Grand Rapidians often hear their city’s stories of success: the beer industry that’s bringing in tourists from around the country, the manufacturing sector that’s making a comeback, the almost endless string of accolades naming Grand Rapids as one of the best places to raise a family, buy a house, and more.
But there are other stories that aren’t as often heard, even though they’re being told: those of the city’s residents living in poverty. Those of the people struggling to find work. Those of the families who can no longer afford the rent for the home in which they’ve lived for years, or decades.
More than a quarter of Grand Rapids’ population -- 26 percent -- lives at or below the federal poverty level (about $24,000 for a family of four), and that number climbs even higher in communities of color, according to statistics from the U.S. Census. About 45 percent of the 42,000 African Americans residing in the city live in poverty. The unemployment rate climbs to about 53 percent in predominantly black neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Approximately 35 percent of Hispanic residents are living in poverty and are facing a 27 percent unemployment rate.
The staggering unemployment and poverty rates for people of color has led to Grand Rapids being ranked as one of the worst cities for African Americans in the entire country. While the median income for white individuals in the city is about $77,000 per year, it is $22,000 for black residents. Of the nearly 16,000 businesses in Kent County, just 5 percent are owned by individuals who are black, according to the Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses.
“Grand Rapids continues to be a tale of two cities, where neighborhoods in 17 census tracks -- home to roughly a third of our city’s population -- have 48 percent of their residents living in poverty,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said during her State of the City address last month. “These neighborhoods are more racially and ethnically diverse than the city as a whole. These neighborhoods are economically unstable with low median household incomes and high unemployment.”
To address racism and racial disparities in the city, Bliss and the city officially launched the “Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative,” which the mayor announced during her State of the City and which has landed $300,000 in support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF).
The city announced this week that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation will provide a three-year, $300,000 grant for the initiative that aims to increase job creation and employment and create an action plan for racial equity in the city. The program will focus on the 17 census tracks cited by Bliss during her March speech. These communities are identified by WKKF as “neighborhoods of focus,” or areas that are facing higher rates of poverty and unemployment than the rest of the city. The neighborhoods included in these census tracts include Madison Square, Baxter, Garfield Park, Roosevelt Park, the South East Community, and Heartside, among others.
“The initiative will convene stakeholders to create specific action steps that increase equitable employment and reduce racial disparities in the city, create a digital Racial Equity Dashboard for community transparency and accountability, and identify ways for community stakeholders to work together form community-wide impact,” the city says in a press release issued this week.
With this initiative, Bliss said the city will “work hard to strengthen our partnerships” with such organizations as the NAACP, Urban League, Hispanic Chamber, Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network, The Right Place, The Source, WMCAT, GROW, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the West Michigan Small Business Development Center, and others.
The WKKF funding will cover the costs of hiring a facilitator for the initiative and hiring an “evaluation and data partner to track and publish program outcomes,” according to the city. Additionally, it will cover the costs associated with trainings, strategic planning sessions, community roundtables, and other public outreach.
“The Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative will strengthen our efforts to eliminate racial disparities in our city,” Bliss said in a press release. “We know that without racial equity we cannot be prosperous as a community.”
Dr. Bill Pink, the vice president and dean for workforce development at Grand Rapids Community College who will take over as the school’s president on May 1, will serve as the co-chair of the initiative with Bliss.
“This effort is something that’s been a growing initiative from the mayor’s office and the city of Grand Rapids wanting to make sure, from the city’s perspective, we’re doing all we can to promote racial equity in our city,” Pink said in an interview with Rapid Growth.
The soon-to-be president of GRCC said the data that stems from the initiative will not only help to inform the city on matters of racial equity (including, for example, how racism prevents people from being employed), but it will help the college as well.
“Some of our students are in these neighborhoods, and this gives us more information so we can make more informed decisions,” said Pink, who has long done equity work, including chairing a national conference on the future of African-American education in the U.S. and conducting equity and diversity training for teachers and organizations. “This will give us more data for us to find out more about our community… This is the work that will inform us enough that we can make lasting change.”
Part of that lasting change will stem from some honest and difficult conversations about racism and racial bias in the Grand Rapids community, including dialogue about policing after five unarmed African American boys were stopped at gunpoint by police last month.
“Anything in terms of what we see in Grand Rapids that we want to address will be on the table,” Pink said in regards to community conversations about police bias. WKKF noted that racial equity work not only strengthens communities but makes policing more effective.
“Police forces that reflect the diversity of their communities can improve communications and foster cultural understandings that lead to both safer neighborhoods and stronger police-community relationships,” WKKF wrote. “There is more opportunity for trust and transparency when the community sees a police force that includes members of their community.”
While the WKKF grant will last for three years, this work must be at the forefront of city policy -- and continued by residents throughout Grand Rapids, officials said.
“It’s not just a task force or initiative that drives changes; people drive change,” Pink said. “The folks who are a part of this great city are the people who will be the main players in this.”
“This is all of our work; this is how we take care of each other,” Pink continued. “This is how we take care of our city. It’s ambitious for us, and it’s a positive move. But it won’t mean a thing if we as a whole can’t grab a hold of this.”