Growing roots: How Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is making the city's green spaces more inclusive

When the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks was struggling to connect with residents in underserved areas, they decided to change the way they were doing things. Part of that meant hiring a neighborhood liaison, Yiovanny Cornejo, who led the charge to make the city's green spaces more welcoming and active gathering places.
For the past few years, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks has organized annual neighborhood park clean-up days, for which volunteers from each respective area sign up ahead of time to help with some basic beautification projects.

When it came to Grand Rapids’ Clemente Park, however, the neighbors that signed up beforehand never actually showed — at least, not until Yiovanny Cornejo led the charge.

“They called it the ‘Clemente Curse,’ because every year they did a park clean-up for about 10 to 20 parks downtown, and Clemente was always the one park they could never get anyone to show up for,” Cornejo says. “The year that I joined, I broke the curse.”

Yiovanny CornejoHe started by reaching out to a local Hispanic radio station to put the word out, and with the help of various community leaders, the word quickly spread.

“We got close to 30 people there that year,” says Cornejo, who for the past two years has worked at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks as its neighborhood liaison until stepping down very recently for unrelated personal reasons.

“He said that in all of the years he’s been building Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, he's never seen so much color in the group,” Cornejo says, referring to Friends’ former executive director Steve Faber. “He said in the past it was mostly Caucasian people who came out for clean-up day, but that day we had people of every color out there together.”

Creating more inclusive neighborhood parks

The title of neighborhood liaison is a relatively new one for Friends of GR Parks and was created back in April 2014 as part of a two-year, $127,000 grant awarded to the organization by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with the charge of increasing "community engagement in park deficient neighborhoods through inclusive opportunities for designing, engaging and building a comprehensive plan for the community's physical assets.”

Tracey Flower“We decided to go after [the grant] because after the first few initial years of making progress through Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, there was still a big gap when it came to some of the neighborhoods in the communities that happened to be lower income with higher minority populations,” says current Executive Director Tracey Flower, who worked alongside Friends of GR Parks’ Margaret Studer, grant coordinator and director of the Urban Forest Project in allocating grant monies.

Though the $127,000 grant went to a few major major areas — the hiring of the neighborhood liaison position, tree planting and education, and what’s known as the BBQ & Beautify event series — it arguably can be said the latter of the two wouldn’t be quite so robust without the first.

“We wanted to extend our mission to make sure there was inclusion in all areas of the city,” Studer says. “Our mission is, basically, that we think everyone has the right to parks and green spaces and that it shouldn't matter what language you speak or color of your skin — everyone should have a safe park or green space in their community.”

Which is where Cornejo came in.

Yiovanny Cornejo: neighborhood liaison

Born and raised in downtown Grand Rapids, Cornejo was an early adopter and advocate of community engagement, getting involved with programs though his high school at age 15 before becoming an official staff member at LINC Community Revitalization, Inc.

With even more work experience in the restaurant and landscaping businesses, Cornejo says the job at Friends of GR Parks felt uniquely suited for him — a way for him to both work with the community’s youth, whom he identified and connected with, and a way for him to keep advocating for good environmental stewardship, something he’d grown an appreciation for thanks to programs at Roosevelt Park that his grandmother had enrolled him in during the summer vacations throughout his youth.

“I had a lot of success with Roosevelt Park [because of] the personal connection with myself and the neighborhood, but also personal connections to the people I knew in that neighborhood,” says Cornejo, who in his role as neighborhood liaison joined forces with the local public schools, the YMCA, and other leaders in the Hispanic community to create a soccer league for low-income children in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood.

As numbers for the league began to grow, so did more community interest in the park in general, creating a starting point for taking what’s called a “buffer park” — or a park that is located in the poorly-lit, sparsely populated space between residential and industrial, versus the more ideal centralized space — and bringing it into the public focus.

From there, the Roosevelt Neighborhood Advocacy group was born — an informal but regular gathering of residents, organizations, and other local leaders who are taking an active role in accountability for their neighborhood’s public space.

“We get together, we chit-chat about what each organization is doing and how we can help each other and how every year we’re going to keep it rolling and keep the resources there and keep gathering for families to come together and mingle,” Cornejo says.

Creating safe spaces

Though the BBQ & Beautify series is a relatively new undertaking by FGRP, the summer community engagement program organizers invite neighbors to join in on a neighborhood dinner hosted directly after a 90-minute volunteer-led park project.

With two more BBQ & Beautify events left to go this summer — the first on Aug. 16 at Joe Taylor Park and the second Sept. 8 at Martin Luther King Jr. Park — attendees can choose to volunteer beforehand, or just come by and grab a bite.

It’s the kind of informal avenue for community dialogue that Cornejo found his stride in as neighborhood liaison, managing to traverse common ground between residents, city officials, and other local organizations in resolving issues that started with something as small as tree planting and ended somewhere as massive as mediating gang tension.

“Something I learned coming up in the streets there is that it’s easier to work with [gangs] than against them,” says Cornejo, whose mediation between two rival gangs in the area to create a "no graffiti zone" may have been one his seemingly smaller, yet most poignant, acts as neighborhood liaison.

Tracey Flower, left, executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, and Margaret Studer, right, grant coordinator. “I had talked to them about stopping the graffiti; I had talked to them about opening their eyes to these nonprofits that are helping to bring in programs for their kids, programs for their nephews and nieces, for their brothers and sisters, and showing them the artwork that was done at the park and the artwork that was being done throughout the streets,” he says.

Before the collective public investment in these so-called buffer parks, Cornejo says numerous children were afraid to walk down their own street at sundown. These days, however, those same parks are now filled with volunteers planting trees, little league soccer games, and community cookouts — just a few small catalysts for a much larger shift in how kids and adults alike are interacting with one another.

“It’s a huge impact to have good parks in these neighborhoods — these families don't have access to cars, and sometimes it’s hard for them because they have multiple kids to jump on a bus…it makes a huge difference when they can walk right down to their neighborhood park and it makes a huge difference with respect to drugs and violence, because now you’re creating a version of that old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” Cornejo says. “That child isn’t alone anymore."

To learn more about Friends of Grand Rapids Parks or any of its programs, visit

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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