, and pushing forth the mantra of constantly evolving.

“Creatively, something I feel that you should always have as a mindset at Carbon is that you’ll never stop evolving,” says Quinn. She says she always tells her story, especially to the younger generation who wants to work in a similar field, that she “never touched a camera until she came here for college.”

In the beginning, the company pulled in clientele by personally going business-to-business, person-to-person, handing people their business cards and telling them what they do. Lately, most of their clients come from word of mouth, like a domino-effect: one well-executed project leads them to another handful of clients, and so on.

However, Lauchié says, one thing he has learned is that the process of establishing new clients and successfully completing projects never ends. It is a constant process, but has gotten easier as Carbon Stories has become an integral part of his life.

“I remember when it first started, I just didn’t think about it that way,” he says. “...but I’ve learned you’ve got to be ready to talk about it, you’ve got to be ready to answer questions about it, and think through things. All the time, even when I’m just talking in conversation with someone, they’ll ask me something that I may have a good surface answer to, and then I’ll go back to it and go, 'Well wait, how do I address that?' [I am] always needing to find more solutions and continuing to grow.”

Over just the past year, the company has opened more doors of opportunity to experiment with the true meaning behind what entrepreneurship and creativity mean in terms of Carbon Stories and the Grand Rapids community as a whole. They have been more avid of direct involvement with the community, hosting various workshops for content creation and the use of photo equipment and software, as well as using their name as a platform to provoke and inspire. In just the past couple of months, Lauchié participated in an influencer panel at Madcap Coffee Company, spoke at Start Garden, and almost every week as a team, they go to the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) to give students feedback and assistance on their video projects — Lauchié even went on to produce his own podcast called Create Daily, where he explores ideas of what art means to other creatives.

For each month of this year, the group has been able to travel out of state for client work –– something they were only able to do twice in 2017. Earlier in the year, they were donated a truck they named Mobile 1202, which they use as a mobile photo studio and hope to change the way they do business with clients, both inside and outside of Michigan. In addition, every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., they host a networking night through an organization they are part of called PLUG (People Learning, Understanding, and Growing), which they use as a tool to connect with other creatives in Grand Rapids. Eventually, the collective wants it to be a space where they have resources available to people to use, such as a photography studio or a sewing station for clothing.

“It’s still in its baby stages, but that still answers that question of how do we connect,” says Lauchié. “There’s a board of five people who run it and I knew it was bigger than Carbon because this is something that crosses industries.”

To learn more about Carbon Stories as the company continues to learn and grow, visit their website at http://carbonstories.us/.

Images courtesy of Carbon Stories.

Foster Kent Kids coalition helps foster homes optimize their family dynamic

Formed this October, Foster Kent Kids is a new coalition formed as an open invitation for the recruitment, education, and support of persons both active and interested in the field of foster care.

In alignment with a five-year contract with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the West Michigan Partnership for Children (WMPC), the coalition formed in hopes of opening up the doors to more homes for foster-child placement, and mutually enhancing the experience of the youth and family. The coalition will create a model based on how many foster homes they want to recruit as a community and data on the types of homes needed, and retain current foster homes through means of support groups, trainings, appreciation events for foster parents, and respite care, scheduled throughout the year.

Today in Kent County, there are 500 foster homes and a need to place 900 foster kids.

“We created Kent Foster Kids –– the name itself is an action,” WMPC CEO Kristyn Peck says. “It calls everyone to action to foster youth, and it’s also something that each of the five private agencies in Kent County, that do foster care, can unite around.”

The initiative places the comfort and needs of the foster child on the forefront, which can often be overlooked. A common misconception of being a foster parent is that it creates a clear path toward adoption –– however, Peck says, “Our number one primary goal in foster care is to always reunite children with their parents, and that is in the best interest of the child, if at all possible.” With this in mind, the child’s preferred temperament should be reflected in their foster home, offering a temporary space of support and understanding.

“That is something that we will always have more room to learn and grow and improve, and really making sure that we are not assuming, and making assumptions about a child’s preferences, or choices, but really having that process be led by the child, and asking questions,” says Peck.

Additionally, Peck says they are “...looking at making sure we are recruiting families in the communities that kids are living in so that they don’t have to change schools, for example, looking at recruiting families that reflect the demographics of our kids so that they can maintain their connection to their community, and to their own cultures, then looking at also, how can we better support people who are already fostering children?”

Likewise, Peck notes the importance of checking in with foster parents to ensure that they feel supported. This would involve asking how Foster Kent Kids can open up the floor for their voice to be heard, and incorporating their feedback into programming and policies.

In January 2017, WMPC launched Enhanced Foster Care, a program working towards reducing the amount of residential-placed foster children by further educating and fine-tuning the skills of the caregiver to meet any special needs of the youth, allowing them to instead live in community settings like foster homes. Through Enhanced Foster Care, WMPC and its partners were able to stabilize youth in existing community-based foster placements by providing more clinical supports within the home, preventing placement disruptions, and identify youth in residential settings who could be served in the community-based foster placements with additional clinical and behavioral supports.Through this approach, the program dropped the number of placements in residential settings by 4 percent; however, the need for more foster parents was identified.

The new coalition is made up of five child-placing organizations — Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities West Michigan, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s, Samaritas, and Wellspring Lutheran Services — who are state-registered to recruit and license foster parents.

“By bringing them all together, we can create a better and more comprehensive strategy for foster parent recruitment, so we can look at our community as a whole, figure out what are the needs, and then work with each of those providers,” says Peck. The coalition can then determine each of the providers’ strengths, “So we can really make sure we have a comprehensive, city-wide recruitment strategy.”

Images courtesy of West Michigan Partnership for Children.

How the Great Stories Club uses heroism and empathy to connect underserved youth

The Great Stories Club, a program initiative introduced by the American Library Association (ALA), chose the Grand Rapids Public Library (GRPL) as one of the 100 libraries nationwide as their grant recipient to implement in Grand Rapids. As a result, GRPL is collaborating with Grand Rapids HQ, a drop-in center for youth undergoing unsafe or unstable housing, to provide young individuals the valuable experience of inclusive, open-ended conversations through the Great Stories Club.

The program will facilitate for its youth members engagement in meaningful literature and discussion. Over the span of a year, between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019, a variety of books related to the theme of heroism and empathy, including titles such as “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor and “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began” by Art Spiegelman, will be read and discussed by club participants.

GRPL Youth Services Librarian and Great Stories Club facilitator Mark Jemerson says he hopes participants are able “To make connections between their lives and the lives of the protagonists, and will feel empowered with the knowledge that they can make positive change in their lives, despite hardship.”

For each book, eight to 10 participants will engage in three 45-minute long, socratic-like sessions held at HQ. The first session will be an introduction to the book, during which each participant will receive a free copy. The second will be discussion of participants’ initial thoughts and will include a breakout activity, and the third will conclude with a wrap-up dialogue. All participants will be members of HQ, chosen on a voluntary basis.

HQ drop-in manager Drea McKinney will be partnering with Jemerson throughout the program to ensure the program maintains the space and other resources necessary for successful facilitation.

For initiatives like the Great Stories Program, McKinney explains that vulnerability and openness are a part of what makes HQ a welcoming facility for youth to explore their identity.

“Our sole purpose, one of the main purposes of HQ, is that connection part,” McKinney says. “We just sit down with youth and typically they’re in crisis, so sometimes those conversations can look very service-like, very basic needs … but I mean, day-to-day is different. It just depends on what the youth are able to show, because we meet them where they are.”

One of McKinney’s expectations for the program is “To get the youth involved so they can showcase how incredibly bold and talented they are, which we know; but to showcase that inside of HQ and to the outside community. To increase accessibility.”

Jemerson has high hopes for the program as well.

“There is not a program like this established in Grand Rapids with the support of a national organization, so it will provide an avenue into reading that they would not have had in the past,” says Jemerson. “The support of ALA means that there are people in positions of power who are looking out for [the youth] and their future.”

Images courtesy of the Great Stories Club.

New Rental Assistance Program aims to increase accessibility to affordable housing

In September, it was announced that the City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Housing Commission established a two-year pilot program for a Rental Assistance Center for households who earn 80 percent or less of the Area Median Income (AMI). In Grand Rapids, the AMI is $55,900 for a four-person household. The Rental Assistance Center will refer such households to available rental properties, and conversely, connect landlords to rent-ready applicants. Candidates considered rent-ready are those who apply through an online portal and meet the screening requirements presented by landlords. Each year, $91,800 will go toward the funding for the program.

The need for this two-year pilot was assessed through the Housing Now! strategy, an effort put forth by the city in hopes of generating viable solutions for affordable housing.

“They had 10 or 11 recommendations that had come out of the committee they had formed,” says Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Housing Commission Carl Sanchez. “One of the things we were getting a lot of complaints from residents about was that landlords were charging application fees, they weren’t being told when they were being denied, and they were keeping the fees; so the city came up with an ordinance. One of the things that came out of this was to find out a way to reduce the amount of money [residents] have to pay for applications.”

These days, Sanchez explains, it is a standard practice for landlords to charge application fees anywhere between $75 to $100, even without the guarantee of securing the housing; in some cases, the fee only guarantees a spot on a waiting list. As a result, removing application fees through the organization’s online portal submissions is only the first step in the monumental issue that is affordable housing. Sanchez says that even with vouchers provided to qualifying candidates for their Section 8 housing, which aids in subsidizing rent cost, obstacles like application fees make it difficult for individuals to find available housing, even once income is no longer a factor.

Another tangible extension of this program is its proactive approach in educating individuals about how to be rent-ready applicants.

“For instance, if they had bad credit or some kind of blemish on their record, because we do three or four different checks, not only will we tell them, but we’ll also refer them to our residence service coordinator,” says Sanchez. Working with this staff member, applicants can explore the reasons behind their low credit score, such as identity theft, or also be referred to credit counseling.

The goal is to correctly assess why the individual is being denied housing, and refer them to the resources they need so that this is no longer an issue.

Lastly, the program will help set up new criteria for screening by landlords, but in a manner that creates more accessibility for a wider range of applicants.

For example, the criteria might allow for an applicant who has a lower credit score but has a history of paying the majority of their bills on time, or it might allow for an applicant who has been evicted before, but not on the basis of multiple behavioral issues.

Overall, Sanchez says the purpose of the program is to learn more about the housing issues residents face within the Grand Rapids community, and how they can move forward with creating more solutions.

“The city’s plan is to expand affordable housing, and it’s really a major problem in this community, so people are having more and more difficulty finding rental units,” Sanchez says.

“We just want to find out what are some of the impediments that folks are having ... Right now, we have anecdotal stories told to us about what kinds of experiences residents were having in the rental market, so we just want to see if we can do something to improve the availability of housing and connecting landlords with tenants.”

Image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Housing Commission.

Gr8 Lks: Time is money in an effort to clean and preserve the Great Lakes

For business owners under oath of their mission statement, the basis of their discipline is derived from the type of future they envision for their community. As this new age of consumers shift, and business owners are encouraged to use their principals and values as the face of their company, entrepreneurs are becoming more comfortable with allowing their cause to be at the forefront of their business model, as opposed to championing marketing that caters to money and consumption alone.

The newly founded Gr8 Lks apparel company based in Muskegon, co-owned by Andrew Mann and Pete Gawkowski, centers its ideals around the environmental well-being and sustainability of the Great Lakes. The clothing is constructed from both organic cotton and recycled materials, and for every consumer’s dollar that is spent, a minute of time is matched dedicated to cleaning up the shore lines and waters of the Great Lakes. Despite being a for-profit company, the partners pride themselves on their incentive to put their money toward a greater cause — one that can be monetized on a visible scale.

“Yes, we’re a for-profit, we are chasing the dollar because we’re chasing a sale, but you’re seeing it in action,” says Mann. “We’re not just telling you we’re donating, you physically see it because our business and our company is built on proving to the consumer that we are following through on our word.”

The idea for Gr8 Lks, Mann says, was a culmination of many things, ranging from his background in retail, and their overall interest in environmental sustainability.

Mann explains that although the Great Lakes are strongly associated with Michigan, one of their long-term goals is to bring awareness to other states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, and even Canada who, like Michigan, have an identity connected to the Great Lakes, but that is often left out of the conversation.

The number eight within their logo, Mann says, unintentionally represents the eight states connected to the Great Lakes; however, they hope to stretch their efforts beyond that.

Aside from their promise of matching every dollar to every minute, their goal is to continue pushing the agenda of environmental education, and to “bring in a group of people that’s big enough, so that we can make a big dent in this issue,” says Gawkowski.

Though the apparel-brand is still in its early stages, its impact is already evident — the reaping of an idea slowly coming into fruition.

“Last year, if my oldest son would’ve walked past a piece of trash, he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it but now, if I walk down a street or the beach and he sees a piece of trash, the first thing he says is, ‘Dad can we pick that up?’” says Gawkowski. “I think that little things of just him learning that this could make stuff better in the future is a pretty big thing for me.”

Images courtesy of Gr8 Lks.

Code Camp teaches app-building for a future in entrepreneurship

The demand for technological literacy visibly increases as time goes on; what was once a science fiction novel or a madman’s dream is now the contemporary world growing into its identity. For young kids especially, technology can represent the mystique of creating at their fingertips. Projects like Code Camp, a two-year pilot program hosted by Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes in collaboration with the Grand Rapids Public Library, work to push this narrative forward.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the 10-week, summer-long program encourages middle and high-school students to design their own applications and learn the business end of how to market their app. Initially, roughly 40 students from the Greater Grand Rapids area signed up for the program. Kids from Hudsonville, Greenville, Grand Rapids Public Schools and even some homeschooled students participated. Half of these students attended weekly sessions held at the Main Library, and the other half attended sessions at the Madison Square Library.

One app recommended books to read, functioning as a mediator between GRPL’s library catalogue and Amazon. Users were able to read a review of a book and retrieve it from the library shelf or order it from Amazon. Another app enabled users to acquire digital copies of books in exchange for viewing advertisements.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the students presented their final applications alongside their marketing plan.

Junior Achievement’s Director of Education Greg Hampshire says that the presentation included items based on the program’s five “rules: “A report on marketing, plans on what they were gonna do to roll it out, sales; how they were going to monetize it, if they could, and that would include how much they were going to charge for advertising.”

Although much of the initial interest garnered from participating individuals was based on the goal of building an app, most of the students in the program learned more about entrepreneurship than anything else.

“Exposing these students to the fundamentals of business, I think is economically empowering,” says Hampshire. “So even if they decide they don’t really like the software development, but they really like starting their own business, or they really like this marketing or sales piece, it’s helping with career exploration for these kids.

It’s helping them build entrepreneurial skills, which, even if you decide to work for somebody else, being a self-starter is invaluable, as well as being creative, and being able to think from a different headspace than someone who just followed a set path to their career.”

Images courtesy of Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes.

The Diatribe uses poetry as a catalyst for social reform

Throughout the summer, The Diatribe held their first nine-week summer programming for students, leading up to their Youth Poetry Pop-Up Show this past Saturday. More than one-hundred people gathered together at Outside Coffee Co to witness 16 students from the program perform their own pieces.

Over the past few years, The Diatribe, a nonprofit poetry organization integrated within the boroughs of the Grand Rapids community, has worked ceaselessly to use poetry as a vehicular tool, urging social reform forward. During the school year, they reposition traditional English lessons, utilizing history and social studies in order to engage with students in new and creative ways. Through these interactions and other school-related programs, the group of poets hand-selected 30 students from middle to high-school to participate in the nine-week youth program.

Diatribe member Rachel Gleason says the exchange in poetry amongst one another sets the tone for listening — an especially vital tool for character development in younger individuals who are still learning about the world around them. Through their collaboration with the school systems, Gleason notes the sharp change in atmosphere shortly afterwards.

“Everyone gets their chance to speak and be heard and be empowered, but it also sets the tone for the importance of listening to other people’s experiences — because that’s how we learn, that’s how we gain compassion, that’s how we gain empathy, and that’s how we can really learn how to uplift others best,” says Gleason.

“We’ve seen it time and time again, especially in schools with young people, that The Diatribe will come in and we’ll do our programming, whether it’s just an assembly or whether it’s just six to nine weeks of programming, and teachers say their students are different. The atmosphere is different. There’s more unity, there’s less bullying.”

The summer program was held every Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth at their Paul I Phillips Location. Gleason explains that during each session, the class spent time reading a poem, dissecting its themes, messages, and poetic devices, and practiced writing prompts based on that particular poem. Gleason’s favorite session was the discussion students held after listening to the poem “When Viola Davis Won” by Ajanae Dawkins — one relating to the representation of women of color.

“It was a really cool experience to see it unfold in that way, especially because of the diversity of the students and where they came from,” she says.

In addition to their summer-youth program, The Diatribe formed a partnership with the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, where, earlier in August, they hosted a workshop to promote awareness of housing resources to the youth; an unlikely duo that was effective in bridging the concept of self expression and social studies.

One of the focal points of the workshop, Gleason says, was “To know the law, to know how the law protects them, and to know that they can go somewhere for help.” The workshop itself was created out of the idea that if students were educated about the fair-housing act, they would educate those around them.

“Fair housing is a baseline issue, in that it impacts every part of someone’s life, especially in Grand Rapids right now, with the way the city is changing and the gentrification that’s happening,” says Gleason.

As an extension of the Youth Poetry Pop-Up Show and overall celebration of spoken word poetry, The Diatribe is hosting their Grand Showcase, one of the largest poetry events to be held in West Michigan, on October 6th. It will be held at Fountain Street Church, where alongside nationally known poets Andrea Gibson, Siaara Freeman, and T. Miller, and local poets including Zerilli, Michaelyn, TAE, and KFG, five students who participated in the Pop-Up Show will be selected to perform at the showcase.

What is most important, Gleason says, is poetry’s ability to empower people to share their stories and their voices. Using it as a catalyst for change time and time again, it seems as though the act of exploring identity through poetry quietly opens up one door at a time, enabling individuals to learn from each other’s most intimate experiences as human beings.

Follow this link to learn more about The Diatribe's upcoming Grand Showcase.

Images courtesy of The Diatribe.

Museums for All: The duality between low-income and higher learning in art

In Maslow’s hierarchy, a theory in psychology exploring needs imperative to the development of the human psyche, and in what order each ranks in importance, individuals are unable to reach self-actualization without the sustainability of basic needs like food and shelter. However, in more recent times, we are beginning to understand the power of allowing needs like safety and love and belonging to coincide and exist amongst one another, to create a more accurate depiction of how people’s lives unfold, how they see the world they live in, and giving them the space to express this on their own terms.

The Museums for All initiative, offered through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, has been adopted by the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) as of August 13. Its mission is to bridge the gap between individuals who want, just as much as their counterparts who have resources more readily available to them, to participate in the universal experiences that art has to offer. Museums for All enables the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to be used as a valid form of free entry into the GRAM, much like its neighboring organizations, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), who began participating in 2017.

EBT cardholders typically use this form of payment as a way to purchase food, a very basic human need. Likewise, the Museums for All program equates art with this same significance, allowing cardholders to use it as a free entry pass. 

The core motive for GRAM moving forward with this program is to reach more people.

“We’re always evaluating how we are working with our community and our audiences, and a distinct goal of ours has always been, and always will be, to engage the widest population possible with what we have to offer,” says GRAM Director of Learning and Creativity Christopher Bruce. “And as part of that, we are always looking at all ways we can lower or remove barriers from access for our community.”

Day by day, the sentiment that art is for the elite, the wealthy, or higher-class, is slowly dwindling.

“Art allows you to expand your horizon, to experience creativity, to appreciate the world we live in,” Bruce says. “That should not be limited to just those who have the means to support those institutions.”

Individuals with an EBT card can have up to three additional people accompany them for free admission into GRAM, and are allowed to partake in any programs running that day that would be available to those who have paid regular admission. This includes their Saturday drop-in studio hours, museum tours, lectures, and any other services offered.

Bruce says on the day it was announced that GRAM would be participating, already there were people using this opportunity to their advantage.

“You don’t even have to fill out a form, you don’t have to provide all sorts of background information, you simply show your card and you’re allowed entry,” says Bruce. “And we honor the food assistance card from all 50 states. So it’s not just Michigan residents who can participate. Anyone in the country who is visiting Grand Rapids, who has an EBT card, can come to us free of charge whenever they would like.”

One of the more rewarding benefits of programs like this in the art community, Bruce explains, is the way it continuously allows conversation to ebb and flow in new directions.

“When we open our doors, and more people have access, more people can participate in the conversation, more people can voice their opinions, voice their views, and discuss their interpretations of those works of art,” he says. “It’s not my interpretation of a work of art that matters. It’s not the directors, it’s not a specific art historian, or guest who gets to say what an object means, because it means something different to each and every person who views it.

By removing those barriers, by inviting the community in and engaging in thoughtful conversation, we get to see what people see. We get to look at the world through their eyes, and it’s amazing — the conversations you have when you’re talking about a work of art. I’ve been at the museums for around eight and a half years now, and I am still surprised at the conversations I have in front of objects that I’ve been discussing [this] entire time.”

These magical moments, he says, are the ones they get to share when they work with programs like Museums for All.

Images courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Responsible Parent Program Center provides payers of child support with innovative support

Over the last few years, there have been multiple attempts by the Kent County Friend of the Court (FOC) to create and sustain programs for payers of child-support, that will “assist non-compliant payers overcome the barriers that lead to noncompliance with their support order,” says Friend of the Court director Dan Fojtik. However, due to programs in the past being grant-funded, the privilege of flexibility was gone; there was not as much freedom to evolve alongside of the needs of their clients.

For example, their last grant-funded program, Referral for Employment, Asset Development, Cooperation and Hope (REACH), was constrained to a timeframe for obtaining specific goals, including “help the payer attain property, establish a bank account, learn how to budget and avoid predatory lenders.” In the end, Fojtik says, there was no true difference between individuals who did or did not participate.

“It was sometimes pretty limiting,” he says. “I think it’s the biggest change that we’ve had from the past.”

Fast-forward to 2016, when the FOC established the Responsible Parent Program (RPP), designed as a way to identify the issues hindering payers of child support from making their payments and connecting them to tangible resources, eventually leading them to a state of compliance with their court orders. As a means to move away from being grant-funded, the FOC’s information technology department developed a system enabling them to re-allocate staff to the RPP.

“...our IT department developed a system known as Casetracker that monitors cases for enforcement, provides summary information for payers with multiple cases, saving us time going from screen to screen in the state system, and quickly generating forms,” says Fojtik.

Since funding their own program, the FOC has geared the focal points of the RPP toward gainful employment and meaningful community relationships amongst their clients and other organizations.

To strengthen these key areas of development, on June 11 the RPP opened a center located on the second floor of 82 Ionia Avenue NW. Because the program now exists at a physical location, the services previously provided for participants through one-on-one consultations with their caseworkers are now easily accessible in one place. This includes three workstations where individuals can update their resumes, apply for jobs online, and review a list of available employment opportunities.

“Maybe they [are] having parenting problems with the other parent and they need some information on how to fix that,” Fojtik says. “They may be referred to mediation services. They may need to have their license reinstated if it was suspended for child support. They can do that. And sometimes they may owe a lot of state-owed money, some of which they may be qualified to have discharged. That’s pretty much what [the case workers] do, and they spend a lot of time trying to get agency and employer partners to work with us so we can make proper referrals.”

Additionally, the program conducts outreaches, which involves caseworkers visiting various locations for open consultations about the RPP or an individual’s specific case.

“A lot of people are hesitant to come to our office, so we try to go out to them,” Fojtik says.

Some of the partner organizations at which caseworkers conduct outreaches are Michigan Works!, the Hispanic Center, Strong Fathers, and their newest partner, 70x7 Life Recovery. Fojtik explains that long-term contact with agencies like these are an important piece in how the RPP is able to better assist their clients. It also plays a role in the community’s perception of the program and the services it has to offer.

“A lot of people don’t trust us,” says Fojtik. “We were so enforcement-focused in the past — usually the first time they’d see us is when we’d have a show cause hearing for not complying with their court order or a bench hearing.”

Due to this misconception, he says they have created an early engagement program.

“We have a full-time worker calling people who have a brand new order to explain what the order means, what services we have available; the earlier we can engage them, the better, so that they understand who we are, and that we’re actually trying to help.”

Photos courtesy of the Responsible Parent Program.

$50K contract renewal fuels Local First's goals of inclusion and equity

In July, it was announced that the City of Grand Rapids Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will renew its contract with Local First, the non-profit organization that works with businesses to develop their core values, reflecting that of the greater surrounding community. The contract renewal doubled the EDC’s commitment — from $25,000 to $50,000. These funds will be allocated toward the organization’s Good for Grand Rapids campaign.

Good for Grand Rapids is an initiative designed to develop and sustain progressive practices within local West Michigan businesses. One of their main approaches to beginning to integrate these practices is the Quick Impact Assessment, a tool that measures the type of social equity present in the workplace, and how it can be improved.

Through these newfound connections, Local First plans to work with larger employers to identify where they invest their money, and to maximize goods and services on a local level to circulate wealth and resources within the community.

“...addressing that systemic change is gonna create a big, huge wave effect, I think, and [will] start getting money in the hands of people who need it most, and who have businesses that they’re being intentional with,” says Local First’s program and fund development manager Hanna Schulze.

One of the focal points of the Good for Grand Rapids campaign is intentionality in all forms: financial, environmental, social, and more. Schulze says she recognizes a shift in consumer behavior, in which more people are becoming concerned about the moral makeup and practices of the businesses at which they spend their money.

“We have a huge amount of businesses that are owned by white, middle-aged individuals, and we don’t have a representative percentage of businesses owned by people of color, by veterans, by women, by the LGBTQ community, etcetera,” says Schulze. “That’s something that we’ve recognized through our work with locally owned businesses … We’re not only trying to change that by putting capital resources and social resources in the hands of communities of color, women entrepreneurs, etcetera, but also to address the businesses that already exist — how they can be more intentional with what they’re doing?”

She notes that although economic development is important, it is necessary to ask if the businesses built out of these already disenfranchised communities will be empowered or further excluded.

Using the results and resources gathered from the Quick Impact Assessment and Good for Grand Rapids campaign overall, Local First strives to make businesses more conscious of these issues, with the hope of putting more ethical practices into motion.

Despite the disproportionate amount of businesses and organizations that do not accurately represent the demographics of the Grand Rapids area, Good for Grand Rapids has slowly begun fostering a community of diversity and inclusion over the past few years. This includes assisting companies in their path toward becoming B Corporations, certified institutions committed to extending intentional practices beyond the workplace.

“Since Local First’s quick impact assessment and related programming began in 2014, the BCorp community has grown from three BCorps to 19 in the west Michigan community," says Schulze. "The community of BCorps was strengthened in part by the resources and engagement opportunities provided to the businesses by Local First.”

The sentiment behind this movement of social equity and intentionality is optimistic, as one of the goals within the agreement between the EDC and Local First is for half of the businesses in Grand Rapids to take the Quick Impact Assessment within the next five years.

“We have people throughout the city helping us with that goal, but that is one of the deliverables,” Schultze says. “We have specific deliverables: inclusion and equity. This means the intentional employment of people from the Black, Hispanic, and underserved populations, and that specifically is referring to a certain census tract that has higher unemployment rates and a lower per capita income rate.”

However ambitious of a goal this may seem, the consensus is that, because consumers are seeking out businesses whose moral ideals are in alignment with their own, it is forcing the head of businesses to evolve with their audience. Schultze explains that this idea of a world in which employer practices bleed into the real world, outside of the workplace, is “no longer conceptual.” More specifically, tools like the Quick Impact Assessment are providing businesses with the honest insight they need to become more sensible to the world changing around them.

Images courtesy of Local First.

Meet Up to Eat Up program provides free meals to kids during summer vacation

According to the Michigan School Data information database, 73,377 children between the grades of kindergarten and 12th grade were eligible for free lunch during the 2017-2018 fall school year in the state of Michigan. Eligibility for free lunch is dependent on the income of each family.

According local education professionals, for students who come from low-income families, school is sometimes their primary source of reliable nutrition, which is why programs like Meet Up to Eat Up are important.

“...hunger doesn’t stop for the summer time, and basically, this is a bridged gap between meals that students may miss between the time school ends and starts back up in the fall,” says Grand Rapids Public Schools Director of Nutrition Services Phillip Green. “So this provides them an opportunity to receive some of the meals they would receive if they were in school.”

Meet Up to Eat Up is a program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Education, which allows kids who are 18 years old and under to receive free meals during the summer. The meals are served at various locations throughout Grand Rapids, typically providing breakfast and lunch Monday through Thursday; however, there are some locations who provide meals on Friday as well. Their first service of summer was held Monday, June 11.

“We also work with a couple of different apartment complexes,” says program supervisor Erin Webley. “Sometimes kids can’t leave or go far from their homes because their parents or guardians are at work and they’re watching their younger siblings at home, so being able to go to their apartment complex office has been really helpful for parents because they know their kids are getting one to two meals a day and they don’t have to go far for safety reasons to get that.”

Outside of navigating the website, one way of identifying the nearest site where Meet Up to Eat Up is providing meals, is to text ‘food’ to 877877, then texting your zip code. It will then send a list of sites closest to that zip code.

Green says one of the greatest challenges they have is spreading awareness about the program so that more families are able to participate. He recalled a parent he met at one of the sites who not only brought her own children, but children she was watching for another parent as well.

Depending on each location and the day, Green says there could be 20 children or over 100 children who attend the program.
One of their long-term goals in the future is to purchase a food truck in order to be mobile with the summer program.

For more information, you can visit their website here.
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