Making Grand Rapids more affordable, inclusive and equitable: Our city's hopes for 2016

As we bid adieu to 2015 and welcome another turn around the sun, Grand Rapidians who are changing and shaping our city share what they hope will happen in 2016.
As we bid adieu to 2015 and welcome another turn around the sun, we wanted to find out what our neighbors who are changing and shaping Grand Rapids hope will happen in our city in 2016. The answers we got were thoughtful and kind, filled with the hope that this year we can make this city of ours a better place for everyone — a place filled with diversity and celebration and affordability and support and pride and love and laughter.

We'd love to hear what you'd like to see happen in Grand Rapids in 2016 — let us know what you're hoping the next 365 days bring to this incredible corner of the map we call home in the comments below.

The advocates of change: pushing Grand Rapids to a better, more inclusive place

Brandy Arnold, Program Coordinator at Kids’ Food Basket and board member of Spoke Folks and the East Hills Council of Neighbors

Many of these items are a marathon, not a sprint, but we can continue taking concrete action steps in 2016 to turn wish lists into reality. I am energized by the momentum going into the new year. 

1. More collaboration between different fields and sectors (and within them as well). There are too many silos, and it's not efficient. Let's put our collective voice, ideas, talents, funding, and power together. 

2. A racially diverse downtown. What can we do this year to welcome more people of color downtown to live, shop, and enjoy entertainment? 

3. More people of color and women in leadership positions and owning businesses.

4. Increased affordable and middle income housing. There are many development projects happening this year, and we are reaching a tipping point. 

5. I'm looking forward to seeing the beginning of Phase II of the GRPS Transformation Plan. In addition to better technology for students, hopefully we'll see class sizes decrease and more access to the arts and out-of-school learning opportunities. Eventually, Kent Schools Services Network should be in every school. Through my work at Kids' Food Basket, I know KSSN plays a pivotal role in connecting schools and families with critical resources children need to be successful. 

6. A continued dialogue between the GRPD and Grand Rapids residents. It is necessary in fostering trust. I would like to hear the results of the bias and cultural competency training for officers and employees happening this year. 

7. Everyone continuing to educate themselves about the inequities in our community. Only by recognizing and examining root causes, can we work for systemic change.

Miko Beute and Sarah Elaine Vansolkema, treasurer and president of the StandOut! LGBTQ+ Student Club at Grand Rapids Community College

Vansolkema: More advertising is needed for smaller organizations that give support to the LGBT community, especially the ones for youth, so they can know where to go for support. Most people know about The Network, but they don’t know about the other organizations in the community.

More events, support and information about our transgender community would be welcome.

I feel like Grand Rapids Community College does a great job, for the most part, advocating for students’ needs. The staff here are wonderful; they offer a lot of compassion and support, even when they have to go out of their way. At GRCC, I’m hoping the new building of the Ford Field House will include bigger locker rooms, including separate ones for unisex and disabled people.

At GRCC, we need a bigger food pantry where individuals can be better connected to resources. It would help if the staff was a little bit more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the resources available. For example, if a student goes to Mel Trotter to live for a few nights a week, they have a curfew. This does not work for a student taking late night classes.

With StandOut!, we would like to volunteer more in the community, raise issues about bullying in the local high schools, get the StandOut! students more involved in the LGBT organizations in Grand Rapids, get more information on transgender surgeries and support groups, and connect students struggling with mental health issues and learning disabilities with help.

Beute: At GRCC, we are making headway with the unisex bathrooms. We’re still working on making people feel comfortable to be open and be themselves on campus, in places other than our group.

There is still a lot to be done with the LGBT community becoming accepted in the workplace, with the amount of hiding that a lot of people still have to do.

I think the LGBT culture in GR is great and expanding. Although, I also feel there is still a great amount of separation between LGBT culture and other parts of our culture here in America.

Equity Drinks

In 2015, the saliency of violence against people of color by police, and public institutions overall continued to grow clearer. In fact, this narrative has become so commonly understood it seems to have found its rightful place in the American creation and growth story. The death of black and brown people at the hands of police is an unavoidable tension communities must face in 2016 — Grand Rapids is no different.

In this vein, Equity Drinks will work toward a more inclusive public good that seeks transparent implementation of the 12-point GRPD improvement plan, movement toward diversification of all city institutions, including police, and a deeper, collective understanding of root causes of disparity and inequity in Grand Rapids. We hope to see the ability of a greater number of leaders to break from the orbit of education and understanding to farther reaches of using their privilege, position or personhood to influence change in these areas and others that will make Grand Rapids a place where each of us are truly valued. We believe Grand Rapids is capable of understanding, governing and policing toward better outcomes. In 2016, we hope to see that difference from our city leaders, and the expectation of being governed or policed differently by the community.

Mike Hemmingsen, Board President, The Network

I am looking forward to the Grand Rapids community embracing diversity and working hard towards creating a welcoming culture for the LGBTQ community.  We have a lot of work to get the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act with the State of Michigan updated to include the LGBTQ protections.  I am proud of the advancements we have made but we still have a ways to go to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to equitable employment.

With Grand Rapids setting the bar on acceptance of all people, we have the ability to create positive change in the state and set the stage for our city to grow and prosper.
Liz Balck Monsma, Legal Services Director, Justice for Our Neighbors

I'm guessing you and I settled in Grand Rapids for similar reasons: our strong economy rooted in agriculture and entrepreneurship, great schools and freedom to fully express our religion.  My own parents moved to Grand Rapids from the Detroit area in the early 1970s for my dad's job, but also because it was such a great place to raise kids.  Why wouldn't immigrants want to live in Grand Rapids as they have since the 1820s?  The reality is, it can be very difficult being an immigrant in Grand Rapids.  Before listing what I'd like to see for 2016, let's praise our former Mayor Heartwell for proclaiming Grand Rapids a "Welcoming City" in 2015.  That's a great first step, but I think Grand Rapids can do more to show how welcoming we really are.
1. Increase refugee resettlement.  You've heard a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis lately — it is heart wrenching to watch.  But we don't have to just watch.  What if we — through our wonderful new Mayor Bliss — joined the cities of Detroit and East Lansing to affirm that we are ready and willing to resettle Syrian refugees?  West Michigan already welcomes hundreds of refugees from around the world each year, but we can do more to help families fleeing violence and to promote our city's commitment to diversity and inclusion.

2. County identity cards: It is impossible for undocumented immigrants — and very difficult for some documented immigrants — to obtain a Michigan driver's license or state identity card.  Not having a driver's license or photo ID makes every day tasks challenging.  Even getting a GR library card involves showing two forms of ID if you don't have a driver's license (eg., a photo ID and something that shows your name with current address). This just isn't possible for some people in our community. In order to overcome this problem, Washtenaw County in Southeast Michigan has implemented its own County ID card program. Law enforcement was supportive of this program, because it provided a way for the police to quickly identify a person but it also allows people to be less fearful of contacting the police to report a crime.  Let's start a similar program in Kent County!

3. Combating human trafficking/domestic violence.  Immigrants — especially undocumented immigrants — are some of the most vulnerable people in our community. That puts them at a higher risk for human trafficking and domestic violence.  This month (January) is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month is in October.  I'd like to see our city leaders, including law enforcement agencies, set the bar for not only become more aware, but being more proactive on these issues.

4. Law enforcement's relationship to our immigrant community.  I'd also call on local law enforcement agencies (LEA) to improve their relationship with our diverse immigrant communities. One way they could do that is by streamlining internal processes to assist immigrant advocates in our requests for "helpfulness certifications" for temporary visas for victims of domestic violence and other serious crimes in the United States (called the "U Visa").  We already have a great network of LEAs who are willing to work with us on these sensitive cases, but we can do better for the most vulnerable population in our area.  Imagine how much more safe we would ALL feel if our judges, prosecutors, and police officers made it clear to immigrants (especially women and children) that they should report crimes without fear that they will be deported for speaking up.  We would all win.

Diana Sieger, President, Grand Rapids Community Foundation

The prosperity of West Michigan depends on our ability as a community to help everyone reach their full potential. My hope for 2016 is that we all make a strong commitment to inclusion and that no matter the “differences” between and among us, whether it be race, gender, religion, class, sexual orientation or age. Each of us is critical to the well-being of our community. If we don’t give this our attention now then our community will suffer greatly in the future.

Tami VandenBerg, Co-owner of The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme, Executive Director of Well House, Member of the GR Board of Art and Museum Commission, Member of Safe Places Alliance

In 2016 I'd like to see the momentum in Grand Rapids continue to build.  I'd like to see the pride in our city grow, more tourism, more Grand Rapidians opening their own businesses, more people in the streets, more festivals and celebrations and people enjoying public spaces.  I'd also like to see some serious attention to our neighbors being left behind. I'm so excited about the new plans:  GR ForwardGreat Housing Strategies, etc...  but I think we are ready for bold, evidence-based action to reduce the homelessness in our city, to decrease unemployment, to increase small business ownership, to decrease violence, to make strides towards equity.  2016 is looking promising, and I'm ready to work.

Becky VandenBout, BitCamp instructor and advisory board member and Front End Web Developer at Appropos

When you look around, whether you’re in the suburbs of Hudsonville, the bike paths of Rockford, the bustling atmosphere of downtown, all you see is growth. If you take the time to really look, you’ll see new businesses like The Black Heron, Denym and Harmony Hall setting up camp on the west side of downtown, a thriving housing market (at least for buyers), and a more progressive mindset overall moving forward. With a growing population as well as local industry, the growth possibilities are endless. I simply wish for this all to continue. I can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store.

Another wish I have for Grand Rapids is not only for continued growth, or social diversity, but for specifically more women in the local tech scene. Women are taking on more leadership roles than ever before (congrats to Mayor Bliss!) and are facing hurdles that many refuse to acknowledge such as the gender pay gap and the severe lack of women in technology.

For 2016, I wish for Grand Rapids as a city to do all it can to expose more females to STEM careers in hopes for a more diverse future. You can read more about VandenBout’s hopes for a more diverse city here.

Erica Curry VanEe, founder of Urban Curry Consulting, owner of the Loft at Union Square, changemaker, Grand Rapids Planning Commissioner, GVSU professor, community mobilizer, visionary

My greatest wish for Grand Rapids in 2016 is to that we work with more rigor and intention towards a shared vision for our community that is inclusive, aspirational and inspirational. Let's take more time to listen and to understand the vastly diverse perspectives and insights present in our ever changing community. Let's nurture more relationships and take more risks to push beyond our comfort zone. Let's create more spaces for honest dialogue and emotional expression without fear of judgement or exclusion. Let's raise our expectations of what's possible in ourselves and others. Let's not be so quick to reject things or people we don't understand. Let's share our power. Let's practice learning and reflecting every single day. Let's commit to exercising more love, more kindness, more compassion, more empathy, more grace, more patience, and more forgiveness with those we engage with at home, at work and in our community. Let's believe in the best of ourselves and each other. Let's not be afraid to recognize our fears and failures and ask for help along the way. It's our pathway for transformation. Let's hold on and remember to breathe. Let's go GR. 

The ones who make our city more delicious

Lauren Jaenicke, Marketing and Sustainability Director at Essence Restaurant Group (The Green Well, Grove and Bistro Bella Vita)

Our 2016 wish list for Grand Rapids is to increase awareness around B Corp certification and ultimately grow the West Michigan B Corp community. With sustainability powerhouses like Cascade Engineering, Gazelle Sports, and Brewery Vivant, Grand Rapids has the opportunity to engage passionate leaders in various forms of industry. The synergistic effect of assessing the social, financial, and environmental impacts of a business and ultimately meeting rigorous standards of transparency and accountability, adds value not only to Grand Rapids, but also to West Michigan.

Jason Spaulding, President, Brewery Vivant

Grand Rapids is such a great vibrant city.  We really love the neighborhood business districts, as they really bring out the personality of the city as a whole. We think there is no better way to get the feel for a city than by eating the food and tasting the beer at the local breweries and restaurants. The biggest compliment we get at Brewery Vivant is when someone has a guest visiting from out of town, and they choose us to show off Grand Rapids to.  Here is our wish list for what we would love to see in Grand Rapids in 2016:

1. The people of GR continue to embrace walkable neighborhoods/ riding bikes/ and using more public transportation.

2. The Rapid Silver Line adds routes/ hours to the outlying neighborhood districts.

3. The city follows the lead of NYC and implements a Best for GR campaign highlighting sustainable businesses.

4. Mayor Bliss continues the focus on our environment that is Heartwell's legacy.

5. The city begins clearing sidewalk snow within city limits .

6. The city officially declares every September as the official "Duck Nacho & Farm House Beer"  month.

Matt and Sue Smith, Owners of Pit Stop Catering

My wish list for 2016 would be to build upon the momentum recently in the area of better accessibility for special needs and handicapped people.  The New Mary Free Bed YMCA is a revolutionary facility and the first in the world to receive Global Universal Design Certification and is seen as a global model for inclusion and accessibility for people with all abilities.

While there are a few parks in the area that offer accessibility for all in Grand Rapids, it would be nice to see every park offer at least some form of accessibility for children with special needs. Coming from a parent of a special needs child, trust me on this: even one swing that is designed for all abilities makes a huge difference to a family when visiting a park or playground.  With all the incredible growth Grand Rapids has seen in the last 20 years, I think we could be a national leader in the advancement of making our parks and playgrounds accessible for all abilities.

John Stewart, Director of Brewing Operations at Perrin Brewing Co.

In 2016 we are expecting steady growth at Perrin Brewing Co. We have expansion projects planned throughout the year, including expanding fermentation capacity with additional fermentors and specialty bottle packing with a new 22-ounce bottling line. We are looking to fully expand our canned product footprint into all of Michigan, as well as releasing a new mainstay session IPA and some seasonal products released in cans for the first time.

Grand Rapids is a great beer-centric city hosting multiple craft beer festivals and is home to many wonderful breweries. There is a great fellowship of brewers that share information, support and help each other raise the quality of beer in Grand Rapids. For my 2016 wish for Grand Rapids it would be to continue to see the public support of a city that's giving birth to lots of new and exciting breweries. Continuing public education to introduce craft beer to the community through festivals, beer dinners and through other public forums. I'm also excited to see the growth of the local vendors that are supporting the growth of craft brewers in Grand Rapids, including locally grown hops and malt. 2016 should be another great year for beer in Grand Rapids.

Those who give our city an entrepreneurial spirit

Luis Avila, President, the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

In 2016, I hope to see an increase in collaboration between the various minority business groups in West Michigan. I think key leadership is finally at a place where collaboration is not only encouraged, but expected. However, action is slow. I've heard many great ideas and action plans for strategic collaboration throughout West Michigan. However, the ideas need to leave the planning chalkboard and move into implementation. I think West Michigan is ready for it.

I also hope to see West Michigan become an increasingly welcoming place for start-ups and entrepreneurs in 2016. I would love to see the public and private sector in West Michigan work together to create an infrastructure that truly facilitates monetizing innovation in a way that entices tomorrow's business leaders to stay in West Michigan.  

2016 would be rock-solid if we could have those two things happen.

Della Marie Levi, founder of Dream Big Sister Circle, Rock Candy Earrings and Tresses Natural Hair Group

I have been a resident of Grand Rapids for over 35 years and can truly say that I LOVE GR! Grand Rapids is a city that presents me with an opportunity to “bloom where I am planted."  I have been able to recognize deficit areas in my community and find ways to counteract them by creating resources and programming that benefit the public. There is much work left to do; however, I can say that I have truly been embraced by some of the “movers and shakers” in West Michigan. Iron really does sharpen iron.

My hope is that Grand Rapids will continue to embrace diversity and inclusion, as well as create space, for minority populations to share their culture, talents, hopes, dreams, and desires. It is important to be inclusive, however, necessary to be able to boldly, proudly and confidently display, who you are.

Jamiel Robinson, Founder/CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, Co-Founder of Empower MI, community builder, entrepreneur, youth potential developer, equity advocate

I want 2016 to be the year of empowering people, places, organizations, and businesses that have been historically/are marginalized. When I say empowering, I mean giving the aforementioned the access to three forms of capital (intellectual, social and financial) and opportunities to be decision makers on what's happening in our city. This time last year Forbes released an article stating that the city of Grand Rapids is the second to worst place in the country for African Americans economically. The ranking is based on three metropolitan statistical area measures: homeownership, entrepreneurship or self-employment and median household income.

The article didn't say certain areas and neighborhoods of Grand Rapids and was talking about the city as a whole, including the city of Wyoming. Grand Rapids as a city and catalyst for economic grow in the region can't move forward to a world class city/region without ensuring all boats rise with this current tide. I believe the only way this can be achieved is if public, private and social institutions begin empowering people, places, organizations, and businesses.

Heather Van Dyke-Titus, Barry Van Dyke and Jackson Van Dyke, owners of Harmony Brewing Company, Harmony Hall and Bear Manor Properties

We’ve always strongly believed that great neighborhoods make a great city. As small business owners, we all have a huge impact on the neighborhoods where our businesses are. In 2016 we want to see the continued growth and success of our neighborhood business districts. We believe that as we create and grow the culture of our businesses we’re also helping to create the culture of our city.
Grand Rapids has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. It's so exciting to be a part of! However, as a city we have a tremendous amount of work to do regarding racial equity. We just can’t fulfill our possibilities as a city if all of our citizens aren’t included in Grand Rapid’s growth.

Grand Rapids has really grown into a great food town! The Napa Valley wasn’t always the destination that it is now. It grew and flourished over time. We think that Grand Rapids and West Michigan have a wealth of assets when it comes to our food culture, natural beauty and agriculture. In 2016 we should begin to claim this identity. We have the natural beauty of the lakeshore, and soon we’ll have unlocked the Grand River as a natural asset. Michigan is second only to California in agricultural diversity. We have a growing food and restaurant culture, and we are Beer City USA. Harmony Brewing and Harmony Hall take pride in our partnerships with local farmers and food purveyors. So many of the most successful restaurants in the region do the same. We’re beginning to see new distilleries open. New breweries are still coming onto the scene. Our farmers markets are gorgeous. In 2016 let's claim this identity and grow it.

The entertainers & artists who make us sing, laugh and love

Nancy Brozek, Director of Development and Community Relations, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

In its 90 year history, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre has seen many changes in Grand Rapids.  This community has grown into one that supports arts and culture, values collaboration, and welcomes innovation. These are the community characteristics that have helped Civic Theatre grow into one of the premier community theatres in the nation.  As we look into the future, we wish for the people and businesses of Grand Rapids continue to understand the importance this art form has in helping shape today’s children to become the leaders of tomorrow. We wish for a community that supports, trusts and attends art of all types, both familiar/classic and new/contemporary. We wish for theatre to have a place in the continued development of Grand Rapids, partnering to produce pieces that stimulate ideas and emotion while creating dialogue, understanding and empathy.  We wish for our stages and audiences to truly be a reflection of Grand Rapids.  For a community theatre dedicated to providing great art for all, we understand how these wishes have played into our past and will be a cornerstone of our future.

Victor J. Williams, aka Governor Slugwell, President of The Love Movement and founder of The Hip Hop Coalition

As the president of the newly formed hip hop nonprofit The Love Movement, I would advocate in 2016 for the tenants of Hip Hop Kulture: MORE LOVE, peace, unity, and safe fun. The elements of Hip Hop Kulture (turntablism, emceeing, bboy dancing, graffiti art, and knowledge of self) would go a long way towards empowering the youth of our community. The hip hop lifestyle also teaches good health (physical, mental and spiritual), green living, literacy, and entrepreneurialism.

I would also advocate for more social and economic integration among our businesses, schools and nonprofits, which I believe would make Grand Rapids a more cool and progressive place to live.

The hope we have for the community is that there will be a greater amount of love spread through and to those who have been traditionally locked out of opportunity in Grand Rapids.

Alynn Guerra, artist and owner of Red Hydrant Press

I would really like to see more public art, the kind that inspires and engages your core, less your wallet and your phone. I would like to see buses, light posts, walls, public restrooms, etc. plastered with real art done by local artists: more art, less advertisements. More artists and neighbors being able to stay where they live and work and less displacement as consequence of 
development." I want to see more gardens, trees, bike lanes, rain barrels. Less readymade neighborhoods, segregation and racial profiling.

The green thumbs: those who make our community more beautiful

Tracey Flower, Executive Director, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

As the new kid on the block, I’m discovering new places, people and programs in Grand Rapids every day, and, along with it, learning about opportunities for future growth in this great city. I believe at the heart of any great city — of any great community — is its people. As we head into a new year, I’m challenging myself, and would challenge my fellow community leaders, to find new and innovative ways to engage and serve individuals in neighborhoods we’ve yet to reach, or need to focus on more.

At Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, I look forward to engaging new and old community partners to execute programs and initiatives that will not only improve the experience of enjoying our parks and public spaces in underserved neighborhoods but will also foster new community parks leaders, with whom we can work side-by-side, for continued growth in this and other areas.

Lance Kraai, Farm Director at New City Neighbors

1. I wish Grand Rapids would update its city zoning to better accommodate urban agriculture. Detroit has zoning written specifically for urban agriculture, and we would benefit greatly from having something similar here.

2. I wish GR was better at economic development so it is more racially and ethnically inclusive. This is a tough one (but it's a wish list!). We can make inroads with more and better youth employment programs that equip all of our talented GR youth to become young professionals. These programs need to connect well with existing and developing neighborhood businesses. Foundations could consider entering the mix by supporting creative equitable partnerships between the nonprofit and business sector. Lastly, all of us as consumers need to keep doing all we can to purchase with our values in mind and not just lowest price. Vibrant local economies are the best "deal" for all of us.

3. I would love to see more vibrant neighborhood churches that genuinely and creatively engage their neighbors. The West Michigan Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) is a great resource in this regard.  

4. I wish that no resident in GR had to walk more than 10 blocks to get fresh high quality produce. We need to keep supporting our neighborhood farmer's markets, urban farms and small grocers who purchase local.

5. I wish we could all love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Jason Meyer, President/CEO of Blandford Nature Center, and Kate Meyer, Executive Director of Kent County Parks Foundation

We are both excited to serve as leaders of local nonprofit organizations dedicated to connecting people to the natural world. Our wishes for Grand Rapids in 2016 focus on ensuring that our community continues to make the natural world a priority and that it is considered an important part of a holistic approach to decision-making. We would love to see this happen at all levels — local government, businesses, and individuals — and we hope that Grand Rapidians understand just how fortunate we are to have so many parks, trails, and natural areas where we can all enhance our spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being.

With that great fortune comes responsibility, and we hope to see our local business leaders continue to connect their companies to environmental organizations by providing board leadership, financial support, and providing time for their employees to volunteer in support of conservation. These organizations can continue to protect and enhance our parks and natural areas and in return, help make West Michigan attractive to future employees and their families.

Finally, we hope to see new and creative collaborations that ensure that all sectors of our community have access to parks and natural areas like those found in city and county parks and Blandford Nature Center.

Bibliophiles & educators: the ones who make culture accessible to everyone

Dana Friis-Hansen, Director and CEO, Grand Rapids Art Museum

Leveraging collaboration is what I’m most excited about for Grand Rapids and GRAM in 2016!  I am so proud that the art museum is a key player across the worlds of culture, education, urban planning, civic engagement, diversity and inclusion, early childhood development, and more. We aim to build on that collaboration in 2016 with a focus on co-developing programming, exhibitions, learning programs, and activities with organizations across the region. As an example, this spring, during the exhibition, Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise, we’re planning a series of events built upon exciting collaborations with diverse organizations, including Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women and Avenue for the Arts, that focus on increasing opportunities for creative and business women.  For our spring exhibition, Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, our collaborations will focus on families, reading, emotions, and creativity. GRAM’s vision to increasingly serve as a cultural beacon and a civic anchor, and community collaborations are one of the key pathways to a success year!

Thomas J. Haas, President, Grand Valley State University

We are witnessing an incredible time of growth in West Michigan, and education is a key driver. We’re attracting new businesses to the area while watching ones already here expand. Reasoned optimism is part of our region’s culture. Grand Valley State University fits in perfectly. It was founded by entrepreneurs and has always been nimble in responding to the needs of Michigan's employers.  

My wish for Grand Rapids in 2016 is that it provides the proper support for the state to meet the challenges of educating people beyond high school.

There is no disagreement that Michigan lags behind the nation and our Great Lakes neighbors when it comes to post-secondary educational attainment.  As 2015 ends and 2016 begins, a sobering report written by our state's leading education experts makes the case plainly:  800,000 Michigan citizens must obtain a credential after high school graduation by 2025 or Michigan will be left behind in the new economy of the 21st century.

This is a tall order.  It means that nearly a million women and men with only high school degrees must also earn a trade credential, an associate's degree, or a bachelor's degree.  Grand Valley State University is playing a key role in supporting this outcome.  Our enrollment — now standing at 25,300 — has grown by more than 50 percent in the past 15 years.  Our graduation rate is the highest among Michigan's regional public universities.  And nearly 90 percent of our recent graduates have remained in Michigan to begin their careers, enroll in graduate school, or both. 

Our programs in nursing, the health professions, engineering, computing and others in high-demand areas produce highly skilled graduates that employers are eager to hire. Our alumni, now more than 100,000, are not just successful in their careers, but are leaders for Michigan and the rest of the world.  

To reach the goal by 2025, all stakeholders — K-12 schools, colleges, universities, communities, the legislature, and the governor — must collaborate, remain focused, regularly measure progress, and be held accountable for the outcome.

Andy McIntyre, Chief Administrative Officer at the John Ball Zoo

I would like to see continued growth of our local economy and continued collaboration between the citizens, elected officials, businesses, and nonprofit organizations in and around Grand Rapids. The ways in which people work together across sectors to support the continuous improvement of the quality of life here continues to impress me. I would also like to see people spend more time together as a family outdoors, enjoying time in nature and learning about wildlife. It is important for all of us to remain connected to the natural world around us. 

Dale Robertson, President and CEO, Grand Rapids Public Museum

There has been so much change happening in Grand Rapids recently, and a new year brings promise of even more excitement coming to Grand Rapids. For the GRPM it will mean new exhibits, new programs, and another grade level added to the Museum School.

As a member of the Grand Rapids community for 16 years, I have been able to witness immense change to our community. Now that we are in our first week of 2016, I look forward to the excitement a new year brings.

Throughout the city, partnerships are emerging with the school systems, with cultural institutions, with for profits and nonprofits, with local government, and we are becoming a city of groundbreaking collaborations.

In 2015, as part of a community wide initiative, we brought in the inaugural sixth grade class to the Grand Rapids Public Museum School. 2016 is set to bring yet another grade in, as we continue to grow toward full capacity of sixth through 12th grade. These students have a chance to learn through innovative curriculum, combining design thinking and place based education — all while having access to the GRPM’s exhibits and artifacts. Partners for the Museum School include: Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University College of Education, City of Grand Rapids, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., and the Grand Rapids Public Museum. The learnings from this work will inform and shape the development of the museum’s plans to take Museum School out to the rest of the community. We have ambitious goals to create a program whereby any school can participate in a design thinking/place based education experience utilizing museum artifacts and specimens.  This program, like the school itself, will be the product of collaborations and the true sharing of authority.  

This year, I can see Grand Rapids growing more through the types of partnerships and collaborations that created the Museum School. Whether it is a collaboration to offer our institution members more, or larger ones like the river restoration project, Grand Rapids is on the road to broad community engagement around both large and small scale projects designed to more and varied opportunities and experiences to our citizens.

Marcia A. Warner, Director, Grand Rapids Public Library

My vision for the Grand Rapids community in 2016 is very much like the library as an institution would envision: a community that is resilient and thriving in every sector.

I see us advancing through strong opportunities for education, employment, culture and personal growth.

I see people in every neighborhood fueled by the energy created by relationships, partnerships and passionate self actualization at every age.

The city is continually improving itself and the Grand Rapids Public Library is ready to help its citizens do the same. There are a lot of important conversations to be had in the coming year and I am ready, even anxious, to be a part of it.

The embracers: the ones opening their arms to those seeking help

Sam Attalrefugee advocate and community organizer

Grand Rapids has been a pioneer city in the hosting of refugees from various countries and world regions. Yet, the arrival of a relatively small number Syrian refugees in Grand Rapids in 2015 brought forth extensive discussions and sizable media coverage. These Syrian refugees fled violence that ravaged their land, the same land that witnessed the rise of many civilizations, incorporated major cultures, produced the first alphabet known, and faithfully embraced the three major monolithic world religions. 

My first hope is for the debate surrounding refugees is to enhance the already deep traditions embedded in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Traditions of generous community support and warm charitable giving that the area is famous for. My second hope is that the Syrian families settled in Grand Rapids will positively contribute to the beautiful mosaic that forms our dynamic city and enrich its culture and traditions; and, lest I forget, delicious cuisine. My third hope is that the people and cities of West Michigan would collaborate to extend refugee support to one year. Currently, federal and state governments provide limited support to the refugees, ranging from three to six months. The refugees have great opportunities in the U.S.; however, immense challenges face them initially, not limited to learning English, adjusting culturally, enrolling kids in new schools, navigating the health system, establishing reliable transportation, and finding supportive jobs.

Sam Beals, CEO, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan

1. A comprehensive and compelling redesign of child welfare in the state of Michigan, which focuses on optimal outcomes for children in efficient and effective ways, led by collaborative partner agencies in Kent County that can inform the rest of the state.

2. A dispelling of myths regarding refugees, and an embracing in the general populace of the plight of refugees from around the world who seek refuge and safe haven among us in West Michigan.

3. A welcomed increase in the number of refugees living among us where they can live in peace and become contributing, content members of our communities.

4. Solutions for youth between the ages of 17 and 22 who have not found their niche nor their purpose, with guidance, education and support until they feel strong enough to walk along their own paths.

5. Increase in affordable housing as the backbone for communal growth and an answer to questions of poverty and unemployment.

6. An increased focus on social determinants of health, such as affordable housing, care management, and options across a continuum of care, toward supporting, encouraging, and recognizing the value of every community member, at every station in their life.

7. An even greater sense of community as social service organizations and leaders come together to support West Michigan residents.

Father John Geaney, CSP, Rector, Cathedral of Saint Andrew and Director of the Catholic Information Center

What would I like to see happen in Grand Rapids in 2016?

I’m aware that in 2016 we will commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  I hope that people of all faiths will come to the Cathedral and pray together for the victims and families of all who were lost that day.  I believe that at the same time we should pray that as a people we here in Grand Rapids will not allow our fear to overcome us and set neighbors who are Muslim, or refugees or immigrants or long time residents of the US to turn against each other. That’s my first wish.

My second wish is that we will continue the journey that has begun to assist our African American brothers and sisters and our police department to come together in a respectful and thoughtful dialogue to make our city’s streets safe for all people regardless of their race or color.

Another wish is that while the downtown gentrification is good for the city and the people who live and work here, I’m wishing that we could also recognize the importance of caring for those who are homeless on those same downtown streets, in a responsible and caring way.  The homeless downtown are our neighbors, too.

And I expect, like most everyone else in Grand Rapids, I wish we could get our roads fixed in 2016.

Finally, I sure do wish there was a grocery store and a drug store of good size in downtown Grand Rapids.

Matt Hanlon, community advocate and consultant to the CEO at Guiding Light Mission in Heartside

I hope every person who is facing the growing epidemic of addiction seeks and finds help. Addiction is preventing thousands in Kent County alone from realizing their human potential. Prescription pill usage is capturing its users and keeping them on opiate based addictive medication longer than required. Prescription drugs are falling into the wrong hands and being used and abused by teens who suspend their lives while held hostage by an insidious silent killer.

I pray that the good people of Grand Rapids understand that if you're facing adversity in your life, and you need help because you have turned to drug or alcohol abuse as a means of coping, but now find that the relief is really poison, there IS help. The Guiding Light Mission and many other agencies and services are here to help. The Guiding Light is free. It's for everyone and anyone. It works. We're helping those who want to help themselves. If you need help, you have it.

Susan Kragt, Executive Director at the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center 

I hope to see refugees embraced and included in our community conversations. A lot of attention is being given to the global refugee crisis and I think it is wonderful that Grand Rapids continues to be welcoming of refugees. But sometimes we forget that refugees have a lot to offer. In 2016 I would like to hear from refugees at local school board meetings, in the places where they are employed, in houses of worship — I think we can learn a lot if we take the time to ask and then listen. Grand Rapids is such a great place to live already; involving refugees in planning for the future will only make it that much better.

Marge Palmerlee, Executive Director, Dégagé  Ministries

At Dégagé Ministries we are deeply grateful for the generosity of those in the Grand Rapids community who come alongside us through volunteering and offering financial support.  We look forward to continuing to provide vital services to the 400 to 500 people who come through our doors every day who are experiencing homelessness and challenges that most of us cannot imagine. Together, we would like to break down the barriers to success, such as lack of affordable housing and proper identification, limited mental health services and additional challenges due to criminal records and bad credit.  The list goes on. We would like to change the narrative and work at eliminating the stigmas attached to homelessness and mental illness so that each person is seen as a unique individual created in the image of God. 

The ones shaping our city in government and planning

Tim Kelly, Planning Manager at Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.

Over the past several years our community has put so much time and energy into thinking about how it wants to grow and develop; my wish for 2016 is that energy starts to translate into real, transformative progress. I am particularly interested to see continued progress toward achievement of all of the goals in GR Forward, the amendment to the City’s Master Plan adopted by the City Commission in December 2015. All of those goals include a recognition that to have sustained success, we all need to focus on building racial equity, increasing opportunities, and pursuing economic justice to ensure Grand Rapids and the entire metro area grows into a great place to live, learn, work and play — for everybody. As we embark on a new year with new inspiring community leaders, I think we have a significant opportunity to demonstrate Grand Rapids’ capacity to be a leader in the area of equity, and I am very much looking forward to helping turn this wish into action.

Greg Sundstrom, Grand Rapids City Manager

Grand Rapids is embarking on a major transition in leadership in 2016 with the election of Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and two new commissioners, David Allen and Jon O’Connor. My wish list begins with the continued success of our local government based upon the active engagement and outstanding support of our residents who demand excellence of not only their elected representatives, but also of all Grand Rapids City employees. We dedicate our professional lives to this community and serving each and every one of our citizens.

A never-ending pledge that Grand Rapids officials make each and every year is to protect and preserve the investments that our taxpayers entrusted us with, including funds supporting the Parks and Recreation Millage, Vital Streets Millage and other general tax dollars. I know that residents will see remarkable progress made in our ongoing transformation and witness continued improvements to our streets and parks in 2016.

My wish list also contains a pledge that we continue working on social inequities facing our community in 2016. Through our many partnerships that have fostered the SAFE Report, the Strong City/Strong Neighborhood outcomes, the Great Housing Strategies, the Police and Community Relations Recommendations and more, I promise to continue our meaningful and respectful community dialog that has brought about remarkable change in just the past year. The City of Grand Rapids and its community partners still have much more to do, but I know that with your support, we will succeed in arriving at mutually-beneficial solutions that will improve the quality of life for all Grand Rapidians and showcase Grand Rapids as a truly special American city.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor of Rapid Growth. You can reach her by emailing [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
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