Diversity is our strength: GR receives grant to create welcoming task force for new Americans

New American Economy and Welcoming America recently awarded the City of Grand Rapids with a matching $12,500 grant to create a welcoming task force dedicated to researching the best ways to support new Americans in our community.
In October of last year, Rapid Growth reported on a new Gateways for Growth study that revealed the economic impact of immigrants in Kent County. “According to the report, Kent County’s 50,176 immigrants contributed $3.3 billion to the county’s gross domestic product in 2016,” reported RG writer Paul R. Kopenkoskey.

It’s this economic impact, as well as the desire to create a more welcoming community for all, that convinced New American Economy and Welcoming America to recently award the City of Grand Rapids with a $12,500 matching grant — alongside funds from Fifth Third Bank, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and others — to create a welcoming task force dedicated to researching the best ways to support new Americans in our community. This task force is the second step in the Gateways for Growth Challenge, a program created by New American Economy and Welcoming America that is designed to support and facilitate city-wide actions to welcome immigrant populations.

According to the press release, "Grand Rapids was chosen because of the city’s demonstrated commitment to developing and implementing concrete strategies that ensure all residents have access to the tools and support they need to succeed and build healthy, welcoming communities. Plus, the city was highlighted as a place where immigrants are already making local economic and communal contributions."

A partnership between Samaritas, the City of Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and other local organizations, this new task force will convene over the next 12 months to gather information about how best to serve, welcome, and do business with GR’s diverse immigrant population.

Photography courtesy of Samaritas.“There are certainly things that we can do to improve how we incorporate and integrate new Americans,” says Joel R. Lautenbach, CFRE, executive director of development at Samaritas. Samaritas has been serving Michigan’s lower peninsula for 85 years, with services like adoption, senior care, and refugee resettlement. “When you invest in people, and you help them stabilize … they in turn can be a catalyst, or have an impact on other people around them,” says Lautenbach, who himself worked in international development before joining the nonprofit six years ago.

For him, welcoming new Americans falls into three categories: human resources (employment), community development (nonprofit), and leadership development (civic, government). And if the task force can work to create opportunities on all of these fronts, they can begin to see true progress in welcoming immigrants into the fabric of our community.

"This task force for welcoming new Americans in West Michigan is important because until recently, it felt like nobody was paying attention to the contributions and impact that the new Americans have in West Michigan," says Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"It is necessary that our state and local government, other authorities, companies and organizations, and the rest of the community realizes the importance of welcoming and embracing other cultures and individuals that live in this area and contribute to the wellness of West Michigan," he continues. "If we care for others and give a hand to our neighbor, even if that neighbor doesn't look like us, we will be making sure that these individuals stay in West Michigan, which will have a big effect on the entire economy of the region in the long term."

For Stacy Stout, assistant to the City Manager of Grand Rapids, 12 months spent listening to the immigrant community will be the cornerstone to developing useful and lasting initiatives. “We must always confirm our understanding and our perspective with a more diverse audience that is actually living as immigrants,” says Stout. 

In her role representing the City, Stout will most likely assist in behind-the-scenes facilitation of events and listening sessions conducted by the task force. Having worked at the West Michigan Hispanic Center for seven years as its education director, as well as having a family made up of individuals of mixed immigration status, Stout has both personal and professional experience walking alongside new Americans. 

“My work and my focus and my journey has really been around racial equity and inclusion … which intersects with creating a welcoming community for immigrants,” says Stout. “Regardless of who they are or what they do, everyone has an opportunity to make this region more welcoming and inclusive.”

Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Rick Baker agrees that inclusion is key to both a welcoming environment — and to the economic success of its entrepreneurs. “It’s good to do the right thing … but this is beyond that," he continues. "It’s about creating an environment where people who want to be successful can be successful.” 

“I think the economic impact study was a great place to start with us because it shows the economic impact that immigrants are having on our economy," adds Baker. Now that the study has released and the task force assembled, the work of welcoming can begin.

Combining immigration welcoming services with tactical support and a focus on economic investment, the new Gateways for Growth task force will spend the next 12 months determining the best way to move toward a thriving, diverse community that incorporates new Americans. Because it’s the immigrants themselves — as well as those that walk alongside them on a daily basis — that have the power to instigate meaningful change.

“Everyone can be a part of this movement. And we welcome everyone to be a part of this movement,” says Stout.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Photo, with additional photos courtesy of Samaritas.
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