Latesha Lipscomb isn't just making Grand Rapids a happier home for many in the city, she's showing the world how things get done. Along with working as a housing advocate for the Inner City Christian Federation, Lipscomb empowers women through her work at POSH Innovative Event Management, runs a successful makeup business, and leads others on the Seeds of Promise Entrepreneurial Impact Team.
Latesha Lipscomb isn't just making Grand Rapids a happier home for many in the city, she's showing the world how things get done.
"What I like most about all of my jobs is that they all give me an opportunity to innovatively solve problems and effect change at a grassroots level," Lipscomb says. "I am a people person so I get the most gratification from touching and changing lives one by one. They also all require use of my gifts and talents to get the job done. So, whether its public speaking, creative writing, or bringing vivid images to life, all of my roles require a certain amount of each quality."
They require a vast amount of skill and training, too, which Lipscomb has a wealth of. After growing up in Grand Rapids' Black Hills neighborhood, with little exposure to life outside the city, she struck out at 17 with an appetite for knowledge and experience.
Lipscomb got her bachelor's degree in political science with a focus on Faith, Peace and Justice from Boston College. After participating in the Junior Statesmen of America Program and studying at Yale University for a Summer, Lipscomb found herself working to help underserved minority populations. From there, a stop in Arizona, where Lipscomb was a Thurgood Marshall Scholar in the Continuing Legal Education & Opportunities Program at Arizona State University Law school, was followed by her return to Boston College. She finished her law degree there in 2005.
She says her aims may have been refocused over the years, but she's always had the drive to help others lead rewarding, authentic lives, even after facing some harsh realities of her own. After leaving law school, Lipscomb found a job in Chicago as a senior paralegal at a major labor & employment law firm. She was living her dream, until one day, she was let go.
"I spent through a years’ worth of savings clinging on to Chi City. I had a complete breakdown, and felt like the ultimate failure for having to come back home to regroup," she says. After all, I had left home at age 17 and never looked back. I had accomplished a lot, was world travelled and had become accustomed to life in the big city. But the shift was inevitable."
Lipscomb says she eventually came to accept the move she would be making. She researched Grand Rapids and how it had evolved since her childhood. She learned about the connectors and doers in the city, and grew excited about coming back to West Michigan during such a period of growth and innovation.
"I was just being set-up for something greater," she says.
From dreams of defeating the Daley dynasty and running for mayor of Chicago, Lipscomb's aspirations move to the non-profit sector when she reached Grand Rapids. At the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, Lipscomb worked toward their mission of eliminating health disparities in the community that disproportionately affect African Americans. After two years with a home visiting program, working to reduce infant mortality in Kent County, Lipscomb found a job as a housing advocate for the Inner City Christian Federation.
"It’s been a passionate tango for me with housing advocacy ever since," she says.
That's a dance that's going to take a lot of work for this community to master. however. Lipscomb says there just isn't enough safe, attractive, and affordable housing to meet the city’s demand.
"We are seeing people being displaced at alarming rates and they have nowhere to go. We are currently in the midst of a housing crisis and even the shelters have waiting lists," she says. "The Kent County Section 8 list has closed indefinitely. I think people misunderstand the gravity of the situation."
Lipscomb has noticed a gap between the notion of affordable housing and the city's homeless. It's a dark hole that some have trouble seeing a light in.
"With the number of developer housing projects on the rise in GR, the people are getting lost in the restrictive red tape that comes along with subsidized and income-based properties," she says. "For felons, the chronically homeless and the family with one too many evictions on their record, it’s a nightmare. It’s not just one thing specifically that’s causing the problem but a series of unfortunate facts and scenarios causing the housing community to ring the alarm."
The situation may seem grim for some, but help can be found in West Michigan's many nonprofits, Lipscomb says.
"Whether it’s offering a community class like intro to home ownership or acquiring and renovating dilapidated homes for families, our community is making strides in the right direction but there is certainly more work to be done," she says. "If we prioritize the problem, educate people, pool our resources, work as a collective and maintain a strong sense of compassion we may find a viable solution that will work in Grand Rapids as it has in other areas of the country."
Lipscomb left ICCF's Family Services department in January. but she continues to speak and facilitate classes on home ownership and financial freedom. She helps countless others with a simple system she applies in her own life: write down everything.
"It’s totally old school but I am a huge believer in writing things down and making it plain. There’s something about black ink on a white page that brings ideas to life," Lipscombs says. "I also enjoy the instant gratification I get from being able to strike through entries on a checklist. When you take the time to create a written visual roadmap of how you intend to achieve a goal and your marking off steps as you go, it keeps you focused and moving."
Drawing from this "mental Rolodex," Lipscomb says, realistic budget goals and timelines are much easier to visualize.
"The best way to identify a spending leak is to write out a budget, so if you’re spending way too much on energy drinks or Starbucks coffee it would become apparent once we completed the budget," she says. "What I have learned is that most people really do 'believe it' when they 'see it.' Write it down."
Lipscomb says there's no such thing as an average day for her. As a single parent, she spends mornings checking emails while her son enjoys his favorite breakfast, apple juice, black berries and a plain bagel thin with butter, cream cheese and grape jelly. Then, it's off to meetings on the several boards and commissions Lipscomb serves on. She may spend an hour at the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, followed by a visit to the United Way, some afternoon meetings, and on Tuesday nights, leading classes on financial management. Lipscomb is getting out there. She makes herself heard and seen.
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"I can be described as a social entrepreneur, so every day is different," she says. "By nightfall, I am back at my computer working on all the details that will help boost my businesses and submitting resumes for various job postings online. Or I may be downstairs working in my make-up studio on a cleaning or organizational project. I am a night owl so I don’t get much sleep ever."
The future is in flux for Lipscomb as she decides between securing a perfect position at a local nonprofit to fund her entrepreneurial ventures, "or just stepping out on faith and financing my dreams one personal penny at a time." She understands hard work and perseverance have gotten her this far, and they will take her into the next stage of her life.
Of course, some decisions have a way of working themselves out. Lipscomb's makeup business, I GOT FACE, Cosmetic Concierge, recently took the 5X5 Night $5,000 prize and another $5,000 in legal services. It's taken a lot of work, but Lipscomb is seeing that pay off.
"What I have learned is that if you think outside the box, go confidently in the direction of your dreams and keep the faith," Lipscomb says. "I was given a world view which enables me to think more broadly about problem solving as the answers to problems that plague our urban core are rarely a one size fits all' solution. I make it my business to listen first and then speak in a way that I can be heard. After all, relationships are everything. People will forget what you have said and done, but they will never forget how you made them feel."
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].