Every month, we get more and more transplants to our riverside city, so it can be easy to overlook the talent that’s been lying here all along. For people of color, West Michigan can feel alienating in contrast to cities like Atlanta, San Diego, Miami, and the Bronx. Yet many stay here and push forward the culture and help grow our community.
One such young professional is writer and activist Briana Ureña Ravelo, a long-time resident of the region and city. We were delighted to have the chance to catch up with her and pick her brain about how she came to be here, her experiences, and what she is currently working on.
RG: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? (Are you from the area, how do you identify, what are you currently doing for work and interest here in Grand Rapids)
: I am a queer, femme Afro-Latina of Dominican descent born to two Dominican immigrants in upstate New York, but I have lived in West Michigan since I was about seven years old, so I am more or less from here.
I have made my way around different communities while growing up specifically around music and the arts, but have been a writer, organizer, and activist since my teens, and that is the work I primarily do these days.
RG: Where did you study/grow up and how has that experience shape who you are?
: I didn’t attend college. I’ve jumped around in this area, but I have spent the bulk of my West Michigan life in Kentwood. It is a culturally diverse suburb that was formerly white and has experienced major white flight and an increase of poor people, often of color, displaced from Grand Rapids due to gentrification, along with refugees and immigrant families who cannot afford to live anywhere else.
I experienced both the beauty and positivity of living in a place with many different peoples and cultures in one city and the downside of increased policing, antagonism towards newer residents, specifically African Americans and other Black people, and the school-to-prison pipeline, etc.
Before that, I spent a few years in Comstock Park, where my family and I experienced a lot of racial microaggression to outright antagonism; the city was primarily white at the time and wholy inhospitable, [and] it was traumatizing in many ways. It really showed me about the covert and passive nature of a lot of the -isms, bigotry, and violence that occurs in many places in this city.
RG: What is your current work/passion?
: I have been really interested in learning discussing, writing, and organizing around misogynoir, LGBTQ communities of color, prison abolition, decolonizing the African diaspora, [and] Black and Indigenous solidarity lately.
I use the framework of mutual aid/grassroots organizing and try to make spaces and events Black women-centered, free, safer, inclusive, and police and alcohol-free as much as possible. I believe strongly in people power and that we, not those in traditional power and authority or within systems, can be trusted to get us free!
RG: As a woman of color (WoC) what current issues are most pressing to you?
: Misogynoir! Navigating not only the racism of white and non-Black people, but the colorism and anti-Blackness within my own family and community, and the way Black women are erased from conversations, communities and organizing even as we are regularly the spine of the work.
We have huge issues with racism, anti-Blackness, and erasure Grand Rapids for sure.
As an Afro-Latina, I generally work more in African American spaces because most of the Latinx community here is non-Black Central Americans and I deal with lots of racism and covert but still nasty judgement and assumptions. I get funny looks and asked “Y como sabes como hablar Español?” (How do you know how to speak Spanish?!) [by] people seemingly uneducated on the millions upon millions of Afro-Latinxs across the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. It is a hard thing to manage because in the past I would say Latinxs son mis gentes but that’s just not the case anymore.
RG: As a millennial, what has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?
: My path has jumped around everywhere due to the untraditional path I took but overall I’d say it is social justice-oriented community engagement and organizing, with a heavy media creation/communications facilitation aspect.
I find that the biggest obstacle I face is the need to be formally accredited by institutions, which is largely exclusive and dangerous despite my having ample experience, education, and know-how to do the work I’m passionate about. The intentional gate-keeping that gifts those with more privilege and ability to access those spaces for accreditation, but not necessarily the experience and expertise, is anger-inducing and leaves lots of great people underpaid and unemployed, and gifts merely going to school (which in my mind is not synonymous with education) or having connections over everything.
RG: How has Grand Rapids faired in helping support you as PoC?
: OK, so I’ll lay off a bit here. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for the city. Grand Rapids has taught me so much. I have met a lot of really amazing, kind, and radical people who have taught, guided, loved, supported and shown me so much since I was a kid, and continue to do so. I have been exposed to so much art and culture and different types of people in this city. But a lot of times I feel like a baby chick fighting its way out of its shell, with the city being the shell. The resistance that people can have against those who question the status quo or challenge them is often very stifling and restrictive.
RG: Anything else you would like to add, discuss, or share?
: Something my friends and I have been organizing around is mass incarceration, especially how it affects marginalized groups like Black women survivors of domestic violence.
Myself and fellow activists will be holding an event called a A Season of Solidarity!
This event is free, and you can learn more about it here
You can find out more about Briana Ureña Ravelo’s work by reading it here
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.
Photos courtesy of Briana Ureña Ravelo.