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The meaning behind Urban Roots' "Grow, eat, learn"

“In the industrialized world, we think about things like machines, so the language we use, and I hear this all the time, is that we build gardens,” says Urban Roots founder Levi Gardner. “You don’t build gardens any more than you build a kid.”

In a place like Grand Rapids where the appeal of a modern metropolis is reflected in the exponential growth of its cityscape, Gardner notices the idealization of gardens sprinkled throughout the city in the form of raised garden beds and abandoned fields where gardens existed for short periods of time. This tendency to envision gardening as a cute, frivolous hobby, as opposed to a lifestyle that feeds into systems of ecology, is one that Gardner and his staff of five strive to reconceptualize.

Two years ago, Rapid Growth met with Gardner, who was just getting acquainted with Urban Roots’ new space on Madison Avenue. There, the organization was able to put into motion some of the bigger projects they had long sought after. Now, after having had the opportunity to solidify their presence in the Grand Rapids community, the group has taken the initiative to, day-by-day, to adjust their ethical practices to fit the lifestyle of as many individuals as possible, despite various upbringings such as socioeconomic status or skin color.

Over the last five years, the non-profit organization’s mantra, “Grow, eat, learn” not only applies directly to the immediate community around them, but is also a change agent for the organization itself, and how the context of its mission to serve others has changed since its conception. The group has made room for “elevating our level of consciousness about the connectivity between all things in the world,” and ensuring that the space of their facility is an open invitation to everyone.

“Grow, eat, learn” is the history, metaphor, and beauty behind the quickly-expanding non-profit organization, Urban Roots—the thriving garden located just a couple blocks wayward from the corner of Madison and Hall.

In late April, Urban Roots hosted a workshop called Start Your First Garden; in attendance were individuals from the local Madison neighborhood, East Grand Rapids, Ada, Rockford, and neighborhoods in between.

“Where else in Grand Rapids are 50 people from those demographics sitting in the same place? Not many, unless they’re shouting at each other, unfortunately,” says Gardner. “So when I look at something like that, I go, ‘That’s a tiny bit of fruit. That’s tiny, but it’s real.’ There’s nothing about that that’s synthetically fertilized."

Similarly, during the second week of June, the organization hosted their first Supperclub dinner of the summer, where they were able to merge separate worlds underneath a single, community event.

“We had multi-millionaire white men over the age of 50, that are from power and privilege, and then we had 18-year old, transgender persons of color on a piece of property on the same day in a world that is as polarized as we are.”

The common denominator, weaving all of these people together? “Grow, eat, learn.”

In the last few years, the organization’s staff has grown from just Gardner, to now a staff of five people, with six interns working alongside them. This year alone, they will have an estimated 50 to 60 groups from different schools, faith communities, and other non-profit organizations visit their facility. In just the past six months, they have received grants from Herman Miller, Spectrum, and Amway to further develop their projects and ideas. And as of now, they are still piecing together their kitchen, because this year, their urban farm will serve approximately 2,000 meals to the local community.

Gardner recalls a visiting student who had never eaten a carrot in their life.

“Not only had they never had a carrot straight from the ground, but they never had a carrot in their life,” says Gardner. “...and they pulled the carrot from the ground and said it was pretty good.”

“Maybe that’s one degree of turning, one degree of I can do something that’s loving to my own body, which is a way of caring for the earth and caring for themselves,” says Gardner. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is trying to change the world. Easy stuff.”

Images courtesy of Urban Roots.
 

#GRSummerProject: A platform and movement in the hands of the youth

Stephanie Gonda, sales manager of Townsquare Media, has created a movement meant to highlight issues the youth of Grand Rapids face every day. By bringing students together—organized into groups facilitated by mentors and coaches—and involving local organizations like Experience Grand Rapids and Amplify GR, #GRSummerProject aims to provide access to the resources necessary for developing solutions to those same issues.

“That’s the thing: I understand that people like to watch and see, but I need everybody involved,” Gonda says. “Anybody, from anywhere, from any medium, from any business, from any organization, from any zip code.”

The project will be in effect from June 12 until August 3. Each student, from sixth graders to freshmen in college, will choose a social issue they are passionate about and be grouped with other individuals who choose to work on the same issue. Each group will be given $1,049 to fund the solution being developed for their specific problem. The students have near total control over how they want to proceed with finding a solution and developing the solution itself; the mentors and coaches for each group will simply help piece together and polish the end result.

Originally, the application deadline was June 6, but has now been extended until June 29. As of the publication of this article, there are 34 students involved, tackling issues such as homelessness, discrimination, mental health, and entrepreneurship.

“We don’t expect solutions to come in the next eight weeks,” Gonda says. “They understand, I understand that that’s not gonna happen…[But] they want to be involved. They have come up with some amazing ideas or thoughts, and when we connect with the organizations that are working with some of these same [issues], we’re hoping new perspective is formed.”

For Gonda, the fuel behind #GRSummerProject rose out of frustration and ambiguity. Prior to the campaign, she raised the question to herself and her peers of whether or not they were impacting the youth as much as they should be. After going into the community and listening to their needs, the answer boiled down to one simple, yet profound concept: the youth of Grand Rapids need to be seen, heard, and felt before anyone else.

One student involved, Gonda explains, expressed her concerns about her safety after being held in a lockdown at school due to a nearby armed shooter. Another touched upon his struggles with being bullied and depression.

“I’ve had a couple of people go and say, that are not involved with the project, ‘Well, are the students really going to want to get involved with a commitment like this,” Gonda says. “And I’m like yes— they are begging to be heard. They want somebody to ask them questions. They want to be involved in the solutions.”

Additionally, Magic 104.9 radio station is collaborating with #GRSummerProject, not only to highlight community issues, but to highlight local musicians as well. Students have the opportunity to submit their original music to win a cash prize of $2,500, have their music featured on the radio, and to open for the end of the summer concert designed to celebrate eight weeks' worth of commitment to social change.

“We just have to bring all that good together to light under one platform, that we can all celebrate together the progress that’s going to be made by being intentional over these eight weeks over the summer.”

If you're interested in applying to be part of #GRSummerProject, download the pledge form here.

Images courtesy of #GRSummerProject.
 

Muse GR renovates an idea: From adult bookstore, to photography studio, to interactive art gallery

For the past 50 years, the building at 727 Leonard St NW housed a windowless, closed-off adult bookstore, of which its neighboring community was not a fan. However, over the past year, the building was purchased, renovated, and transformed into an interactive art gallery, now known as Muse GR, by Stephen Smith, who owns photography company Executive Visions and works in Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Taylor Smith, writer for the marketing and communications team of World Renew. The ribbon cutting was held on Friday, May 18th at 12pm.

Originally, Stephen says, the sole use of the building was for a photography studio that would be broken into three different spaces in which to conduct photoshoots.

“We saw the need for that because all the places [photography studios] that were open would close down after a while,” says Stephen. “I would interview the owners and they would say the overhead was too high. So that’s kind of how we got the idea—if we can leverage the cost by actually buying the property, as opposed to renting it out, then we wouldn’t have to be worried about closing down.”

Additionally, the couple wanted to create a space where everyone would feel comfortable.

“The need, I would say, came out of us being a part of different studios around the area and Stephen doing photography, and not feeling like we were always welcomed,” says Taylor. “Or, feeling like there wasn’t a community feel to these different spaces. We felt limited. We don’t want people to feel like they’re excluded.”

Throughout the process of reconstructing both the physical appearance and the conceptual use of the space, the two took business classes to perfect their business model, sought out an architect and construction company who best complemented how they wanted to bring their vision to life, and surveyed different photographers about their thoughts on the space.

Many of the resources and support they received were from local organizations, including Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, who lent advice about navigating city policies and the commercial side of real estate, and Start Garden, who recently awarded Stephen and Taylor funding from their 100 Ideas pitch contest.

Eventually, the primary focus of the space shifted from being used as a photography studio, to being used for an art gallery and a place to hold events, workshops, classes, and more. Stephens says they want the community to generate ideas for events to host in the space in the future.

In the near-future, they are looking to collaborate with various artists, both local and national, to create a platform for pop-up art, live art, and speaker series.

Additionally, they hope to change the community’s perception of how they are able to create something of value to themselves and their community.

“There are things people want to change in the city or to add to the city, and they have the ideas, but they don’t realize they have the power to do it,” says Taylor. “So I just hope it encourages other young people to do what’s in their heart.”

On June 1, Muse GR will open its doors from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. to the public.

SLSA Creative Agency seeks to push the agenda of creativity

Last month, clustered in a sector of the Rising Grinds Café, were a handful of dreamy-eyed entrepreneurs and creatives, eager to learn about the outline, or as SLSA Creative Agency titled it, The Blueprint, of steps necessary to pursue your career. SLSA founder Shayna Harris talked about how the organization’s target audience—creatives, entrepreneurs, and millennials—often lack the funding for full branding of their ideas. Additionally, Harris invited speakers to share their takes on brand development, including founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses Jamiel Robinson, and GRNow founder CJ Devries.

With the Blueprint, the first of many in a series of workshops in brand building, she aims to provide others with a foundation of skill sets for pursuing their career. However, The Blueprint is only one of a multitude of ways in which SLSA is trying to serve the community of Grand Rapids.

SLSA Creative agency is an organization functioning much like a public relations firm, focusing on the branding and marketing, creative design, and event production of persons pursuing a career in the creative field.

“The name, SLSA, is our promise to our clients that we work on the branding and marketing side, that we promise strategy to prolong longevity, style, and ambition,” says Harris. Simply put, the mission “is to keep creatives, creative.”

The idea for SLSA was born out of a need to pave the way for more creative pursuits in Grand Rapids. She explained that because there are a lot of creatives in the city who do not have access to resources for developing their brand, the organization strives to become that resource which, at times, is challenging.

“There’s no other businesses to really collaborate with,” Harris says. “When you’re the only one creating an agency that says, ‘Hey, I just want to support you,’ you’re doing a lot of digging.”

“This is what Grand Rapids lacks, so I just finally decided [on starting the organization] because I’ve seen a lot of my friends leave to go to L.A. and Chicago because there’s just more opportunity there for creatives. Whether you rap, you sing, you write, you paint—whatever it is—there’s just no lane for it here.”

The team is made up of three women, Harris included, who hone in on the organization’s ideology of versatility and diversity. Harris takes on the responsibility of meeting with clients and coming up with strategies to figure out what direction their brand needs to go in, another visually brings to life the campaign for the brand, and the third typically handles the demands of human resources and business development. Together, the three range in skills, physical appearance, and age, in order to create a triad of perspectives.

“We want the creatives in our community to feel supported, so when I bring people to my table for SLSA, I want that represented and I want our clients to see that represented, and I want the creatives that we highlight to feel welcome, even if they don’t look like me,” Harris says.

In the next couple of months, SLSA seeks to extend their efforts into a physical space, where they hope foster an environment for collaboration amongst other creatives within Grand Rapids.

Photos courtesy of SLSA Creative Agency.

Michigan Good Food Fund welcomes Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women as lending partner

Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) is joining the Michigan Good Food Fund (MGFF) in its valuable work to address food apartheid in communities throughout Michigan. While “food deserts” are defined as neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food, nutrient-poor food is often readily available in income-challenged neighborhoods. The MGFF’s unique lending programs seek to change that status quo.

With GROW as a lending partner, MGFF is helping West Michigan businesses to finance enterprises that increase access to affordable, healthy food in an income-challenged, underserved, Michigan community. Any business that grows, processes, distributes, or sells healthy food within an eligible community can apply for loans ranging from $1,000 to $6 million from the fund, which is a public-private partnership.

GROW, along with two other lending partners, Northern Initiatives and Detroit Development Fund, will underwrite loans less than $250,000. MGFF fund manager, Capital Impact Partners, underwrites loans more than $250,000. Businesses can seek financing for working capital, inventory, equipment, acquiring real estate, construction, property improvements, facility expansions, and business process upgrades.

“We have $30 million available to support businesses across Michigan. Since our launch, we have built a network of lending partners and also a robust, technical support services pipeline,” says Mary Donnell, MGGF program manager. “GROW lets us deepen our presence in the west side of the State. It really is our goal that every business we lend to improves the health of Michigan children and families.”

MGFF had already helped two Grand Rapids businesses with financing. Ken’s Fruit Market provides affordable fresh produce in three locations: 2420 Eastern Ave SE, 3500 Plainfield Ave NE, and 830 28th St. SW. Placita Olvera, a mixed-use development on Grandville Avenue, will include a brewery, multiple restaurants, an outdoor farmers' market, and a business incubator space.

As MGFF sought to expand the program in West Michigan, involving GROW seemed a natural next step. West Michigan businesses applying for MGFF loans through GROW must attend a free, one-hour seminar that introduces them to all of the services that GROW offers. (The lending opportunity is not restricted to women.)

According to Kelli Smith, GROW’s business development officer and microloan counselor, the MGFF lending program aligns with GROW’s goals because many of the local businesses GROW serves are based in neighborhoods with limited food access or run by minority business owners.

“Increasing access to affordable, healthy food is one of our sweet spots. We are attempting to help the same minority-based borrowers that the program is specifically seeking out,” she says. “We’re excited to get moving with this. And, we’re trying to spread the word that we have lending options for food centered businesses.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women
 


Innovation Central engineering lab will accelerate careers and college

The City of Grand Rapids SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority has is granting Grand Rapids Public Schools $384,306 for the Innovation Central Advanced Technology Educational Initiative, which at its centerpiece includes creating a new state-of-the-art engineering lab. Funds will be dispersed over a three year period.

The initiative will expand the existing lab and outfit it with cutting edge technology like prototyping equipment and 3D printers. Grant funds will also help to further develop the school’s engineering curriculum. In addition, the Initiative will partner with West Michigan Center for Art and Technology (WMCAT) and Grand Circus to provide even more opportunities to students in the program. (According to Talent 2025, annual openings for engineering positions in West Michigan are going to continue to rise steeply.) Other partners involved in the initiative include Grand Valley State and Ferris State UniversitySteelcaseVan Andel Institute, and Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber.

“We’ve taken what our community partners have told us and implemented new courses that will help our students succeed within the engineering field,” adds Gideon Sanders, GRPS director for Innovative Strategies. “The grant will help us modernize the equipment so students will have access to things they will see in their profession or where they intern. The industry has a desire for students who can code and do computer programming. The grant will help us establish a lab dedicated to engineering.”

Innovation Central is one of three Grand Rapids Public Schools Centers for Innovation. Launched in 2008 in partnership with West Michigan’s universities, colleges, and industry leaders, the Centers of Innovation encourage students to focus on specific career or college pathways. University Prep offers middle and high school students an individualized, college-focused curriculum. The Public Museum School embodies place-based education and design thinking within an immersion environment within two Grand Rapids Public Museum and nine through twelve at the renovated 54 Jefferson building.

In addition to the Academy of Modern Engineering, Innovation Central houses the Academy of Business, Leadership and Entrepreneurship, Academy of Design and Construction, and Academy of Health Science and Technology. In all, Innovation Central enrolls more than 700 students; 160 currently take part in the engineering program.

The City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) also joined the partnership, specifically The Pubic Museum School and Innovation Central, as both lie within Grand Rapids’ downtown boundaries.

“When our friends at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. developed the GR Forward plan, we met with them. We asked, ‘Hey what's the role of K -2 within this?’ If you want to have the best downtown for a midsize city, having strong school choices are a part of this,” says John Helmholdt, GRPS executive director of Communications & External Affairs. “They wholeheartedly embraced it. GR Forward includes a chapter around K-12 schools.”

Every eighth-grade student in the district applying to Innovation Central gets in, regardless of grades, attendance, or behavior. However, if students wait until they are in ninth grade or later to apply, those factors are weighed in the admission decision.

“It’s open access to everybody. GRPS has one school that’s a test-in (City Middle and High). Our superintendent (Teresa Weatherall Neal) does not want more than one of those,” Frost says. “We want all the kids we can get because we think we’ve got something for everybody.”

Innovation Central’s four academies had been housed with larger high schools but, according to John Helmholdt, some were getting “lost in the shuffle.” Consolidating the four Academies under one roof has proven successful: Innovation Central now boasts as 93 percent graduation rate.

“Centers of Innovation act like charter schools but within the district, with our teachers, and with the union,” he says. “Principal Mark Frost is absolutely a rock-star school leader. Innovation Central is now the strongest and best program in the district.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Public Schools


May LEAD training targets 18 to 24 year-olds: $800 stipends for youth from "neighborhoods of focus"

Since Mayor George Heartwell founded it in 2010, the City of Grand Rapids’ Leadership and Employment, Achievement and Direction (LEAD) program has trained youth in civic engagement, leadership, and employment skills. In 2013, President Obama recognized the program as a national model for mayoral leadership in youth employment. Managed by Our Community’s Children, a public-private partnership among the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and community partners, LEAD is free and open to residents ages 15 to 24 and those attending college in the greater Grand Rapids area.

 

Grant funds from the WK Kellogg Foundation will provide participating youth from specific southeast, southwest, and northwest Grand Rapids neighborhoods who successfully complete the program with an $800 stipend. From May 1 through 15, the first of two cohorts will target youth at the upper end of the age spectrum, ages 18 through 24.

 

“We found that in focus groups with other projects that we facilitated, students were saying, ‘After we go through high school, there’s no go-to person anymore, no principal, counselor, or teacher. We’re out there on our own,’” says Shannon Harris, Our Community’s Children program coordinator.

 

The LEAD program originally targeted high-school-age youth. In 2015, organizers decided to include 18 to 24 year-olds. While college students are accepted into the program, the hope is that older youth facing challenges with completing school or finding a job will enroll and move their lives forward.

 

“We accept students that have a past. We accept students that haven’t graduated from high school. We accept students that haven’t had any work experience at all. Those are really the students we want to be part of the program,” Harris says. “We think this is a great age group because they are able to make their own decisions in life. We just want to help them along the way whether to college, getting a job, or getting an internship.”

 

LEAD topics include financial literacy, dressing for success, mock interviews, and writing resumes and cover letters. Activities include acting lessons with actor Sammy A. Publes (The Chi, 2018; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016; and Empire, 2015) and field trips to local businesses and colleges.

 

After graduating from the LEAD program, youth can earn a job making $10 to $13 an hour at a Mayor’s 100 Business. Some will go to work for firms associated with City government—public relations, engineering, or with a law firm. Others will hone their skills at other local small businesses.

 

“The young people who go through this program really learn about themselves, their community, the nation, and worldwide,” Harris says. “How we do that is through a few assessments. One, we use the DISC assessment …This really helps them with identifying and validating who they are.”

 

Apply today or tomorrow!
 

Open to youth ages 15 through 24, a second LEAD cohort takes place June 11 through 26. Meeting from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at City Hall, both sessions offer the $800 stipend to youth residents of Grand Rapids’ Neighborhoods of Focus. The program provides parking, bike racks, and bus passes. Youth who want to attend the May cohort must register by end of business day April 27. They can register online or contact Harris at 616.456.3558 or sharris@grcity.us.

 

“This will be our 13th and 14th cohort this year. We are looking for students that want an opportunity to learn a variety of things but, at the end, also get meaningful employment—and it’s a lot of fun,” Harris concludes. “It’s really about introducing them to the possibilities and uplifting their talents and abilities.”

 

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy Leadership and Employment, Achievement and Direction (LEAD) program


Klask!: "Silly wooden game" proving addictive in West Michigan breweries

Late December 2013, Danish carpenter, Mikkel Bertelsen, turned to his garage workshop to make Christmas presents for friends and family. He devised a wooden board-game using magnets and small balls, something like air hockey but small enough to play on top of a table. Before long, he began receiving orders for the game from individuals, cafés, bars, and workplaces. In 2014, he built 3,000 more of the wooden games in his garage. He named the game Klask.

By 2014, Klask was featured on Danish national TV and named "Danish Game of the Year." Soon after, the World Klask Foundation was founded; national Klask associations formed in Denmark, Austria, Germany, France, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, United Kingdom, Canada, and United States. In September 2018, the Klask World Championship and World Cup will take place at The Beerhouse in Manchester, England—where a West Michigan player will have a chance to compete.

Two Klask players, Michael Pyne and Cece Riley, work together in social services in Muskegon. They also serve on the board of the US Klask Association.

“It’s all about trying to grow the game of Klask in the United States,” Riley says.  We’re building that infrastructure for local clubs, for sanctioned tournaments, how you compete in this game and climb up the tournament structure all the way up to the World Championship.”

“And, hopefully have fun,” adds Pyne. “I like board games, though Klask is not so much a board game but a game made of boards. I had seen it on the Internet, all these great reviews, won all these awards.”

Pyne bought his first Klask game as a Christmas gift for his grandchildren. When he and his wife took it out of the box, they started playing it—and kept it for themselves. Pyne enjoyed Klask so much that he reached out to the US Klask Association.

“Before you know it, we were on the board,” he says. “A lot of what I do in social work is mental health and suicide prevention. Klask is just about laughs and having a good time. You go to a public space, you’re making eye contact with your opponent, joking, and not on your phones.”

Pyne and other West Michigan Klask players have introduced the game to their favorite pups and breweries along the Lakeshore. Grand Rapids watch out! Klask is invading!

Playing Klask

To play Klask, two players face each other over the wooden game board. Each places one hand under the board to control a magnet that maneuvers a striker on the playing surface.  Players attempt to score goals while avoiding white “biscuit” magnets that affix to the strikers. (If a player moves his striker too close, he picks up a biscuit. If the player picks up two biscuits, the opponent scores a point.) Riley notes that picking up biscuits is the game’s main source of laughter. The opponent also scores points if the player loses control of their striker or falls into the goal (Klask!). According to the World Klask Association, the game takes 15 seconds to learn and five minutes to play one round.

Pyne and Riley regularly play at Grand Haven’s Odd Side Ales taproom. They and fellow board member, Kevin Reder, are planning qualifying tournaments there and at Grand Rapids’ City Built Brewing. (Reder, a Midland, Michigan resident, currently holds the Klask World Championship title.) The player who wins the qualifiers will travel to the Klask World Championship in Manchester for free. Both breweries also host regular Klask events and have games on-hand for patrons to play any time.

“It’s just fun,” says Pyne. “You look at this game—it’s a silly wooden game. But, it has this really oddly attractive and addicting sort of quality to it. As soon as you put it on the table, people start to play.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Michael Pyne


Doula group changing the paradigm in West Michigan

Gold Coast Doulas, a group of 16 doulas living throughout the greater Grand Rapids area, provide a wide range of services to women giving birth primarily in the hospital, but also at home. While having a doula is not a new idea, the image that comes to mind is that of a white woman helping a white woman give birth. Here in West Michigan, Gold Coast Doulas is changing the paradigm.

Their doula team includes African-American and Spanish-speaking doulas, doulas from different income levels, and doulas from all types of West Michigan communities. Co-owner, Kristin Revere, CD, believes that because doulas play a very intimate role with their clients, it can be important that they share a similar background with those clients.

“We’ve been intentional about seeking out diverse doulas,” she says. “Doulas are more associated with white women giving birth. We are also trying to change that paradigm by doing more education, getting involved in the community, and offering free events. “

Gold Coast Doulas also offers its doulas cultural competency training so that they can support clients no matter what their race, religion, ethnicity, class demographic, or sexual orientation.

What does a doula do?

During labor, doulas support in three ways: they provide emotional support, serve as an informational resource, and provide hands-on physical comfort measures like light massage, counter pressure, hip squeezes, and help with position changes. Because nurses have several patients and additional responsibilities such as charting and monitoring, they are not able to provide the continuous, one-on-one support that all laboring women truly require.

“We love working as a team with the nurses and provider to support the couple,” Revere says.

Gold Coast Doulas has expanded the traditional doula role to include classes, lactation consulting, placenta encapsulation, gentle sleep consultation, infant massage, and postpartum doula services. Postpartum doulas can also assist pregnant women who have been prescribed bed-rest due to high risk pregnancies.

“Other cultures really put an emphasis on letting the mother heal and bond with the baby,” says Alyssa Veneklase, CD, co-owner of Gold Coast Doulas. “Here, moms have to go back to work in a few weeks and dads rarely get paternity leave. We struggle with breastfeeding, depression, and anxiety. With postpartum doula support, we help address needs that might change day to day within the same family. Usually within the first few months, parents are struggling.”

Postpartum doulas can take care of the newborn and siblings while mom naps or showers, pick up the house, do a little laundry, and give advice on nerve-wracking concerns like cutting tiny fingernails. Mothers can also engage postpartum doulas overnight to help relieve sleep deprivation.

Because health insurance does not usually cover doula services, clients must come up with the fees, which start at $750 for a standard prenatal package. This includes one prenatal visit, attendance at birth (however long it takes), and one post-partum visit. Gold Coast Doulas also offer a wide variety of classes, like childbirth education, breastfeeding, and infant massage.

“For that price, they receive care from the moment that contract is signed, even if they are hiring us at 11 weeks. We are also there the entire birth. There’s not an additional fee if it is longer. We stay for an hour after baby is born and go to their home within 14 days of their birth to give them one post-partum visit to process the birth, answer any questions, and provide resources.”

Considering the dollars that can be saved by having a doula present only during labor, enlisting a doula is highly cost-effective in the long term. According to a study by 2017, Bohren et al., having a doula present increased likelihood of a spontaneous vaginal birth while need for pain medication, epidurals, vacuum or forceps-assisted births, and Cesareans decreased. Labors were also shorter by about 40 minutes. Also, babies were less likely to have low Apgar scores (a quick test that assesses a newborn’s condition one and five minutes after birth). Women who used a doula also experienced fewer negative feelings about childbirth. Some evidence indicated that doula support in labor can lower postpartum depression in mothers.

“In the United States, only 3 percent of healthcare dollars are spent on preventive care,” Veneklase says. “The presence of a doula lowers C-section risk by 39 percent and the cost for a C-section is double in the healthcare system.”

Good for mothers, good for Mother Earth

To support their mission of inclusivity and diversity, Gold Coast Doulas recently moved into Eastown’s Kingsley Building. They are excited about operating from a LEED certified, green building that supports them in reducing their environmental footprint and attaining their next goal, becoming a Michigan B Corporation. Companies earn this designation by focusing on environmental and social change, in addition to monetary profits. The doulas are also looking forward to accommodating more women in expanded classroom space and giving even more back to the community.

Since opening three years ago, the staff has raised awareness about postpartum depression, collected diapers for low-income mothers, and worked with the March of Dimes. Revere and Veneklase actively encourage the doulas they employ to give back to their own communities in the Greater Grand Rapids and Lakeshore areas. Mayor Rosalyn Bliss also recognized Gold Coast as a 2018 Local First Good for Grand Rapids business.

“We don't have numbers from our entire team yet, but so far we've tracked over 350 volunteer hours for 2017,” Veneklase says. “Ultimately as we grow, we want to find more things we can do for our community.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Gold Coast Doulas


Writing our Her-story: The womxn shaping our city

March is Women’s History Month, and as we take the time to learn and uncover the countless ways womxn have made an impact on our everyday lives, we here at Rapid Growth would like to take a moment to highlight just some of the amazing womxn our city is fortunate to have. We asked them to tell us about what they do and what inspires them.

Let this list show that Grand Rapids has talented womxn / womxn of color and that they are here and they are busy!



Anel Guel, Developer at Spectrum Health Application Development Intern
“What excites me is the possibility of solving problems creatively in a dynamic team.”



Brandy Arnold, Youth & Inclusion Specialist at Kids' Food Basket
“I engage schools, students, and families that we serve; work a bit in fund development; and co-lead our equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.”



Brittany Schlacter, Public Outreach Coordinator of Digital Media at The Rapid
“What excites me most about my work is being able to serve the various mobility needs of the community and continually look for new ways to improve our service.”



Denavvia Mojet, Strategic Communications Coordinator at Linc Up / Host of Political Pulse on 97.3 the Beat
“As Host of 'Political Pulse with Denavvia Mojet,' I introduce urban listeners and views to candidates, organizations, and current events in local politics. As Strategic Communications Coordinator for LINC, my focus has been innovating new ways to holistically engage residents and hold leaders accountable for their response to resident voices.”



Erika VanDyke, Kent School Services Network Coordinator
“As a KSSN coordinator, I do a lot of behind the scenes work to make sure that families have access to the resources they need for their kids to be able to arrive at school ready to learn. I build relationships with individuals, other nonprofits, and businesses to get family needs met. I think of my job as leveling the playing field a little, especially for our families of color and newly arrived who don't always have a social or economic safety net when they fall on hard times.”



Jackie Hernandez, Bilingual Community Liaison at Linc Up
“As a Community Liaison I help connect people with opportunities for involvement in civic engagement at the local (city and grassroots) level. I also provide information and resources to effect and create change on a personal level. Everyone is capable of making change once they KNOW what’s is going on.”



Janean Couch, Program Director at Grand Rapids Community Foundation
“What I love about our work is that we can have a long-term impact on the community. To do my work effectively requires building trusting relationships in the community and a building a knowledge base of systems, resources and networks. I’m excited to help lead some of the efforts at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and leverage all of our community’s resources for more equitable outcomes.”



Kaitlyn Califf, Program Manager, Grand Circus & Social Media Specialist, YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids
“Foster a positive learning environment to ensure success for Grand Circus students. Inform and engage the Grand Rapids Community through digital communications at YMCA.”



Kelsey Perdue, Assistant Campus Director at Grand Circus
“It's exciting to literally help people level up. Seeing people double their salary by starting a career in tech and be able to do more for themselves and their family is amazing. “



Keyuana Rosemond, Program Manager at FitKids 360-Health Net of West Michigan
“In my role, I strive to create community within our participants by providing fun opportunities for families to learn and practice healthier habits with the support of their neighbors. FitKids360 is about supporting families on their healthy lifestyle journey and celebrating the small changes that lead to lasting improvements. My role is to fulfill the vision of "creating a healthier community one FitKid at a time" by building a full spectrum of support for families that struggle with obesity to see that they are not alone and part of a larger community that will support that journey”



Lajanae Smith, Director at Cinema Bijon Enterprise
“My day is what I make it and growing up I never imagined being my own boss. The joy of opening up new possibilities every single day keeps my work exciting.”



Lisa Ann Cockrel, Managing Director at Calvin Center for Faith & Writing
“As managing director of the Calvin Center of Faith & Writing I curate and engineer the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing; help develop and produce various other CCFW initiatives including author talks and the Hudson-Townsend Publishing Institute; create educational opportunities for Hudson-Townsend Student Fellows; and consult on and/or help produce various CCFW publications and media production.”



Lis Bokt, Executive Director at The Geek Group National Science Institute
“I help guide the overall educational and vocational programming within The Geek Group, working with both the staff and our community to continuously gauge what services are needed and what priority they have.”



Lorena Aguayo-Márquez, Adult Education Program Assistant at Grand Rapids Community College
“Is the program assistant for Adult Education. She has worked at Grand Rapids Community College for the past 11 years and currently helps leads the Adult Education English Language Acquisition, Citizenship and
Cruisin' to College Success programs.”



Lydia VanHoven, Team Lead of Creative, The Distillery Project/Meijer
“Every day, I get to lead a team of Copywriters and Art Directors in solving problems with creativity. We create beautiful and hardworking advertising for the biggest grocery store in the Midwest, Meijer.”



Michelle Jokish-Polo (our very own!), On the Ground and Defining Division Editor at Rapid Growth Media / Director of Storytelling at Urban Core Collective
“My current job excites me because it allows me to take responsibility in highlighting the voices on the margins.”



Mercedes Barragan, Talent Programs Specialist at Spectrum Health
“I serve as a consultant to our internal resource groups. Together we help create a diverse and inclusive culture. I also manage communication projects for Inclusion & Diversity”



Steffanie Rosalez, Program Director of Cook Arts Center
"I work to develop and administer multidisciplinary arts programming for neighborhood youth and families on Grand Rapids’ Southwest side. I lead programs and initiatives surrounding the arts, race, culture and community and use the arts as a force of positive change. " 



Synia Jordan, Cosmetologist, Realtor, CTA
“Being a service to others has always been my passion, both personally and professionally. I'm a licensed cosmetologist and have owned my own salon for over 18 years. I believe a healthy spirit and body go hand-in-hand and I treat every client with special care and detail in my salon as well as in my real estate profession.”



Tonisha Begay, Department Assistant at Calvin College / Program Assistant, Office of Multicultural Affairs at Grand Valley State University
“I connect Native American students to resources on campus to promote their academic success, cultural learning and sense of belonging on campus. GVSU can be an isolating environment for students of color on campus, so part of my work includes developing programs that help them feel welcome”


Adriane Johnson, Chief Creative Director at Rebellious Creatives Web Design
“Providing affordable design services that are personable and hands on.”


Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.

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.

3 women in design you should get to know

Grand Rapids is a design city teeming with talent, and in honor of Women’s History Month and West Michigan Design Week, we chatted with three that you may not know, but absolutely should have on your radar.

We asked these talented women to tell us what is on their minds about design, their careers, and what they do here in the city.

Adriane Johnson, Owner, Rebellious Creatives

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Why is design important to you?

Born Adriane Latrice Johnson in Saginaw, MI I grew up having a very colorful and animated imagination like many children do, but I took mine for what it was and ran with it only to become an adult that has a wild and colorful imagination to come up with unique ideas and designs for advertising and web designs as a career. I always had the mentality that I wanted to be an owner of a business or a designer of a fashion brand, so I spent a lot of time coming up with designs for clothing and logos for my business I wanted to run.

My actual first logo design was printed on a refrigerated truck for our family business called the Louisiana Cajun Restaurant. I drew a catfish flipping out of the water with the name over the top of it during junior high school. After that, during my high school junior year I came up with a logo and fashions for what I called “Diamond Bee Wear,” so I drew a bee that had diamonds for eyes and wings that were shaped like diamonds as well. 

The importance of design to me is to be able to convey a message to the viewer’s eyes. This could be through an illustrative drawing, a mix of photography and a unique font, painting, drawing, writing, etc. Without design, life would be pretty boring, colorless, and flat.



Where do you work and how are you involved in the local community?

I am the owner of Rebellious Creatives, a web design company for small businesses and startups. Seeing as Grand Rapids has become an incubator for people to start their own businesses through certain programs, grants funded by the city or philanthropy, I thought I would find my own way of giving back in providing affordable design services that are personable and hands on when it comes to working with new clients and building a lasting relationship, while growing a business for myself.

As a WoC, what current issues are most pressing to you?
To be fair, there isn’t anything pressing me personally, because I usually get what I want when I go for it, and if I don’t get it, then it’s not for me and I am not for them. My time is precious and isn’t to be wasted on the foolishness of others personal prejudices or hatred. But as for those who do experience issues depending on what the subject of the matter is and I get wind of it, I will find a way to get the message out, find resources to help correct the situation or make sure I am present to stand up for someone else, because sometimes you need reinforcements and to know that you are not alone in the fight for fairness and equality.



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

Support can be obtained in any city really. It’s the people in it that make the city what it is. I think that’s the main part that some people miss when talking about what a city has to offer. I think we are trying to do better when it comes to POC in business ownership, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. Not only am I a woman of color, but I also represent the LGBTQ community, so I can be pulled in either direction when it comes to who is being faired the least or the most. Without the people, regardless of race, religion, sexual preference, gender or disability status, you don’t have a city.

FB: @rebelliouscreatives, IG: aj_rebels2016, www.behance.net/AJohnsonDesi



Sam Cornwell, Designer, Well Design Studio


Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Why is design important to you?
Design is important to me, and should be to everyone, because of how large a role it plays in our day to day lives. It can be a powerful force that influences, inspires, and engages. I always strive to be a positive influence in this way. 



Where do you work and how are you involved in the local community?

I work full-time at Well Design Studio in downtown GR. Well Design Studio is a community-minded studio, meaning we make a conscious decision to use a good piece of our design power to improve our community.



What has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?

As a recent graduate, my career path has many years to grow. Now working as a full-time designer, much of my immediate struggle has been keeping myself inspired and creating really good work that gets recognition. I have found that keeping open interests in things such as reading, movies, and handicrafts keep the creative juices flowing more than anything else.

Instagram: samcornwelldesign and welldesigngr Portfolio website: samcornwell.co and welldesignstudio.com.


Naomi Silas, Principal Designer and Creative Director at Seventh Creative


Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Why is design important to you?
Design is important to me because, it’s something that exists that most people don’t even think about. Everything around us, is designed. Something that is designed well can be beautiful, inspiring, fun or solve real world problems.

Where do you work and how are you involved in the local community?
Currently, I am the Principal Designer and Creative Director at Seventh Creative, an independent design studio. In other words, I’m self-employed... with plans to grow. I’m also the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for AIGA West Michigan. I lead a great committee, and we are actively working on creating an inclusive design community in West Michigan. We also advocate for Designers of Color, and work to expose youth to design in underserved communities. I have a personal goal to advocate for authentic representation in media. As Creative Directors, Art Directors, and Designers we are decision makers in what a campaign or advertisement looks like, and that can be good or sometimes disastrous.

What has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?
Can we talk about the wage gap? According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latinas make 55 cents for every $1 that a Caucasian male makes. Caucasian women make 77 cents, and African-American women make 64 cents.

My career path has taken a lot of turns. I graduated from college in 2008, and I always say it was the worst time to graduate and start a career. I was laid-off [from] a paid internship, and like so many other people couldn’t find work. Most of the positions I’ve held have been contracts. I’ve been on great teams and worked on some amazing brands, but being mostly in-house I didn’t have much opportunities to grow like I knew I could, which lead me to freelancing and starting my own company.

How has Grand Rapids faired in helping support you as PoC?
Grand Rapids is sometimes a bubble. As someone who’s not from here originally and as a POC, it’s sometimes hard to feel welcome. It’s sometimes hard to feel like you have a seat at the table. I constantly feel underestimated, but I love surprising people.

There are places that, I’ve definitely found a place at, like AIGA WM and Little Space Studio (creative co-working space). Those have been insurmountable in advancing my career as an entrepreneur.

I’d like to circle back to representation in the media, and if anyone has any questions about what that means, please reach out to me. Or if you’d like to know how you can design for inclusion, I’m here to help.

@seventhcreative on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


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.

Young Professional Spotlight: Brandy Arnold

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was once asked “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” Justice Ginsberg quipped “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.” The Supreme Court of the United States consists of nine justices. The question then is, when will there be enough women in leadership in Grand Rapids? There will be enough when all positions of leadership are filled by women.

The future is decidedly female, and our city’s future is in good hands. 

Of all the many strong women leading our city, we had the pleasure of catching up with Kid’s Food Basket’s very own Brandy Arnold. 

RG: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? (Are you from the area, how do you identify, etc.)

BA: Oh you know, 30-something young professional. From a teeny tiny town about two hours north of Grand Rapids called FreeSoil. Yes, that’s the real name. You can Google it. I moved down here 15 years ago to go to GVSU and never left.

RG: Where do you work and how are you involved in the local community?

BA: I work at Kids’ Food Basket as youth and inclusion specialist. In this role, I engage schools, students, and families that we serve; work a bit in fund development; and co-lead our equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. I hear from students about their favorite items in their Sack Suppers, nutritious evening meals we serve in schools where 70 percent or more of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I hear from parents who say ‘thank you, it’s one less thing I have to stress about this week’ because they’re trying to figure out how to pay rent, keep the lights on, and keep the car running to get to work and after all that, sometimes there’s just not enough money for groceries.

We’re moving into an exciting new phase of programming with the addition of urban agriculture.

Our capital campaign right now is to build a new headquarters, giving us more space that is vital to serving schools currently on our wait list. The campaign will also support the farming of nine acres of land to grow produce for our Sack Suppers while connecting kids to where their food comes from through experiential learning. The great thing is that we’re able to increase the variety of produce that kids are introduced to. It is very empowering for students to help grow and harvest produce that is going to end up in their Sack Suppers. There is agency and ownership in that. I see food as a catalyst to explore economic justice, environmental justice, and racial justice. We have to be honest about systems that result in unequal access to food, especially healthy food, and work to reform them. Food is also community. It can bring people together, and that is the beautiful part.

I’m also involved in my neighborhood through the East Hills Council of Neighbors and serve on the board of The Spoke Folks, a nonprofit that’s connecting people to affordable, reliable bikes and providing cycling education so that all people no matter their cycling experience, background or economic status can ride safely and with confidence.

RG: Let's talk Grand Rapids. Are the city's culture and people supporting you as a person of color, and as a woman? Where can the city improve to attract more young talented professionals of color?

BA: There have been some important improvements in this area. Racial equity is being talked about in a way that was not happening when I first moved here. I’m grateful to many of our city leaders, Mayor Bliss, the City staff, and Commission for prioritizing this. It feels like we’re on an exciting precipice. There’s a buildup of energy, planning, and intention I don’t think we’ve seen before. But we as a city are still afraid to get uncomfortable. Many white people are afraid to give up a bit of their privilege to create a meaningful shift in our culture. I realize the benefit in meeting people where they are, but people of color in this city are travelling way too far for that meeting. We’re tired. POC who aren’t from here recognize this as soon as they move here, and it’s why many don’t stay.

I do feel supported, and it’s because I’ve found my spaces and my people. I’m incredibly grateful for this. There are some really great spaces, businesses, and initiatives being spearheaded by POC in GR, they just doesn’t always get as much publicity. Thank you to Rapid Growth for prioritizing some of it in your publication. It’s hard to know where your people are and where your safe spaces are as POC in this city, especially if you’re new. 

Recently, I sat down with a couple WOC who are fairly new to the city and I’m asking what are you interested in, where can we can we get you plugged in, where can you find the support you need. Because they’re telling me ‘I work and go home.’ They don’t have that connection yet. Supporting each other in those one-on- one ways can work on a smaller level. On a larger level, I’m not sure what the solutions are, to be honest. There are some really great programs and identify groups in GR that are supporting POC like Latina Network, Black Women Connect, Transformational Leaders Program, Latino Talent Initiative, Sisters Who Lead, and BLEND, among others. Let’s make sure employers are aware of those programs and can connect their staff. Let’s look to DC, Atlanta, Oakland, New York City, and others to see what they’re doing to support thriving multi-cultural spaces and places. More access to financial capital for POC to build those spaces and places. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the progress of new Start Garden initiatives. Less residential segregation–easier said than done, I know. More organizations and business should have cultural competency and bias training to create better workplace culture for diverse staff.


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

BA: Intersectionality. Identity is so complex. I feel so fortunate to come from my family. It gives me such perspective. I’m biracial, as are two of my siblings and quite a few of my nieces and nephews, and we span the spectrum in terms of physical features and experiences. I talk to my one niece about what it means to her to be Afro Latina. I talk to other family members about the complexity of being biracial, but presenting as white. I talk to others about what it means to live life when people are thoroughly confused about your racial identify and make it their mission to put you in a box no matter how uncomfortable it may make you. For me, I’ve spent the last five years really diving into what it means to be a black woman, a biracial woman, and claiming all of those. Because I can. It was empowering to recognize that no one can define my identity but me.

I studied the Civil Rights movement quite a bit in college and what was amazing to me is the way that black woman were the backbone of the Movement. And for many of them, being black was their focus. They were not showing up in droves in the Women’s Rights Movement. It did not feel like it was for them. It did not recognize the heightened oppression of being both black and a woman. We’re still seeing this today. I struggle with any movement or person that can’t recognize intersectionality in a real way.

RG: What has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?

BA: I spent six years after graduating at a job that was fine, but wasn’t ultimately what I wanted to be doing. I’ve always had a passion for social justice and community building. I realized I wasn’t fulfilling that passion in a real way, and decided to shift my career into the non-profit space as well as getting more involved in the city.

My biggest obstacle so far also led to my growth. I think we’ve all heard it’s about who you know, and this is maddeningly true for Grand Rapids. I had the hardest time getting an interview, even after going back to school and getting my master’s degree. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even get so much as a form rejection email. I realized if I was going to stay here, I was going to need to hustle hard. Networking does not come naturally for me–it’s very energy depleting and can feel disingenuous. I try to do it in a way that works for me. I worked for a while as a freelance writer and put those journalist skills to use. I found people that interested me, that I admired, that were doing work that I wanted to get more involved with and asked them if we could get coffee, lunch, a drink so I could hear more about their story. I was on a mission! And I think it paid off. I still do it all the time. Having people that were connected to Kids’ Food Basket put in a good word for me when I applied made a difference. I’m thankful to all those I look to on a daily basis to help support my growth. An area that I’m focusing on is growing my leadership skills and supporting and connecting others, especially POC, so I can pay it forward a bit.

RG: What plans do you have for your career/projects/personal goals this year?

BA: This is a year of slowing down and zeroing in. I worked hard to get plugged into this community and there are so many important organizations and movements to get involved with that I have a hard time saying no. But I’ve been spreading myself too thin, and I’m really resonating with the phrase ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’ At Kids’ Food Basket, we talk about growth years and planning years, as we’ve grown so explosively over the last decade. You have to prioritize planning just as much as growth, and this year I’m slowing down, I’m planning, I’m learning, I’m figuring out how my skillset best matches with personal fulfillment and doing good–both personally and professionally. I need to get more grounded in home. I kind of live like I might move tomorrow, so 2018 goals are about getting some art up on my walls, staying home a bit more, keeping a couple houseplants alive.

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

BA: Yes! Don’t sleep on our youth. I’m fortunate to be in our schools quite a bit through my role at Kids’ Food Basket and I am in awe of the beautiful talent and drive these students have. Just a couple weeks ago I was talking to three fourth grade girls in a robotics program. They were describing their most recent project, and I couldn’t understand half of what they were talking about. I was like ‘hydro what now?’ I loved it. These kids are so smart, but they need us.

Please, give a couple hours to mentor, speak in a classroom, donate resources schools might need, volunteer and financially support organizations like Kids’ Food Basket and so many others that are helping meet basic needs, support public education. These students are our community’s future and deserve the whole community’s support.

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.

Heart of West Michigan United Way pledges $589,000 in STEM program funding

"We have been investing in Kent County for over 100 years," says Michelle Van Dyke, Heart of West Michigan United Way president and CEO. A century-old nonprofit designed to reduce poverty in West Michigan, United Way raises money, vets partner agencies, fund solutions, and mobilizes volunteers, according to their website. Recently, Van Dyke and the nonprofit set its sites on education, specifically in math and science, of youth in Kent County.

Conducting an assessment of the education needs of the community, United Way identified a gap in middle school STEM programming. Aiming to prepare this cross section of students in the area with adequate training in math and science, the nonprofit designated $589,000 of their 2017-2018 Community Investment Fund Grants to education in these arenas.

"A broad array of what we're funding around the issue of middle school math and science. We need better achievement in those subject in order or kids to be ready for the jobs in this community," says Van Dyke.

Part of this funding, announced yesterday at Westwood Middle School, was allocated to a one-time gift to Grand Rapids Public Schools of a leading STEM curriculum by Discovery Education. After meeting with GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall McNeal last year, Van Dyke quickly determined that this partnership fit perfectly with both the nonprofit and the school district's missions of preparing students for future jobs.

This, says Van Dyke, is United Way's principal goal with specially tailored programs. "[We want to] make sure kids get a quality education and that they get opportunities that they need to get living wage jobs when they're adults. That's our aim," she says.

In addition to partnering with GRPS and providing this specialized curriculum for middle schoolers district-wide, United Way has teamed up with Camp Blodgett to form a STEM Academy and STEM Club, Kent Intermediate School District "training teachers how to be better science teachers and math teachers, as well as professional development in STEM subjects," and the Expanded Learning Opportunities Network (ELO) to create a new STEAM strategy.

United Way is also working with The Refugee Education Center to provide funding for academic intervention for those students who are learning English alongside their math and science curriculums.

Over the next three years, Van Dyke aims to equip Kent County students with the tools they need to master STEM and prepare themselves for careers in engineering, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing, among other industries.

For her, for GRPS, and for the many partner agencies throughout Kent County, it's simple:

"Our kids need to know math and science," says Van Dyke.

Startup Spotlight: Parliament the Boutique

Sometimes things are right under our nose when we’re looking for them high and low everywhere else.

If you haven’t had a chance to go to Avenue for the Arts' First Friday’s events, then not only have you been missing out on one of the most intriguing events of the week, but you may have also not had the chance to stumble upon the dynamic duo of Elyse Marie Welcher and Jake Vroon’s shop known as Parliament the Boutique, which houses both of their respective businesses, Littlewings Design and Harbinger Leather. 

We caught up with the business duo and couple to find out the latest rumblings on the avenue.

RG: What date did you launch? Why did you start Littlewings Designs and Harbinger Leather?

EW: Littlewings Designs launched in 2010 while Elyse was still a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and was technically her senior capstone project, before she first put it into the world using Etsy in the summer of 2010.

JV: Harbinger Leather Design launched in 2012, after Jake discovered leather working in college when he was hunting for the perfect messenger bag, and couldn’t find just the right thing, so he decided to make it for himself. After rebuilding that first bag around half a dozen times, he decided he liked working with leather and to just keep making stuff!

EW&JV: We both launched our businesses and stuck with it because first, we are both really independent people and didn’t want to see our energies poured into systems and places that didn’t value people; and second, because it was right after the economic crash of ‘08/’09, and for both of us, it was like why not, we aren’t getting hired anywhere else! My (Elyse’s) degree is literally in Accessory Design, and my industry had been in a virtual hiring freeze for three years at the time I graduated college in 2010, with that many years of graduates ahead of me to compete with for jobs if I was going to get involved in the traditional corporate scene. For Jake, he was entirely self-taught, and breaking into that corporate scene was of zero interest to him. Both of us came at it with an attitude of “There’s no better time than now,” and have kept that up!

RG: What is at the core of Littlewings Designs and Harbinger Leather? Where have you been and how has the journey been?

EW&JV: The core of each of our brands has always been centered around the value of handcrafted quality, from both an economic and an eudaimonic perspective; how is owning handcrafted, locally made goods not only a wiser economic choice in terms of products being better made and longer lasting, as well as keeping economic energy within your own community, but how supporting those goods and their makers also leads to a higher quality of life and well-being. 

Starting out, it’s really tough to launch a business alone, and be able to grow it to the point that it becomes your full-time gig. We were really lucky to meet each other in that stage of growth, and to be able to combine our talents together to support each other’s work, while still maintaining our own creative brands and voices. Maintaining the two brands has been intentional, and we’re able to voice a myriad of our artistic visions and problem solving skills by keeping them that way, which is also super rewarding.

The other portion of our journey has been owning and operating Parliament the Boutique together. I (Elyse) launched the business in 2013, but Jake was involved from the get-go. It has been a tough and crazy journey of navigating a business that frankly started out as an experiment, that had a third partner involved for part of it, and that in many ways has grown to be bigger than its combined parts. We now have finally landed in an ideal location on South Division that allows us to operate our retail shop, have our studio and production on-site, and has room for our continued growth over the next several years; we’re very excited about how this space has allowed us so many opportunities for collaboration, and can’t wait to see where it’s going to take us next!

RG: What are Littlewings Designs and Harbinger Leather's plans for this new year? Any new releases or shows you are looking forward to?

EW&JV: This question leads nicely from the last! Actually, this year, we are launching a new business and rebranding Parliament. Over the course of the last five years, we have learned extensively that our retail space serves not only as a shopping destination for those who are passionate about handcrafted, high quality goods, but also as a showroom for potential wholesale and large-scale production clients. Much of Harbinger Leather Designs’ work over the years has been private label work for local brands such a Woosah, Victor Axe + Tool, and even Horween Leather out of Chicago, and Littlewings Designs sells wholesale to around 35 boutiques around the country; our store has proved to be a fantastic little “garden” for seeding and fruiting independent, private label, and wholesale client work.

We also recently had a partner exit Parliament, and have thusly decided this is the perfect juncture to rebrand and take a new direction that better reflects those goals. From a public perspective, it will still be the same shop focused on creating a space that is a crossroads for makers and their community, but with a new name and branding that is more focused on Jake and I as a couple, and our back story (we’re not releasing the name yet, but it is centered around us being both born under the sign of Gemini), and with an internal value proposition of formalizing our offerings in private label, wholesale, and collaboration work for other brands. Keep tuned for the announcement of our new brand the first of March, and an official transition party at the end of March!

RG: What is it like having a live/work space on the Avenue for the Arts?

EW&JV: Similarly to our business journey, it is tough but also really rewarding, and very educational. Jake and I both came from fairly sheltered backgrounds, and getting involved in this community has been very humbling and has had a steep learning curve. There are some fantastic perks: we have awesome neighbors, live in a community of talented makers and artists, we’re within walking distance to an awesome food and nightlife scene here in GR, and have been fortunate enough to live in/next to our working spaces for the last five years.

We’ve learned that as able-bodied community members, it’s not just to our advantage to advocate for neighborhood improvements and additional measures to ensure safety, but that we have a duty to do so. Many of our close neighbors and fellow Heartside dwellers are disabled, elderly, shut-in, and often are without transportation; many of them lack the ability and energy to advocate for themselves in terms of basic human rights, such as working toward getting a public restroom in this neighborhood, or demanding more pedestrian lighting and law-enforcement to make safe transit by foot more possible for everyone. We are constantly thinking about how our actions both impact our own financial security, as well as how that advocacy is making positive change for the well-being of all our neighbors, not just us. For us, that comes down to working toward more safety measures, increased community cooperation, and public awareness/education about the realities rather than the rumors, of living and working in Heartside.

RG: What role does making/crafting have in our society? How does making/crafting fit into your everyday life outside of work?

EW&JV: We truly believe that making and crafting is a critical conduit for processing our human experience; making art or goods is a way of physically manifesting the energetic ideas within our hearts and minds. For us, it is a continued extension of our values, of living a life well-lived and not just financially earned.

Our wedding was one of the biggest demonstrations of this. We made most of it ourselves—the decor, the flowers, our gifts for our wedding party—we even made our own rings with Abbey Hunter at the Hot Spot GR! And I wore my mother’s wedding dress, both as a way to reuse a beautiful heirloom with family value, and also to not waste money on a very expensive gown that I would only wear one day.

Currently, we’re looking at buying a house, as we love living downtown, but it’s difficult to have a family in a one-room flat. As we house-hunt, we’re looking for spaces with history that we can preserve and renovate utilizing our DIY skills, and that also continue to allow us to be sustainable in our commute and live/work balance, by sticking within a couple miles of our current shop and therefore being able to walk, bike, and/or take the Silver Line into work everyday.  

RG: What are some of your favorite things about owning your own business? What are the downsides?

EW&JV: We love the freedom, of being able to make decisions for our life/family in a way that holistically support our values. We choose our work hours, and are able to bring the skills we love into our work every single day. And we both love being designers! It’s our passion, and to share that together is an amazing blessing. The downside is that managing it all is really tough. No one thinks about how difficult it is to write your paychecks, manage the finances of three businesses, and keep everything running smoothly while also remembering to eat, sleep, and be a healthy human! And taxes are really an annual nightmare, haha. But we wouldn’t trade it for all the world; Jake and I often say, we are ride or die when it comes to this life.

RG: What are your hopes for the small business scene in Grand Rapids and Michigan at large?

EW&JV: We have a rich and deep history here in Michigan of design, production, and businesses that when started, had the intention of working toward the common good. In a lot of aspects, we lost our way in the last 50 years: the fall of Detroit, the fall-out of manufacturing, the shipping overseas of valuable jobs and production that were the backbone of our local economy. My hope is that the many small businesses like ours, who are creating a sustainable network of production and collaboration, will continue to be a foundational part of Michigan’s economic recovery for years to come. You can’t build a strong foundation without bricks and mortar; the big businesses are the bricks, and the little ones like us are the mortar that holds it all together.

With continued clarification and activism, I think Grand Rapids is poised to be a leading location in this type of economic rebuilding for a long time, so long as we work together and continue to broaden the web of communication between these many entities, and understand that there aren’t “black/white” solutions to these problems. Big business isn’t all bad; small businesses aren’t all heroes. If we can see the complexity of our ecosystem with more clarity, we will continue to see abundance and growth; if we devolve into dividing and segmenting, we will fall back into the same scarcity-based thinking that led to much of the greed and crumbling of our local economy in the first place.

You can visit Parliament the Boutique at 136 S. Division or here. Elyse’s work with Littlewings Design can be seen here and Jake’s work at Harbinger Leather is here.

Their Instagram accounts can also be found here: Parliament the Boutique, Littlewings Design, and Harbinger Leather

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 Parliament the Boutique.

WestSide Collaborative bands together nonprofits for the common good

10 years ago, when Grand Rapids and the nation was hit with the Great Recession, GR's Westside, a predominantly working class neighborhood, felt the heat. "West Grand Rapids was particularly hit hard, housing had huge vacancy rates, people [were] struggling to find employment," says Westside Collaborative Executive Director Jim Davis. The decade that followed witnessed the transformation of a neighborhood increased diversity, a changing workforce, and eventual reinvestment into the area.

After eight years of struggling to serve the neighborhood and find their individual and communal voices, Westside nonprofits decided to band together to be better partners, to each other and to their shared clientele.

With the shared values of "equity, inclusion, and hope," resulting in "access and opportunity for all," these nonprofits—like The Other Way Ministries, the YMCA, Challenge Scholars, and Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids—formed the West Town collaborative. For the next two years, the group worked toward identifying their shared needs and those that were unique to the residents of their neighborhood. "They saw value in getting to know one another," says Davis, referring to a trait uncommon to nonprofits who are often competing for precious resources.

However, after two years, Davis says, "They were invested in an idea that hadn't come to fruition." Despite the passion and labor that went into the project, the group still hadn't cemented their mission, and in August of 2017, hired Jim Davis to serve as the executive director to assist them with the task.

Davis, at heart a music director with experience working at the local Interlochen Music Camp, was no stranger to combining the talent, skill, and personalities of many people into a smooth, working ensemble. Having also worked in public education for eight years outside of Flint, he is no stranger to poverty and the constant struggle for resources.

Knowing that this passionate group of people and organizations needed to define their mission to move forward, he began reviewing data and conducting interviews throughout the neighborhood. The common response to the mission of collaborative was "we become the neutral party that allows both space and staff assistance and financial support when needed for other organizations to get together and to amplify that work."

But what was "that work?" Seeking to further define "collective impact work," or the tasks that these nonprofits embarked upon together, Davis worked with member organizations to define their three main jobs: to identify gaps in service, to eliminate duplicated services, and to improving marginal services. They would do this by serving as referrals to member agencies, as well as forming specialized "work groups" to tackle specific problems within in the community.

One such work group is called "Sense of Belonging," which aims to improve the welcome and comfort for all groups of people in the neighborhood. With the priority to best represent and serve the Westside, each of these groups is made up of 50 percent Westside collaborative members (nonprofit staff), 40 percent represents marginalized communities or POCs, and at least two residents (these percentages can overlap). "We celebrate diversity at that table. We think it's essential," says Davis.

Working alongside community organizations like the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, the John Ball Area Neighbors, and the West Grand Neighborhood Organization, the Westside Collaborative provides a unique service by specifically banding together nonprofits.

"In no way do we duplicate their work, but we absolutely depend on neighborhood organIzations to assist in the efforts our non-profit community is putting forth in addressing common issues in West Grand Rapids," says Davis.

With a new name and a clearly defined mission, they hope to do this for years to come. Davis summarizes their work with this: "Our end goal is to improve the community at large…we want their quality of life to improve."
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