RapidChat: Allison Lugo Knapp

Allison Lugo Knapp has three passports (Peru, Colombia and USA if you’re wondering) and a penchant for leadership development. After living around the world, she attended Michigan State and has lived permanently in the Mitten since. Allison is raising her son with an international perspective (Spanish reading time starting at KDL, soon!), while rooted in our friendly and ever-changing city.
Allison Lugo Knapp wasn't raised to stay in one place for very long, but she can't seem to leave the Mitten. With three passports, a professorship at GVSU, and a fondness for her neighborhood, she's rooted in West Michigan and digging into leadership development for the Latino community and Spanish language reading sessions for youngsters at KDL. Read on as we chat about new chapters, philanthropy, and dreamy Buenos Aires.
Rapid Growth: So you’ve been a Michigander for over a decade. Tell me about the path you took, geographically, to get here.

Allison Lugo Knapp: I was born in Lima, Peru. When I was three we moved to New Delhi, India where I lived until I was eight. My dad was then posted in New York City, and we lived in Connecticut for eight years.

I consider Connecticut closest to home because it was where I spent the majority of my childhood and my immediate family currently lives there. But I’ve always considered myself Colombian. Colombian culture and values are what I grew up with. We always went back there when I was a kid, because my relatives are there, and Spanish was my first language.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my dad was transferred again, so I finished high school in Guatemala City. Then my parents went to Bolivia and I went to Michigan State for college where I studied International Relations and met my husband, Tobin. My Dad learned English in Michigan, at Kalamazoo College, through a grant, and then he did research for his PhD at Michigan State, so I had that connection that inspired me to go there for undergrad.

RG: What did your dad do that brought about all these international residencies?

ALK: He worked for the United Nations, for UNICEF, on clean water programming and improving conditions in the developing world.

RG: So did you grow up with humanitarian values?

ALK: When you grow up overseas in an international or diplomatic community, you’re not always subject to the same life as everyone else. You see that life on your way to school or out in the city, but it isn't your reality. Your reality is more comfortable. You go to an American school and live in a gated community. My parents were deliberate about making sure we saw outside the four walls of our neighborhood.

When I was in Guatemala I volunteered in hospitals, working with children who were victims of the civil war. Service was something that was always really important to us as a family. It was ingrained in our family values and my sisters and I did a lot of volunteer work.

RG: How many sisters do you have?

ALK: Four. I’m the youngest of five girls.

RG: Your parents must have had their hands full with five girls, moving from country to country.

ALK: Yes, they did. Each one of us had a very different experience. Our first names vary depending on where we were born; my oldest sister is Fatima. I had sisters graduate from high school in India so they really relate to that place. Another graduated in Connecticut. It’s a unique experience to grow up around the world and it made us very close. Our most fun times as a family are reminiscing about those experiences.

RG: Are you teaching your son Spanish?

ALK: I learned English when I was five. We spoke only Spanish at home. I’m looking forward to teaching him Spanish, definitely.

I’ve had a hard time finding resources in the community for Spanish learners. My son Santiago and I were going to storytime at our local library branch, KDL’s East Grand Rapids branch. I talked to the library leadership and worked with the staff and we’re going to do Spanish storytime starting in June, Tuesdays at 10:30am in the morning. I think a lot of non-native speakers will come, plus it’s a great resource for native speakers, so it will foster interaction. We’re starting with ages 0-3.

RG: That’s terrific. What other projects are you working on?

I'm currently a consultant. After having Santiago last February I decided to step back and spend time with my son after a terrific eight years working at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley.

I travelled a lot while working with the Johnson Center. I did a lot of training and organization development with foundations around the country. I learned about a ton of foundations, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to a small community foundation in the rural south.

It’s scary to leave a great job with a big organization, with such a great institution and all the resources but I’m enjoying doing something a bit different. I'm focusing on leadership and health in the Latino community.

RG: What are you finding the needs are of the local Latino community?

ALK: I say this with the perspective of someone just getting involved within this community. I’m working with Carlos Sanchez at Ferris State University, Director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center.

Carlos is running a program to foster Latino leadership development. We’re working with a cohort of professionals that are early-mid level in their career, and teaching them about professional development, community engagement, networking, basically working to create a leadership pipeline to help everyone be more visible and more prominent in the community.

I’ve found that I am really passionate about leadership development. I see mentorship and coaching as something that is really important. The Latino community can use that.

RG: Have you maintained a connection to Grand Valley?

ALK: Yes! I teach the grant writing class for Grand Valley’s Master of Public Administration program.

This past semester I taught an undergraduate level class: Philanthropy and Nonprofits in Latin America. It’s a specific class subject so the students were very interested in the topic. This course helped students connect their interests in Latin American culture and nonprofits.  

I have always loved university environments. There is a lot of energy in the academic environment. There is a lot of pride in being an alum and you want to pass on the knowledge and experience. You hope everyone has that formative university experience.

RG: You moved around a lot in your childhood and it certainly shaped your passion in Latin American culture and philanthropy. Do you want your son, Santiago, to have a similar childhood?

ALK: There’s something very nice about stability. At MSU, I was always a bit envious of the kids who went back to the same bedroom they were in since sixth grade. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors. I can see my son growing up in a nice, healthy environment in Grand Rapids.

He is lucky to be growing up where he is. I always have an itch about staying in the same place for too long. That’s just a part of me. It’s going to be important for Santiago to meet all our relatives and understand that that is a huge part of who he is. We’ll encourage him to go to Latin America, Asia, Europe… wherever he wants. Just travel. We want to bring him up with a global perspective.

RG: How do you like living in East Grand Rapids versus downtown GR?

ALK: We lived downtown for seven years in a condo. I love this city. We saw so many changes. We saw the JW go up, the art museum, breweries. I can't even remember what we did before all those things were there, bars and restaurants, ArtPrize... it was great to experience that.

We wanted a more permanent place and to have a yard and go outside and shovel snow. We wanted a change in lifestyle after being in the city. When we lived downtown we were always on the go. We wanted to take a step back. We looked throughout all the neighborhoods and found a house and neighborhood we liked. Walkability is really important to us.

One of the things that I was afraid of, if we moved away from downtown, is that we would be disconnected. But it’s the opposite. My neighbors and friends are really connected to everything going on in greater Grand Rapids. I like the inclusiveness and support for the greater good. 

RG: Where do you like to go as a little family?

ALK: We go to Gaslight Village a lot, get ice cream at Jersey Junction. We grab the stroller and walk to Eastown. We go to Terra for brunch regularly, almost every weekend. We go to Harmony for local beer.

When we get a babysitter, we go downtown for date night. And we love the corridor on Cherry Street with all those great restaurants like Grove and Maru.

RG: Now that you’re securely posted in West Michigan, where do you like to travel to satisfy your itch?

ALK: Tobin and I love to travel. Uruguay and Argentina, those are our favorite places.

One of my good friends is Uruguayan. We were invited there for a wedding eight years ago. We thought, this is a good opportunity to go. It’s a small country and one of the most stable countries in Latin America. They haven't had much civil unrest in the recent past. It’s a peaceful place, very family oriented. It has a beautiful, untouched coastline on the Atlantic, and rolling hills and farmland.

I just love Buenos Aires, it’s New York and Paris and Latin America in one. I have a love for the history of Latin America. Each neighborhood in Buenos Aires has a different history, why it was named that way. Eva Perón is so iconic; her story is relevant everywhere you go. The culture, the food. I’m very drawn to it. I could live in Buenos Aires.

But I’m very happy in Grand Rapids.

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.

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