Young Professional Spotlight: Brandy Arnold

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was once asked “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” Justice Ginsberg quipped “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.” The Supreme Court of the United States consists of nine justices. The question then is, when will there be enough women in leadership in Grand Rapids? There will be enough when all positions of leadership are filled by women.

The future is decidedly female, and our city’s future is in good hands. 

Of all the many strong women leading our city, we had the pleasure of catching up with Kid’s Food Basket’s very own Brandy Arnold. 

RG: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? (Are you from the area, how do you identify, etc.)

BA: Oh you know, 30-something young professional. From a teeny tiny town about two hours north of Grand Rapids called FreeSoil. Yes, that’s the real name. You can Google it. I moved down here 15 years ago to go to GVSU and never left.

RG: Where do you work and how are you involved in the local community?

BA: I work at Kids’ Food Basket as youth and inclusion specialist. In this role, I engage schools, students, and families that we serve; work a bit in fund development; and co-lead our equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. I hear from students about their favorite items in their Sack Suppers, nutritious evening meals we serve in schools where 70 percent or more of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I hear from parents who say ‘thank you, it’s one less thing I have to stress about this week’ because they’re trying to figure out how to pay rent, keep the lights on, and keep the car running to get to work and after all that, sometimes there’s just not enough money for groceries.

We’re moving into an exciting new phase of programming with the addition of urban agriculture.

Our capital campaign right now is to build a new headquarters, giving us more space that is vital to serving schools currently on our wait list. The campaign will also support the farming of nine acres of land to grow produce for our Sack Suppers while connecting kids to where their food comes from through experiential learning. The great thing is that we’re able to increase the variety of produce that kids are introduced to. It is very empowering for students to help grow and harvest produce that is going to end up in their Sack Suppers. There is agency and ownership in that. I see food as a catalyst to explore economic justice, environmental justice, and racial justice. We have to be honest about systems that result in unequal access to food, especially healthy food, and work to reform them. Food is also community. It can bring people together, and that is the beautiful part.

I’m also involved in my neighborhood through the East Hills Council of Neighbors and serve on the board of The Spoke Folks, a nonprofit that’s connecting people to affordable, reliable bikes and providing cycling education so that all people no matter their cycling experience, background or economic status can ride safely and with confidence.

RG: Let's talk Grand Rapids. Are the city's culture and people supporting you as a person of color, and as a woman? Where can the city improve to attract more young talented professionals of color?

BA: There have been some important improvements in this area. Racial equity is being talked about in a way that was not happening when I first moved here. I’m grateful to many of our city leaders, Mayor Bliss, the City staff, and Commission for prioritizing this. It feels like we’re on an exciting precipice. There’s a buildup of energy, planning, and intention I don’t think we’ve seen before. But we as a city are still afraid to get uncomfortable. Many white people are afraid to give up a bit of their privilege to create a meaningful shift in our culture. I realize the benefit in meeting people where they are, but people of color in this city are travelling way too far for that meeting. We’re tired. POC who aren’t from here recognize this as soon as they move here, and it’s why many don’t stay.

I do feel supported, and it’s because I’ve found my spaces and my people. I’m incredibly grateful for this. There are some really great spaces, businesses, and initiatives being spearheaded by POC in GR, they just doesn’t always get as much publicity. Thank you to Rapid Growth for prioritizing some of it in your publication. It’s hard to know where your people are and where your safe spaces are as POC in this city, especially if you’re new. 

Recently, I sat down with a couple WOC who are fairly new to the city and I’m asking what are you interested in, where can we can we get you plugged in, where can you find the support you need. Because they’re telling me ‘I work and go home.’ They don’t have that connection yet. Supporting each other in those one-on- one ways can work on a smaller level. On a larger level, I’m not sure what the solutions are, to be honest. There are some really great programs and identify groups in GR that are supporting POC like Latina Network, Black Women Connect, Transformational Leaders Program, Latino Talent Initiative, Sisters Who Lead, and BLEND, among others. Let’s make sure employers are aware of those programs and can connect their staff. Let’s look to DC, Atlanta, Oakland, New York City, and others to see what they’re doing to support thriving multi-cultural spaces and places. More access to financial capital for POC to build those spaces and places. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the progress of new Start Garden initiatives. Less residential segregation–easier said than done, I know. More organizations and business should have cultural competency and bias training to create better workplace culture for diverse staff.

RG: As a woman of color (WoC) what current issues are most pressing to you?

BA: Intersectionality. Identity is so complex. I feel so fortunate to come from my family. It gives me such perspective. I’m biracial, as are two of my siblings and quite a few of my nieces and nephews, and we span the spectrum in terms of physical features and experiences. I talk to my one niece about what it means to her to be Afro Latina. I talk to other family members about the complexity of being biracial, but presenting as white. I talk to others about what it means to live life when people are thoroughly confused about your racial identify and make it their mission to put you in a box no matter how uncomfortable it may make you. For me, I’ve spent the last five years really diving into what it means to be a black woman, a biracial woman, and claiming all of those. Because I can. It was empowering to recognize that no one can define my identity but me.

I studied the Civil Rights movement quite a bit in college and what was amazing to me is the way that black woman were the backbone of the Movement. And for many of them, being black was their focus. They were not showing up in droves in the Women’s Rights Movement. It did not feel like it was for them. It did not recognize the heightened oppression of being both black and a woman. We’re still seeing this today. I struggle with any movement or person that can’t recognize intersectionality in a real way.

RG: What has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?

BA: I spent six years after graduating at a job that was fine, but wasn’t ultimately what I wanted to be doing. I’ve always had a passion for social justice and community building. I realized I wasn’t fulfilling that passion in a real way, and decided to shift my career into the non-profit space as well as getting more involved in the city.

My biggest obstacle so far also led to my growth. I think we’ve all heard it’s about who you know, and this is maddeningly true for Grand Rapids. I had the hardest time getting an interview, even after going back to school and getting my master’s degree. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even get so much as a form rejection email. I realized if I was going to stay here, I was going to need to hustle hard. Networking does not come naturally for me–it’s very energy depleting and can feel disingenuous. I try to do it in a way that works for me. I worked for a while as a freelance writer and put those journalist skills to use. I found people that interested me, that I admired, that were doing work that I wanted to get more involved with and asked them if we could get coffee, lunch, a drink so I could hear more about their story. I was on a mission! And I think it paid off. I still do it all the time. Having people that were connected to Kids’ Food Basket put in a good word for me when I applied made a difference. I’m thankful to all those I look to on a daily basis to help support my growth. An area that I’m focusing on is growing my leadership skills and supporting and connecting others, especially POC, so I can pay it forward a bit.

RG: What plans do you have for your career/projects/personal goals this year?

BA: This is a year of slowing down and zeroing in. I worked hard to get plugged into this community and there are so many important organizations and movements to get involved with that I have a hard time saying no. But I’ve been spreading myself too thin, and I’m really resonating with the phrase ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’ At Kids’ Food Basket, we talk about growth years and planning years, as we’ve grown so explosively over the last decade. You have to prioritize planning just as much as growth, and this year I’m slowing down, I’m planning, I’m learning, I’m figuring out how my skillset best matches with personal fulfillment and doing good–both personally and professionally. I need to get more grounded in home. I kind of live like I might move tomorrow, so 2018 goals are about getting some art up on my walls, staying home a bit more, keeping a couple houseplants alive.

RG: Anything else you would like to add, discuss, or share?

BA: Yes! Don’t sleep on our youth. I’m fortunate to be in our schools quite a bit through my role at Kids’ Food Basket and I am in awe of the beautiful talent and drive these students have. Just a couple weeks ago I was talking to three fourth grade girls in a robotics program. They were describing their most recent project, and I couldn’t understand half of what they were talking about. I was like ‘hydro what now?’ I loved it. These kids are so smart, but they need us.

Please, give a couple hours to mentor, speak in a classroom, donate resources schools might need, volunteer and financially support organizations like Kids’ Food Basket and so many others that are helping meet basic needs, support public education. These students are our community’s future and deserve the whole community’s support.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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