Space for everyone: Friends of Grand Rapids Parks' new director sets sights on equity & access

Stephanie Adams, the new executive director at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, is laying the groundwork for an ambitious tenure that includes strengthening neighborhoods’ access to nature and exercise, improving green space in areas that have historically been marginalized and disenfranchised, unifying communities through parks, and more.
When Stephanie Adams remembers growing up in Grand Rapids, it’s as though she immediately envisions a map of green: there’s Garfield Park, where she spent much of her childhood and learned to swim in the now-closed pool; she can trace her teenage years to John Ball and Richmond Parks, places where she’d escape the busy city and venture into the outdoors. It’s in these spaces where she learned the lessons that have followed her throughout her life, lessons about respecting and appreciating nature, about the way health and environment are inextricably intertwined, about the importance of beautiful public land that’s accessible to everyone.

And though she had yet to know it, it’s where her path to leading the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks (FGRP) was first planted.

Adams, who grew up in Alger Heights, was recently named the executive director of FGRP, an independent, citizen-led nonprofit that was founded in 2008 with a mission to enhance and expand the city’s parks and public spaces. Most recently the marketing and communications manager at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, where she created the “#GRgives on #GivingTuesday” initiative that helps support local nonprofits, Adams fills the FGRP executive director vacancy created by Tracey Flower’s departure to an opportunity out of state.

“I have this immense appreciation for nature,” says Adams, who knows our city’s green spaces like the back of her hand through her avid cycling, running, kayaking, and snowshoeing. Plus, she has five children, who each have their own favorite parks throughout Grand Rapids.

Now serving her first week on the job, Adams calls her new position a dream come true — and she’s already laying the groundwork for an ambitious tenure that includes strengthening neighborhoods’ access to nature and exercise, improving green space in areas that have historically been marginalized and disenfranchised, unifying neighborhoods through parks, and more.

Her efforts will follow close to a decade of FGRP projects that support and improve our city’s parks and public spaces, with the group leading initiatives to acquire, build or redevelop 18 acres of park space in Grand Rapids and overseeing and coordinating more than 40,000 volunteer hours in our green spaces. Such efforts include partnering with the city to develop the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which lays out a vision for long-term development, programming and sustainability of the city’s parks and public spaces; expanding Joe Taylor Park in South Hill; spearheading successful fundraising campaigns to keep city pools open; planning 16 parks throughout the city; and more. Now, Adams says she aims to build upon that and ensure parks are front and center in conversations about Grand Rapids’ future.

“There’s so much building happening in our community, and often green spaces and parks might not be at the forefront of conversations about that, but they’re so important to have a strong community,” says Adams.“They create spaces to address childhood and adult obesity issues; they help to reduce our carbon footprint.

“As we bring more and more people into Grand Rapids, where are those spaces for our children going to be?” she continues. “What are we doing to build out those green spaces and build out natural environments in an urban setting? Are we being equitable among all of our park spaces? I’m looking forward to being a part of those conversations.”

The new executive director stresses that the group is also looking to “strengthen community partnerships” in an effort to address, among a variety of topics, racial equity in our city’s parks. As part of this effort, Adams’ first days in her new position are “chock full” with meetings with community leaders.

“I really hope a month from now I can say, ‘Here are the clear things I’ve heard and the goals I have to set and work towards,’” Adams says. “I want Friends to be a voice for our community.”

The FGRP will also be looking to further connect with individuals looking to volunteer in the city’s parks. “I think a lot of time people hear parks, and think, ‘Oh, I’ll plant a tree,’ but there are so many different ways to get involved with volunteering,” she says. “We want people to get involved with creating that space that feels safe for everybody.”

Along those lines, Adams points out that Mayor Rosalynn Bliss launched an initiative to create a park within a five-minute walk of every child in the city and emphasizes the Friends group will continue to work with the Bliss administration on these efforts.

“Can we identify spaces that will bring the community together?” says Adams, who’s encouraging residents to give her and FGRP feedback, whether it’s by calling, emailing or visiting the Friends Facebook page.

“I’m lucky to be the third executive director for a nonprofit that has had amazing leadership,” she says. “I know I have big shoes to fill. I want the community to know that we are out here; we’re listening. What are the dreams of our community? I want to discover those.”
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