Voices of the people: New book to showcase Grand Rapids' activist community

When Ashley Nickels and Dani Vilella think of Grand Rapids, they think of the hundreds, and even thousands, of grassroots activists who are shaping the city, who are fighting for affordable housing, living wages, racial and economic justice, and a whole lot more. Now, Nickels and Vilella want to hear from these individuals for the book they're editing, "Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology."

When Ashley Nickels and Dani Vilella think of Grand Rapids, they don’t think of the big names: the ArtPrizes or Meijers or Amways of the city. They think of the hundreds, and even thousands, of grassroots activists who are shaping Grand Rapids, who are fighting for affordable housing, living wages, racial and economic justice, and a whole lot more. They think of the people who are working to amplify the voices of those who have long been marginalized and disenfranchised: people and communities of color, individuals who are LGTBQ+, non-English speakers, immigrants, and those who are disabled, among others.


Now, Nickels and Vilella, both of whom grew up in Grand Rapids and graduated from City High School, have joined forces to compile essays, personal narratives and poetry about Grand Rapids’ grassroots activist community—and they want to hear from you. Through April 30, Grand Rapidians (and former Grand Rapidians) are invited to send in submissions for “Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology,” a book edited and compiled by Nickels, a political science professor at Kent State University in Ohio, and Vilella, the political and advocacy field manager for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan.

Dani VilellaSet to be published in November 2017, “Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology” is the next book in the Belt Publishing series of anthologies, which, as the Cleveland-based publisher notes, is “written by and for Rust Belt communities,” including Flint, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, and others.


“Each book is edited by a native or resident of that city, who asks the community to send in its stories, be they of revitalization, loss, family, history, or hope—and be they written by professional authors, college students or public servants,” the publishing company writes. “The essays, photographs and poems that comprise the final product are impassioned, emotional, visceral tales of individual lives in places that have been too often overlooked, stereotyped and misrepresented elsewhere.”


Ashley NickelsTo learn more about the anthology, and its editors, we had a chance to speak with Nickels about activism in Grand Rapids, the need to listen to a diverse community of voices, and more.


Why were you first inspired to work on "Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology" and what are you hoping will come from this collection?

To start, it is important to note that Dani and I have been long-time friends—since third grade. We both grew up in Grand Rapids, went to Grand Rapids Public Schools, and, after college, both moved back to Grand Rapids to start families, careers, etc. We bought our first houses, had kids, and started our respective careers here. Needless to say, Grand Rapids has been a major part of our lives. I moved away six years ago to pursue my Ph.D. in New Jersey and have since settled in Cleveland, Ohio, but Grand Rapids still feels like home.


The inspiration for the book came one day, while I was working on my dissertation. My research at the time focused to the municipal takeover of Flint, Michigan and the community’s response. I was reading a book titled, “Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology,” edited by Scott Atkinson. It turned out that the book is a part of Belt Publishing’s Rust Belt Cities series. So, I bought and read more: “The Detroit Anthology” and “The Cleveland Anthology." I loved the concept, but was disappointed that there was not a book about Grand Rapids—it’s home, after all!


But alas, I could edit the book. I knew that I could not do it alone. So, I reached out to Dani, who quickly agreed to co-edit the anthology with me. The collaboration felt like (and has been) a good fit. In addition to being long-time friends, we have collaborated on numerous projects over the years, including board members for the National Organization for Women – Grand Rapids.


In regards to our aspirations for the book, we are interested in raising up the voices of those people, groups, and organizations that are often at the margins of Grand Rapids’ story. We want to provide a platform for people to tell the world about Grand Rapids’ grassroots community—those people, groups, and organizations doing the often hidden (or marginalized) work of community organizing, political and civic mobilization, and neighborhood building.

As you mention on the book's Facebook page, you and Dani Vilella "joined forces (yet again) to compile essays, personal narratives, and poetry about and by Grand Rapids, Michigan's grassroots activist community." What have the two of you worked on together previously? And what drew you to focus on our city's activist community?


Dani and I have known each other for decades. Our first collaborative activist effort was in sixth grade. Together with our peers, we organized a petition to overturn a decision made by the school’s principal (it was about the planting of a tree). Most recently, we sat on the board for the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. Through NOW-GR, together we organize an awards/ community outreach event called “Then & NOW.” We also collaborated with other community groups to organize protests, demonstrations, or community events. For example, we helped organize Grand Rapids’ first “SlutWalk.”


Nothing we have done, however, has been on our own. Our activism has been done in collaboration with others. And, like I noted above, having lived and worked in Grand Rapids, we both felt like the voices of these activists were missing from the popular discourse about Grand Rapids.


How have you been influenced by GR's activist community and what has your own activism been like in the city?


I am not actually sure when I was first introduced to Grand Rapids’ “activist community,” per se. But having gone to school at City High School, which was at the time located at College and Fountain, we were immersed in the culture and vibrancy of city life. We often walked past Heritage Clinic, where protesters and counter protesters stood with signs. I remember being very interested in the politics and art of protest.


My own work has primarily focused on feminist community activism. Before leaving GR in 2011, I served as the board of NOW-GR, was the chair of the Grand Rapids Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team (CCRT), served as a community representative to the Women’s Resources Center’s board of directors, and volunteered at the YWCA of West Central Michigan’s crisis center. Professionally, I served as the assistant director for volunteer management and community outreach at the GVSU Women’s Center before pursuing my PhD in Public Affairs with a specialization in Community Development.


The book is meant to highlight, as you mention in your call for submissions, "lives lived in places that have been too often overlooked, stereotyped and misrepresented elsewhere." How do you think both Grand Rapids and GR's activists have been overlooked, stereotyped and/or misrepresented?


Having lived outside of Grand Rapids for the last (nearly) six years, I have learned that many people: one, only know of Grand Rapids because of ArtPrize, Amway, or more recently Betsy DeVos; two, perceive Grand Rapids as hyper-conservative; and/or three, view/depict Grand Rapids as a success story of big philanthropy. From my perspective, those assessments are inadequate. I hope that a book of this nature will help to challenge and complicate this discourse. (I think that local media outlets are doing this more and more.)


Within Grand Rapids, who/what do you think are some of the people/narratives that have been most ignored? How do you think that can change?


From my own perspective, the most marginalized voices in Grand Rapids are people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ identified people, non-English speakers, and immigrants. Grand Rapids is not unique in this way. It is important to address nonetheless.


In my professional/academic work, I am particularly interested in the concepts of participatory democracy and urban politics. I am interested in: who participates in setting the local agenda (or, who has a seat the proverbial table), in what ways, and why? I am interested in how community organizations and groups organize and mobilize in support of or opposition to local issues—hence my work about Flint and this book project on Grand Rapids.


When communities are marginalized, those voices are left out of important decision making processes. Their interests are not heard; their expertise is not valued. As Grand Rapids continues to grow and thrive, we need to bring the voices of the most marginalized to the center.


Whether we succeed in doing this with the book is another story. It is just one book, but we hope we can to some extent, at least.


How do you think your activism/activist communities helped you in your careers?


I consider myself an “activist-scholar.” In addition to focusing some of my research activity on understanding “activism,” I am also interested more broadly in conducting research and producing articles/ books that are collaborative and participatory in nature. I enjoy working with communities, rather than “studying them.” [You can read more about this on Nickels’ blog].


What's one of your favorite specific memories about GR's activist community?


My favorite memory was a from an oral history project that Dani and I worked on years ago. We wanted to record past presidents of NOW-GR talking about their experiences in their own words. We wanted to hear more about how and why they got involved, the challenges that they faced coordinating/ managing a local membership-based association, and the type of projects/actions they took on. The project was a huge undertaking and fizzled out, but the interviews we did with past presidents were amazing! I learned so much about Grand Rapids’ activist (and feminist) past. It inspired me to learn more from others like Grand Rapids Women’s History Council and the Grand Rapids People’s History Project.


You'll be accepting submissions for the anthology through April 30. Is there anything you'd like to say to those who are submitting works? Any words of inspiration/anything you'd like them to think about?


We are looking a wide range of submissions: pieces about Grand Rapids and pieces by Grand Rapids activists; poetry and personal narratives; essays on community-based organizations and analyses of Grand Rapids-based social movements. If you are curious about whether you think your submission will fit, send us an email or contact us on Facebook.


And finally, one thing that I have heard over and over lately is, “but I am not an activist—I don’t protest.” So often people do not see the work that they do as “activism”—it’s just what they do (out of necessity, obligation, etc.). We want to read those stories too!

Submissions should be sent on or before April 30, 2017 at 11:59pm to [email protected]. To see the guidelines for the submissions, as well as some helpful writing prompts, visit the anthology’s Facebook page.
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