Community Catalysts designing a more equitable Grand Rapids

Equity-centered design consultancy, Public Agency at WMCAT, is looking for eight community members who want to be the change — right here in Grand Rapids. As a cohort of the Community Catalyst program, these diverse individuals will bring their lived experiences together to co-create equitable outcomes for Grand Rapids. Those interested can apply through September 7.

“Equity centered design is a process people can use to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems,” says Brandy Arnold, program manager, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT). “We are all designing something … even if we are not designers by trade.”

Whether it’s a nonprofit designing an event flyer or a municipality writing a new master plan, equity-centered design principles can help override racial and other biases to create communications, opportunities, and communities that truly reflect the wants, needs, and rights of all.

“Community Catalysts will have the opportunity to help create equitable outcomes, whether that is a new racial equity policy or program at a for-profit business, new programs or policies at the education level that impact so many children and families in our community, or a government-led initiative that changes policy,” Arnold says.

Why does Grand Rapids have a need for more equity-centered design? Arnold relates that the City has been simultaneously ranked as one of the best places to live, and yet one of the worst places economically to be a Black American. The cause: interlocking systems entrenched in institutional racism deny Black residents equitable access to housing, education, jobs, and justice.

“Equitable design elevates residents’ voices and seeks to understand what they truly want and need,” Arnold says. “The outcome can look a lot different when people from the community are leading rather than an out-of-town consultant.” 

Arnold relates that housing is a good example of how these systems interlock. Black people have historically faced racial bias when purchasing or selling their homes. While it may no longer be legal to discriminate, barriers like where a realtor shows them homes, more difficulty qualifying for mortgages, and home values being improperly assessed continue to create inequitable access. Because Black people face biases when trying to sell or purchase a home, they are prevented from building the generational wealth that has historically helped working class white families avoid the cycle of poverty.

“Oftentimes, we don’t see how these things are intertwined,” Arnold says. “A big one for a lot of folks, not only in Grand Rapids, is access to housing. Where people live determines what they have access to. It determines the schools you go to, the grocery stores you shop at, if there’s lead in your paint, and how the police show up in your neighborhood.”

In the past, WMCAT's Community Catalysts worked with the City to host the Housing Now community listening sessions that highlighted the need to make housing more accessible and affordable. They helped the City government reimagine the Neighborhood Match Fund application process, making it easier for small nonprofits and organizers in communities of color to access the funds. As a result, people reported they had fewer barriers to completing the application and, with funding received, were successful in creating projects, events, and initiatives within their neighborhoods.

Currently, Community Catalysts are working with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) to ensure equity in the Grand River restoration so that all people in the community have access to, and benefit from, the businesses and recreational opportunities that result.

“The Catalysts are gathering information from people in the city who are typically marginalized, particularly our Native American community, to direct the work of DGRI and help them create opportunities that will support people who are often left out of development discussions," Arnold says.

In addition to innovating solutions on a systems level, Community Catalysts are connected with paid work opportunities in organizations and businesses that are equally committed to co-creating equity-centered policies and programs. They will also develop capacity as leaders who can challenge and change those interlocking systems by design.

“This type of collaboration is critical if we want equitable outcomes prioritized when solving complex issues in our communities,” Arnold concludes. “WMCAT is really dedicated to seeing that our community is more equitable, and this is one more way we can do that.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Interim Innovation News Editor
Photos courtesy WMCAT


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