In Grand Rapids, Neighborhoods Are the Cornerstone of Racial Equity

May 31, 2019 - (4 min read)

In 2015, Grand Rapids was home to about 40,000 African-Americans, who made up between 20 percent and 21 percent of the population. That same year, Forbes magazine listed Grand Rapids, Mich. as one of the worst places for African-Americans economically in the United States.

But after the Michigan Department of Civil Rights released a report on the economic impacts of racial disparities in the city, Grand Rapids launched a citywide effort to improve racial equity and identify systemic barriers that exclude residents of color.

Addressing Systemic Racism

By supporting and developing initiatives focused on shifting power to residents, increasing resources and improving organizational skills for communities of color, the city of Grand Rapids worked to ensure that racial equity efforts were community-led and grounded in a community’s specific needs.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss started Grand Rapids’ racial equity work during her first year in office in 2016. The first two years of the city’s efforts included a focus on community power building and the development of racial equity tools.

“I was honest when campaigning that I didn’t have all the answers to addressing the racial disparities in our city,” said Mayor Bliss, who has been Grand Rapids’ Mayor since 2016. “I also emphasized that it was about systemic racism, which would need structural change—a challenging but doable task.”

In one of her first actions, Mayor Bliss led Grand Rapids to apply to be part of a Racial Equity Here cohort established by the Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE) and Living Cities, to help cities operationalize racial equity. She also used her first State of the City speech to highlight the city’s new commitment to advancing racial equity.

“The important thing for me—and what I have heard from the community—is that if we are going to eliminate racial disparities, we have to come together to collectively have a community-wide impact,” Mayor Bliss said.

Neighborhood Summits: A Power Shifting Tool

Building power in communities of color is a key aspect of the city’s racial equity values. Through initiatives such as the Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit, its Neighborhood Match Fund, and its Neighborhood Leadership Academy, the city strives to expand the narrative of racial equity beyond city hall.

The city’s annual Neighborhood Summit elevates resident voices and provides meaningful support for community members to understand their own power and build power collectively. Involving several hundred community members, the event seeks to advance racial equity and shift power within the city throughout its planning and execution.

Grand Rapids solicits proposals from the community to develop practical, skills-based workshops. During the summit, residents learn how to develop powerful organizations that engage in civic life and create opportunities for community-driven solutions.  In March, summit attendees practiced learning how to intervene when they witness or experience an instance of racist or oppressive behavior, also known as a micro-aggression.

Using Accountability and Root Causes to Create More Equitable Economic Development

The vision for Grand Rapids in 20 to 30 years is a city designed through a lens of racial equity.  Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington took on his role in October 2018 after being a leader for racial equity in the city of Austin, Texas. He believes Grand Rapids needs to create a culture that values equity, includes shared language, and understands the racial-ized impact of history in Grand Rapids and the United States as a whole.

The city manager’s office is currently developing accountability measures to build on the city’s racial equity toolkit and embed racial equity as a lens throughout the city’s continuous improvement processes. Grand Rapids plans to develop metrics that are disaggregated by race or ZIP code, and then publicly report those metrics and embed them in the city’s strategic plan.

For more information about the efforts to advance racial equity in Grand Rapids and elsewhere, see NLC’s Racial Equity and Leadership city profiles here. The series of city profiles is made possible through the generous contributions of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

About the Author: Aliza R. Wasserman is the senior associate with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative.