WestSide Collaborative bands together nonprofits for the common good

10 years ago, when Grand Rapids and the nation was hit with the Great Recession, GR's Westside, a predominantly working class neighborhood, felt the heat. "West Grand Rapids was particularly hit hard, housing had huge vacancy rates, people [were] struggling to find employment," says Westside Collaborative Executive Director Jim Davis. The decade that followed witnessed the transformation of a neighborhood increased diversity, a changing workforce, and eventual reinvestment into the area.

After eight years of struggling to serve the neighborhood and find their individual and communal voices, Westside nonprofits decided to band together to be better partners, to each other and to their shared clientele.

With the shared values of "equity, inclusion, and hope," resulting in "access and opportunity for all," these nonprofits—like The Other Way Ministries, the YMCA, Challenge Scholars, and Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids—formed the West Town collaborative. For the next two years, the group worked toward identifying their shared needs and those that were unique to the residents of their neighborhood. "They saw value in getting to know one another," says Davis, referring to a trait uncommon to nonprofits who are often competing for precious resources.

However, after two years, Davis says, "They were invested in an idea that hadn't come to fruition." Despite the passion and labor that went into the project, the group still hadn't cemented their mission, and in August of 2017, hired Jim Davis to serve as the executive director to assist them with the task.

Davis, at heart a music director with experience working at the local Interlochen Music Camp, was no stranger to combining the talent, skill, and personalities of many people into a smooth, working ensemble. Having also worked in public education for eight years outside of Flint, he is no stranger to poverty and the constant struggle for resources.

Knowing that this passionate group of people and organizations needed to define their mission to move forward, he began reviewing data and conducting interviews throughout the neighborhood. The common response to the mission of collaborative was "we become the neutral party that allows both space and staff assistance and financial support when needed for other organizations to get together and to amplify that work."

But what was "that work?" Seeking to further define "collective impact work," or the tasks that these nonprofits embarked upon together, Davis worked with member organizations to define their three main jobs: to identify gaps in service, to eliminate duplicated services, and to improving marginal services. They would do this by serving as referrals to member agencies, as well as forming specialized "work groups" to tackle specific problems within in the community.

One such work group is called "Sense of Belonging," which aims to improve the welcome and comfort for all groups of people in the neighborhood. With the priority to best represent and serve the Westside, each of these groups is made up of 50 percent Westside collaborative members (nonprofit staff), 40 percent represents marginalized communities or POCs, and at least two residents (these percentages can overlap). "We celebrate diversity at that table. We think it's essential," says Davis.

Working alongside community organizations like the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, the John Ball Area Neighbors, and the West Grand Neighborhood Organization, the Westside Collaborative provides a unique service by specifically banding together nonprofits.

"In no way do we duplicate their work, but we absolutely depend on neighborhood organIzations to assist in the efforts our non-profit community is putting forth in addressing common issues in West Grand Rapids," says Davis.

With a new name and a clearly defined mission, they hope to do this for years to come. Davis summarizes their work with this: "Our end goal is to improve the community at large…we want their quality of life to improve."
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