Racial equity here: Mayor Rosalynn Bliss calls for systemic change in Grand Rapids

Racial equity. Support for immigrants. A stronger local economy. Mayor Rosalynn Bliss addresses all of this, and more, during her second annual State of the City speech.
Standing in a cavernous space at 20 Monroe Live, downtown’s new concert venue, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss looks at a gigantic screen behind her emblazoned with the words: “Racial equity here.”

Pausing for a brief second during her second annual State of the City address last Thursday evening, the first female mayor of Grand Rapids looks out at the crowd of about 400 people — high-profile leaders from government, nonprofits, the arts, education, and more — and says to them, “Grand Rapids continues to be a tale of two cities, where neighborhoods in 17 census tracks — home to roughly a third of our city’s population — have 48 percent of their residents living in poverty.”

“These neighborhoods are more racially and ethnically diverse than the city as a whole,” Bliss continues. “These neighborhoods are economically unstable with low median household incomes and high unemployment. We are one city, one community, and we rise and fall together. Without racial equity, we cannot be prosperous.”

With this final sentence came vehement nods and applause from the crowd, hundreds of people affirming the statement from a mayor who, since taking office last year, hasn’t minced words when addressing racism and racial bias in Grand Rapids.

“There are cities in this country that entrepreneurs want to leave,” Bliss says. “Some have put Grand Rapids on that list. In fact, we are on a list that points out how poorly we have done, especially for African American entrepreneurs.”

When it comes to economic opportunity, Grand Rapids was in 2015 ranked as the second worst city for African Americans in the entire country. While the median income for white individuals in the city is about $77,000 per year, it is $22,000 for black residents. Of the nearly 16,000 businesses in Kent County, just 5 percent are owned by individuals who are black, according to the Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB). The unemployment rate climbs to about 53 percent in predominantly black neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Nearly 45 percent of the 42,000 African Americans residing in the city live in poverty. (You can see a further analysis of these numbers from GRABB founder and CEO Jamiel Robinson here.)

In response to such staggering statistics, Bliss says during her speech that Grand Rapids is “laying the groundwork for broad systemic change.” Over the past year, she notes, the city has taken on a couple initiatives to address this, including easing restrictions and streamlining licensing for food trucks (which are often an entry point for culinary entrepreneurship because they’re less expensive than opening a brick-and-mortar location), as well as launching a project between Start Garden, a venture capital fund that aims to support and build a strong small business ecosystem in the area, GRABB, and the city government.

“The goal of the project is to accelerate five African American-owned businesses that are up and running and could be growing faster,” Bliss says of an initiative that aims to help city officials better understand the systemic barriers preventing business owners from thriving in the city.

 Now, this year, the city is launching a “Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative,” a group that’s involving community leaders and various city organizations — including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Hispanic Chamber, The Right Place, The Source, and GROW, among others — to “increase equitable employment and reduce racial disparities in our city,” the mayor says.

This call to face our community's divides through partnership is a theme throughout Bliss's speech, during which the mayor also outlines plans to better support the city's immigrant community and local businesses.

Respecting immigrants in Grand Rapids

For decades upon decades, immigrants searching for a better life have turned to Grand Rapids, where individuals from around the globe have opened businesses, raised families, worked in everything from education to nonprofits and law enforcement, and, as they set out to do, built a world in which their children do not need to live in fear. Now, however, immigrant advocates in Grand Rapids and throughout the country have spoken of the increasingly hostile, anti-immigrant climate that is growing in the U.S. following President Donald Trump’s consistent anti-immigrant rhetoric, which he employed throughout his campaign and which he continues to use, including a pronouncement that his administration could target millions of people living in the United States for deportation.

“During a time when there are deep divides throughout our country, I firmly believe that what ties us together is far, far greater, far stronger than what may pull us apart,” Bliss says. “And these are the times to stand together firmly is our respect for one another and our commitment to being an inclusive and welcoming city – a place where all people who make Grand Rapids their home feel respected and safe. We know and understand that strong, welcoming communities are communities that are truly successful.”

To ensure that Grand Rapids is increasingly supportive of individuals who are immigrants, the city is partnering with the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grand Rapids Sister Cities to launch what is being called the “OurCity Academy” program, the mayor announces during the State of the City.

A comprehensive program for immigrants that aims to provide an overview and education about how local government and school systems work, how best to navigate these systems and where to find important information, the academy program will range in topics, including: public safety, economic development, city and county services, public transit, and educational and student opportunities.

“To strengthen our commitment, I have also asked our Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission to work with local organizations on action plans for making our city even more welcoming to immigrants,” Bliss says.

While Bliss hasn’t publicly advocated for Grand Rapids becoming what’s known as a sanctuary city, other community leaders are fighting for the city to officially become one. Sanctuary cities are municipalities that support undocumented immigrants by, for example, not enforcing national immigration laws at a local level or by forbidding local police from sharing residents’ immigration statuses with federal immigration enforcement.

Grand Rapidian Javier Orozco has launched a petition calling on the city to adopt the sanctuary city status – and thousands of people so far have signed it.

“We call for the city of Grand Rapids to cease using municipal funds or resources to enforce national immigration laws, which destroy and tear apart families each day,” the petition states. “We call for city police and other municipal employees to cease inquiring about a person’s immigration status in irrelevant matters. We also call for Grand Rapids city officials to work together with immigrant rights leaders from within the city to create a warm and welcoming municipality for all people.”

Mayor Bliss

In her State of the City, Bliss says that, “the motivation for being welcoming to immigrants isn’t just about human decency. It is also a matter of business success. Many local companies rely on the talent of individuals from across the globe.”

According to the Michigan Office for New Americans, which is run by Grand Rapids’ own Bing Goei, immigrants make up more than 25 percent of the state’s technology sector – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A 2016 report from the New American Economy, a pro-immigration initiative, notes that Michigan’s immigrant community is growing, both in terms of population and financial success. According to the report, immigrants made up 3.8 percent of the state in 1990 – a number that has risen to more than 5.8 percent by 2010 and grew by another 60,000 people between 2010 and 2014. Now, more than 640,000 Michiganders are foreign born.

The same report notes that immigrants comprise 8.3 percent of Michigan’s entrepreneurs, highlighting that immigrants were almost twice as likely to start a new business in 2015 than the native-born population. In 2014, immigrant-led households in Michigan earned $19.6 billion – or 7.7 percent of all income earned by Michiganders – and paid $5.4 billion in taxes, the report says.

Heart of the city’s economy: Supporting local business

In addition to removing barriers to starting businesses, Bliss calls on residents to “make supporting local businesses a regular part of our everyday lives.”

“Economists inform us that when you support a locally owned business, significantly more of your money is used to make purchases from other local businesses, service providers and farms,” Bliss says in her address. “This directly strengthen the economic base of our community and has a profound economic impact.”

This year, the city will work to better support local businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses, through its procurement process, Bliss says. Additionally, the mayor is planning on hosting business roundtables with business owners in order to strengthen relationships between the city and Grand Rapids’ business community.

And, the mayor announces, the city and Local First, a Grand Rapids-based organization that aims to support and grow a local economy, are launching a “GR Local Challenge” campaign, which calls on residents to commit to visiting one locally owned business at least once every month.

“When you need to purchase a gift, go to a local boutique you haven’t been to before,” Bliss says. “When you need a new pair of shoes, look to a local shoe store. As you decide where to go for dinner, eat at a restaurant you haven’t been to before and in a neighborhood unfamiliar to you. Be a tourist in your own city. There are retailers and restaurants to explore that could fill up a year of Saturday afternoons.”

In other words, Bliss says, pause before you order a book on Amazon or buy a shirt from Target.

“Stop and ask yourself, ‘Can I buy this in my neighborhood?’” the mayor says. “The answer is likely yes – and you can make it a habit.”

And, while you’re doing all of this, be sure to share it on social media using the hashtag #GRLocalChallenge.

“Your small choice, when multiplied again and again, makes a significant difference,” Bliss says.

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