Tackling racism in business: How Grand Rapids can make the economy work for everyone

Grand Rapids has been ranked as one of the worst cities in the country for African Americans when it comes to economic opportunity. To combat this, community leaders recently gathered at a Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses summit to tackle what must be done to make GR, and West Michigan, a more equitable place.
The headlines touting Grand Rapids as an economic success story seem almost endless: the city has been called one of the top three cities in the country to do business, the best place to raise a family and a haven for those wishing to launch their own company. College graduates seem to be clamoring to return to the city, which has an unemployment rate regularly cited by articles heaping praise on the city — it currently hovers below the national average at around 3.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And while there are certainly many success stories in Grand Rapids (including manufacturing making a major comeback in the city, fueling the kind of economic growth that other cities can only dream of), there is a dramatically different narrative for people of color in the community.
When it comes to economic opportunity, Grand Rapids was last year ranked as the second worst city for African Americans in the entire country. While the median income for white individuals in the city is about $77,000 per year, it is $22,000 for black residents. Of the nearly 16,000 businesses in Kent County, just 5 percent are owned by individuals who are black, according to the Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB). And that low unemployment rate that’s so frequently praised? That climbs to about 53 percent in predominantly black neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Nearly 45 percent of the 42,000 African Americans residing in the city live in poverty. (You can see a further analysis of these numbers from GRABB founder and CEO Jamiel Robinson here.)
Jamiel RobinsonSuch staggering statistics are unacceptable anywhere, and particularly in a city that’s growing by leaps and bounds (Michigan’s fastest-growing metro area is Grand Rapids), said panelists at GRABB’s #TheShift Summit, held Friday, Nov. 18 at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business in downtown Grand Rapids. Launched by Robinson, the first annual summit was held to “connect, engage and inform Black entrepreneurs, small business owners, professionals, and stakeholders about opportunities, resources, programs, and policies that increase economic activity that will lead to economic empowerment and equity,” GRABB writes. Additionally, the day-long event focused on creating dialogue about, and solutions for, creating wealth and building sustainable communities for people of color.
From discussing major systemic problems in the city, such as people of color being barred from accessing capital and being excluded from nonprofits’ and companies’ boards of directors, to tackling deep-rooted and institutionalized racism through education, mentorship and supporting minority-owned businesses, the event included a “Town Hall” forum that featured panelists and audience members engaging in the kind of dialogue that could reshape the city into a far more equitable metropolis.

‘Nowhere to go but up’: Addressing systemic racism in Grand Rapids

"Grand Rapids is a very prosperous city," said Jonathan Jelks, one of the summit’s Town Hall panelists and the co-founder of The Midwest Tech Project, a recently launched nonprofit that aims to connect youth of color with jobs and other opportunities in the ever-growing tech sector (which notoriously has few people of color working in it). “We’ve been really strategic in bringing the next industry that’s going to anchor the next 50 to 100 years of the economy in Grand Rapids. Kudos to our city, our elected officials and all the geniuses who were a part of making that happen.
“At the same time, we still have about 53 percent unemployment in the African American community here in Grand Rapids,” Jelks continued. “That’s a tragedy. The economic quagmire for black and brown communities here in this city is not because people aren’t going out and working hard and looking for opportunity. We have to be honest with ourselves and say, ‘People are being excluded from opportunity.’ We have to be honest and say, ‘Banks aren’t financing African American businesses. They’ll give you $30,000 for a car loan, but if you want $10,000 or $5,000 for a business, there’s all the scrutiny in the world for that access to capital.’”

[Something to note: Government statistics also echo what Jelks said. Black business owners face far greater barriers than their white counterparts when seeking capital, according to new data released from the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs. For example, of the 290,000 businesses that participated in the survey, just 47 percent of black business owners reported receiving the full amount they requested from financial institutions, compared to 76 percent of white entrepreneurs.]
One of four panelists to speak during the summit’s Town Hall event, Jelks joined City Commissioner Senita Lenear, Grand Rapids Urban League President and City Commissioner Joe Jones, and Dwayne Powell, Jr., economic developer for the city of Kalamazoo and the founder of Nexus Kalamazoo (an organization that's akin to GRABB), to address a wide range of topics pertaining to growing, and supporting, the city’s black business community.
Joe Jones and Senita LenearThe panelists addressed both the positives — the fact that there are about 150 black-owned businesses to support in the city, for example — and the negatives, including, as Jelks mentioned, the staggering unemployment rate and people of color facing significant barriers to accessing capital.
So, how does Grand Rapids expand upon its existing network of black-owned businesses and depart from its place as the second worst city in the country for African Americans?
As Jelks said, much of it stems from acknowledging and addressing the issues facing the city’s communities of color. This means having some very open and honest conversations about difficult issues regarding, for example, racist bank lenders not giving business loans to people of color and companies not hiring and/or promoting people of color. After all, many of those who spoke during the event said, “West Michigan nice”only gets you so far  if you truly want to have a sustainably thriving city, access to opportunity is going to have to be open to everyone.
“We need to see if African American vendors are getting contracts,” Jelks said. “There are basic things we can do to make sure people are getting contracts. There are basic things we can be doing to make sure people are included in the mainstream conversation [about business opportunities]. This is a hyper segregated city, so, you know, when your Amway or your Steelcase or one of these other giants of industry are sending out communications about jobs and opportunity, that doesn’t necessarily reach our communities.”
Until that information does make its way into all communities, Jelks stressed that residents of color should reach out to people like Commissioners Lenear and Jones and Robinson at GRABB, as well as other neighborhood organizations and elected officials to find out about, and connect with, job and economic opportunities.
Of course, changing entire systems that have long excluded people of color is a complex process that means operating at numerous different levels simultaneously, from meeting people’s basic needs that are often going unmet because of inequality and racism to confronting companies that aren’t hiring people of color, the Town Hall panelists said.
“A lot of people are suffering at just your basic need level: Where can I sleep tonight? Where can I get something to eat?” Powell said. “We have to find ways to help people with basic needs meet those needs, whether it be food, shelter, childcare, so people can begin to think beyond just today.”
Jonathan Jelks, left, and Dwayne Powell Jr., right.For Jones, part of the solution lies in pressuring city and business leaders to make waves and not be afraid to stand up against institutionalized racism, whether that’s calling out businesses that are not hiring people of color or being outspoken advocates for business owners of color.
“I am acutely aware of the data that speaks to us being second to the bottom when it comes to African Americans and economic opportunities in Grand Rapids,” Jones said. “There’s a couple ways to look at that. One is, there’s nowhere to go but up. We could drop down one more slot, but I’m feeling the direction we can go is up.
“We live in a community, a region, that prides itself on entrepreneurship, family business, economic self sufficiency, the ethos of work  and yet those things don’t necessarily seem to show themselves, or avail themselves, to folks who are marginalized,” Jones continued. “... There were many folks who have tremendous influence in our city who were embarrassed about that Forbes report [that ranked GR as the second worst city for African Americans]. They’re not going to write an article about it, they’re not going to have a press conference about it, but that’s embarrassing. Because we’re a world-class city… A lot of what’s happening in our community right now is embarrassing, and so it’s a matter of finding those who are embarrassed enough to want to change the dynamic and disrupt some things. Because if disruption does not occur, we’re going to keep on getting what we’re getting.”
Part of that disruption, said Lenear, includes “pushing back on systems that are not respecting us as people.”
“That could mean not going to the same restaurant, the same church, the same institutions,” Lenear said. “Push back if they don’t have board members who look like you, members at the executive level who look like you. Stop supporting them. Those small boycotts will start sending messages. This happens at the nonprofit level all the way up to the corporate level. If they don’t look like you, they don’t deserve to treat you, they don’t deserve to care for you, they don’t deserve to try to meet any need you have if they’re not willing to have someone there to represent you. Representation matters.”

Ending the status quo: What GR is doing now to fight inequality
While much remains to be done, there is extensive work already being done by community leaders throughout the city to support black-owned businesses and increase access to economic opportunity for people of color  something which each of the panelists addressed.
Jelks spoke of his nonprofit, the Midwest Tech Project, which he and co-founder AJ Hills IV, launched this year to mentor young men of color (and they’re expanding it to young women next year) to connect them with jobs in the tech industry.
“There’s an opportunity in Grand Rapids to connect all these different, forward-thinking companies, connect the tech world to the Grand Rapids Public Schools and other schools,” Jelks said. “Tech is going to make up a huge percentage of the workforce. The service industry is being impacted; manufacturing is being impacted. You’re not going to be working in the factory so much as you’re going to be designing the code for the robots that are going to be working in the factories.”
At the city level, Lenear said elected representatives and government officials are working to hire more people of color.
“Within the next five to seven years, half of our workforce will be retiring,” Lenear said. “We need to diversify the city of Grand Rapids. We want the city of Grand Rapids to look like and mirror the community, and right now it just doesn’t. It mirrors what the community looked like probably 70 years ago.”
Additionally, the commissioner said the city is working to expand what are known as “Corridor Improvement Districts” (CIDs) in the city, including in communities of color. These CIDs allow communities to use tax increment financing to make capital improvements within an established commercial district. In other words, it allows neighborhoods to combine tax dollars from a variety of sources and keep that funding in their area for improvements.
“And we’re making developers do more community engagement,” Lenear continued. “We’re saying to [developers]: ‘You are no longer able to go into communities and do whatever you want without having meaningful engagement [with the residents and businesses].’ We’re making sure strong neighborhoods welcome what they want and get rid of what they don’t want.” [To read more about community engagement and development in Grand Rapids, you can go here.]
The future of equitable and inclusive business in Grand Rapids
When it comes to the future of ensuring everyone has access to opportunity in Grand Rapids and isn’t turned away from the banks, from corporate and nonprofit jobs, from working in restaurants and shops in gentrified neighborhoods, panelists said there are a number of things to consider. One of which, Jelks noted, is to support the already existing black-owned businesses, which can help to grow an increasingly strong economy for people of color (and that, of course, translates to a better economy citywide).
“Let’s make sure we support the 150 businesses on GRABB’s website right now,” Jelks said. “People say, ‘Well, where are the black businesses?’ There’s plenty of black businesses in our city, and they deserve our support.”
This network of black-owned businesses should grow, and Jelks noted the need for the community to get involved with neighborhood planning and advocating for their businesses in areas facing development.
“From a neighborhood level, we have to understand the gold mine we’re sitting on in southeast Grand Rapids,” Jelks said. “Grandville Avenue is a hub. There’s a lot of Latino businesses on either side; it’s a very walkable neighborhood; you have Cesar Chavez Elementary; you have the Hispanic Center  all these wonderful community institutions building a fabric of community over there. We need to duplicate the same thing on the southeast side. When you look at Franklin and Eastern, that can be Harlem for Grand Rapids.”
That, Jelks said, means that there must be, as Lenear said, a different approach to development in order to avoid the gentrification that results in an area’s existing residents and businesses being priced out of a community.
“My house is across from the Wealthy Theater, and I’ve benefited from the gentrification, but let’s call it what it is: It’s gentrification,” Jelks said in reference to Wealthy Street. “All the historic businesses, except for about one, are out of that area. I go to a lot of businesses in that area, and there are very few people who are employed there who look like the people I grew up with. The Baxter community isn’t benefiting from the boom that’s going on with Wealthy Street.”
So, how can the city avoid repeating this?
“We need to look at Franklin and Eastern, at Kalamazoo and Hall, the Burton area, different places on the southside and say, ‘What kind of businesses will work and get things going here?’ Jelks said. “Come see Jamiel, come see the Urban League, come see LINC and find out where you can get the resources you need to make your business sustainable and be an asset to that neighborhood.”
Both Powell and Jones stressed that mentorship must play a major role in paving the way for equity and inclusion in Grand Rapids’ business world.
“I hope you will leave here with a greater desire, or sense of urgency, with regards to availing yourself to someone who’s much younger than you,” Jones said. “You can provide what success looks like. The fact that they look like you, and you’re successful. I grew up in the D [Detroit], and all the successful people I saw looked like me. It was hammered in my head that I could do anything.”

How you can get involved

To learn more about supporting Grand Rapids' black business community, you can connect with the organizations and people mentioned in this article:

Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses
Jamiel Robinson
The Midwest Tech Project
Grand Rapids Urban League
City Commissioner Senita Lenear
City Commissioner Joe Jones

Dwayne Powell Jr.

There are, of course, other organizations and individuals involved in this work that aren't mentioned here. If there are organizations or individuals whose efforts to create a more equal economy in Grand Rapids are inspiring to you, please feel free to write about them in the comments below.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. You can reach her by emailing [email protected], or connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.
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