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Innovation & Job News

Young Professional Spotlight: Zyra Castillo


As we get further into the season of giving and thanks, we had a chance to sit down and appreciate the hard work local arts teacher and Gallafe art curator Zyra Castillo does in the Greater Grand Rapids area.

We chatted with Castillo to get her perspective on life in Grand Rapids, and how she is making her own way in our growing Midwest city.

RG: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? (Are you from the area, how do you identify, what are your currently doing for work and interest here in Grand Rapids)

ZC: I grew up in the Upper Peninsula and left after graduating for GVSU (Grand Valley State University). Originally born in the Philippines, I came when I was four just in time to turn five and start school the following fall. A lot of my childhood and college experiences have shaped the way I currently teach and get involved in the community. As an art teacher, my focus is on creative and analytical thinking using mediums to express those thoughts or interpret the visual world around us. Those experiences also are great influences on my involvement in the Grand Rapids Asian Festival. 

RG: Where did you study/grow up and how has that experience shape who you are?

ZC: There were both positive and negative aspects of my youth. Growing up in the UP gave me an appreciation for country living, slow pace, nature, and agriculture. I had great appreciation for growing up around Native American culture. I was lucky enough to have gone through a time period in high school were the arts were highly valued and gave me another route for the future. 

I didn’t have to deal with the quickness and overpopulation of a large urban center. 
However, that also meant there was lack in diversity. I didn’t always know where to fit in. I learned to self hate within my own identity. 

That experience continued in college. However, college was still a huge eye-opener and I tried to take on as many experiences as possible which didn't always help me academically. But the whole process was an immense life learning lesson. Those struggles helped me understand and connect with different people that may have been more difficult if I had not had to pay for my own schooling and taken multiple jobs in and out of campus. I found tufts of community that felt accepting in a place I didn't have any connection to.

RG: What is your current work/passion?

ZC: I am currently an art teacher, organizer, curator, and whatever else I can get my hands on. I love being able to provide and bring enrichment. Everything I do is a reflection of my teacher impulses—being able to connect people and ideas, opening conceptual doors, trying to search for humanity. As equally as I love harmony, I also love the challenge of discourse. I enjoy proving people wrong in situations that feel unequal and unjust.

RG: As a woman of color (WoC) what current issues are most pressing to you?

ZC: The fact there are still so many misconceptions, mistreatment, and disrespect for women professionals is a challenge, as well as the lack of women and POC (people of color) in positions of power that are taken seriously.

RG: As a young professional, what has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?

ZC: I stick to my principles in the workplace. Your personal values should be reflected in your work and vice versa. Not to be confused with style or method. But things like integrity, empathy, openness, can be be challenging in work environments. I’ve found it challenging at times to fit into spaces because my opinions and input are not always taken seriously for whatever reasons being related to age, sex, profession, race.

Being a woman of color can make it difficult even with men of color who are playing the business or power game that celebrates patriarchy. Places often say they want innovation or diversity but don't really understand and implement on a basic or superficial level. 

Through my process of refining my professional goals, I’ve found incredible support. Those challenges have strengthened by goals, and changed my view of goals as fluid and evolving. I want to support and provide a resource for culture and education. The Asian Festival has been instrumental as a medium to do so, as well as my continual interest in growing my food pop up, and becoming a stronger educator. 

RG: How has Grand Rapids faired in helping support you as PoC?

ZC: Things have improved. I was eager to seek larger and more diverse settings to feel the support I needed. I still don't feel completely accepted. I see APA (Asian Pacific American) culture used more frequently as a sensational business opportunity, entertainment, and backdrop with disregard to actual Asian people and culture. People want to try Americanized Asian food as foodie culture has exploded in GR, but yet there isn't increased knowledge about Asian culture. I'm more identifiable but still feel othered. Even in setting that are supposed to help POC, at times there is this air of savior syndrome that exudes expectation for gratitude, or assimilation. I've found my communities that make me feel at home, but outside of it is still quite uncomfortable. 

Being a teacher to children of color, I have to prepare them for a world that isn't as kind or understanding about where they come from. that their history and cultures are not given consideration in this bootstrap culture. 

RG: Anything else you would like to add, discuss, or share? 

ZC: Go to cultural events, local happenings, and support artists and people of color. Be involved. Know about your community. Be open to other people's narratives.

Castillo’s food travels can be found online here.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Images courtesy of
 Zyra Castillo.
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