Michelle Jokisch Polo, a journalist and Grand Rapidian who originally hails from El Salvador and Ecuador, is bringing her expertise in advocating against systemic oppression, offering critical analysis and listening to the community through her research to Rapid Growth's newest series, On The Ground. As the On The Ground editor, she will be spending much of her time over the next couple of months in the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods, learning from and listening to residents to celebrate this incredibly strong and diverse area through articles, photography and more.
Michelle Jokisch Polo, a journalist and Grand Rapidian who originally hails from El Salvador and Ecuador, is bringing her expertise in advocating against systemic oppression, offering critical analysis and listening to the community through her research to Rapid Growth's newest series, On The Ground.
Before we get into all things On The Ground, we want to hear about you! Where are you originally from, and when/why did you move to Grand Rapids?
I was born in the capital of the smallest country of Central America, San Salvador, El Salvador. In the mid 90s, El Salvador was plagued with great civil disruption and our family was forced to relocate to my mother’s hometown in Quito, Ecuador. When I moved to Grand Rapids in 2008, I was 17 going on 18 and an entering freshman at Calvin College.
What was it like moving to GR? How has that experience shaped your life?
I came here attempting to make my parents' American Dream a reality, but, when I stepped foot on my campus, I noticed very few students who looked like me. Pretty soon I was struck by homesickness and a strong desire to fit in. I learned to disguise my accent and tried not to tell many people where I was from. I think I was ashamed of who I was and where I came from.
As the years have gone by I have learned to be proud of my heritage because my family has worked very hard to have my sister and I remain in the United States. I am proud to be Latina and of the perspective I bring as an immigrant and international.
Do you feel like the way we welcome (or don't welcome) new residents has changed since you moved here? If so, how? And how do you think the city can be a more welcoming place for all people?
As a transplant to the city I have struggled to feel welcomed into such a tight knit city of networks, resources and communities. Because I didn’t grow up here, once I graduated from college it became harder and harder to get connected to job opportunities. I didn’t have an uncle or a grandmother who could advocate and vouch for me. I had to work extra hard to get connected, and I think many Grand Rapidians forget the privilege of having networks and connections. I believe it is extremely important to step outside of our own experiences, check our privilege and always ask questions. If I don’t know that you don’t know—then we both will never know.
You've worked with El Vocero Hispano, the area's largest Hispanic newspaper. What were some of the articles you are most proud of from your time there?
I am ever so grateful for my time at El Vocero Hispano. It was there that I finally got the opportunity to write, advocate and find a place for my words. When I was head reporter of the paper, I got to write a series of articles focusing on the importance of providing drivers licenses for undocumented Michigan residents. In this series I got to do some investigative journalism and provide the readers with a strong argument for the provision of drivers licenses for undocumented residents. I wanted to give our community’s stake holders, residents and organizations a solution for how to make this a reality for our city.
You're now working as an advocate at HQ, Grand Rapids' drop-in center for youth who are experiencing homelessness or have run away from home. What has that experience been like? How can our community better support these individuals?
At HQ I get to build empowering relationships with youth who are experiencing unsafe or unstable housing while connecting them to valuable community resources. Working with HQ youth has been like finding a home of people who understand what it is like to be on the outside.
In order to address youth homelessness our community needs to understand systemic oppression and how these systems affect the way youth of color have less access to resources, opportunities and stable housing.
You have a background in psychology, gender studies and communication; how has that helped you as a journalist?
I guess you could say I am interested in all the things dealing with human connection and building relationships, asking questions and encouraging discourse, and addressing systems of oppression and gender-based violence.
OK, onto On The Ground! What drew you to this project, and what are you hoping will come from it?
This project is like a dream. It is the perfect mix of advocacy, Spanglish, social justice and writing—all the things that make me excited about life.
I am excited I get entrusted with these stories, and by telling them I hope I can help make Grand Rapids a more welcoming place for all.
What has been one of the most inspiring things that has happened so far in your time as On The Ground's project editor? What do you love about the neighborhood?
A couple of weeks ago I was biking on South Division and, as I neared the light on Burton and Division, I was stopped by one of the business owners I got to interview earlier on the week. They waved, smiled and called my name as if we knew each other for a long time. Being known in this way is what home feels like.
Has anything really surprising or unexpected happened?
I don’t think I expected this community to be as diverse as it is. I was surprised when I found out how many foreign born residents were in the area. When I am in the neighborhood I don’t feel like I have to talk around my own international background. They get it—they aren’t from here either.
Development is, as you know, a big topic of conversation in Grand Rapids; there's a ton of it happening throughout the city. Along with development comes important conversations about longtime residents being displaced. Are you seeing anything like that happening in this neighborhood? If so, what's happening, and what does that mean for the community?
Definitely. Longtime residents of the area are having difficulty finding affordable housing, and those who do are faced with landlords who take advantage of them. Many of the residents are unaware of their rights and the resources available to them. I hope that On The Ground GR can help tell these stories and ensure the community at large comes together to advocate for their neighbors.
To connect with Michelle, you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram. To see her first article in the On The Ground series, click here.