Isaac V. Norris, president and CEO of Isaac V. Norris & Associates, P. C. (IVNA) is a married father of three children and two grandchildren, with one on the way. He will proudly celebrate 30 years of marriage this year and has run and operated his own business for almost just as long.
Operating out of the Boston Square area in Grand Rapids, IVNA has managed to prosper and impact the community for over 27 years. According to Norris, his mother owned a business in the area, so when the opportunity came to purchase property locally for himself, he did and he focused on a field where he revealed a talent for design.
It was in 11th grade that Norris began his hands-on experience with architecture, shadowing another local African American architect, Judson Jones, for three years while finishing up high school and entering college. “To see the ups and downs he went through and see how he was able to thrive that was encouragement that if he could do it, I definitely could also,” says Norris.
Norris also points out the rarity of operating a minority-owned and operated architectural firm as a licensed architect, with African American architects making up a small percentage of architects overall. According to the National Association of Minority Architects
, the last census reported African Americans made up just 2% of licensed architects. This shortage or experience of not seeing many others like him in the field did not deter him as he grew his business; it encouraged him to give back to those who followed behind him with an interest in architecture. As a result, IVNA has hired several minority interns to help the next generation.
“That is my greatest commitment into showing them that if I can be a success as a licensed architect, then they, women and minorities, can get into this business,” says Norris, who holds a master’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in science with an emphasis in construction management. As a property owner, Norris also owns the property directly across from IVNA where his mother operated her business for at least 40 years.
The property at 1220 Kalamazoo Avenue serves as a full-circle moment not only for Norris, but also for Alita Kelly, founder of South East Market
and Chair of the Boston Square Business Association. Kelly, along with business partner and co-founder Khara DeWit, opened South East Market to the public at the property in January 2021.
Photo courtesy of Elbert Foster - Fostering Memories
“I chose the neighborhood because there were not adequate resources for healthy food here and we deserve that; our neighborhood deserves that option too,” Kelly explains, adding that the market serves as atonement, of sorts, for having lost both of her grandmothers to heart disease while not having access to better food options. An idea that manifested over five years ago, Kelly says the decision was made to move forward with bringing the vision of the market to life during COVID-19, a vision that she and DeWit both shared from the very beginning.
Kelly says she feels empowered to witness the neighborhood support as food justice is put into action throughout Boston Square. “I want people to see how powerful it is and how powerful it can be when you support the neighborhood and support the indigenous knowledge and wisdom that is already in the neighborhood,” says Kelly.
Norris is also supportive of the ideas and work that is to come from those within the community already planning for further growth and opportunities. “I am excited about Amplify GR
and its plans to create housing – additional housing – in the Boston Square area,” says Norris, referencing a nonprofit organization with a focus on education, housing, jobs, entrepreneurship and community well-being in Boston Square and other local neighborhoods. Norris feels that additional retail will bring forth even more people to the area. “I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
Southeast Strong is a series funded by the City of Grand Rapids that is focused on the multi-faceted neighborhoods of the city's southeast corridor. Through the exploration of the neighborhoods' entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and community members, the series' local storytellers will highlight the resiliency of resident voices and projects, especially during COVID-19 recovery.
Shanika P. Carter is an author, freelance writer, editor, and adjunct communications instructor. She is also the Principal Consultant of The Write Flow & Vibe, LLC (www.writeflowandvibe.com), offering writing, editing, and content development services to a variety of clientele, including fellow authors and businesses. Shanika is the author of the book To Lead or Not to Lead, which was released in 2019.