Inside Track: Exposure can change a life

Salvador Lopez’s work with KConnect promotes a ‘cradle-to-career’ approach to community impact.
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Salvador Lopez’s parents moved to Michigan from California in part to provide a better way of life for their children. Courtesy Dreams by Bella

Salvador Lopez, president of KConnect, has a passion for empowering others. His personal experience with struggle, grit and perseverance motivates him to make a positive impact in his community of Kent County.

Born to a family of farm workers in Salinas, California, Lopez grew up in a bilingual area of low-income residents. He said it was an area very limited in resources, so his family moved to Michigan when he was beginning high school for better opportunities.

At the time, the Grand Rapids area gave Lopez’s family the opportunity to purchase a home and take their son and daughters to a better school.

“They also didn’t want me to grow up in an area where there was a lot of gangs and violence,” Lopez said.

In his freshman year of high school, he transitioned to Northview High School, which had a predominately white student body. Before then, Lopez had only gone to schools that were bilingual and mostly Hispanic.

“It was a big cultural shift for me to go to a school such as Northview at the time,” he said. “When I was in California, the type of kids that got bullied were kids that were smart – kids that got good grades,” Lopez said. “In Michigan, specifically Northview, kids that got low grades were made fun of, so the shift in terms of education and what education means was something that caught me by surprise.”

Additionally, growing up in a predominately Hispanic community in California, Lopez said he was only made aware of his ethnicity when he went to Northview. Even through his junior year, classmates thought he was a foreign exchange student and would ask him if he was going back to his country after high school.

But his experience at Northview also led him to meet students and families he otherwise would never have met. One of Lopez’s high school friends was the son of the vice president of radiology at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, who offered Lopez a job at Saint Mary’s in 10th grade.

“One of the things I often say – I don’t believe anybody else has said it – is exposure can change a life,” Lopez said. “I believe who you are exposed to changes your future.”

Lopez’s job at Saint Mary’s was initially to hang films like X-rays, MRIs and CT scans – the hospital wasn’t as digitized as it is now – but by the age of 18, he became the supervisor for film hangers. The experience also exposed him to a group of working professionals who mentored him throughout high school and into college.

Lopez said he’s had numerous mentors – men and women – in the health care and nonprofit sectors who helped shape the way he works and leads others.

“Certainly, my parents’ work ethic and never-ending belief in their children is a big part of me,” Lopez said. “So, I would say having parents that really took chances, made difficult decisions, changed their entire lives so that their children could have a better future has made a big impact on me.”

After working at Saint Mary’s for almost eight years, Lopez transitioned to become director of language services for the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.

Lopez obtained both his B.A. in Spanish and Latin American Studies and M.S. in Communications with an emphasis in inclusion and equity management from Grand Valley State University. After three years with the Hispanic Center, he returned to GVSU and became involved in initiatives to help underrepresented students through collective impact and systems work.

While the university had a variety of well-intentioned people working to reach those underrepresented groups, organizationally they were disconnected, Lopez said. Although unintentional at the time, he was able to bring together people from different departments for the common goal of recruiting and retaining Latinx students.

The initiative, dubbed Laker Familia, became part of a movement that changed the way the university helped underrepresented students. While Lopez’s focus was specifically on Hispanic/Latinx students, it spread more broadly to all underrepresented demographics on campus.

“It was a program that had a domino effect on the way the institution works with underrepresented communities, including the African American community and the Native and Asian American communities, eventually,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s work in collective impact with Laker Familia introduced him to KConnect and its “cradle-to-career” approach to community impact. He found many of the skills he’d developed in the health care and nonprofit sectors, as well as at GVSU, equipped him well to become the next president of the organization.

Lopez said collective impact ultimately is a form of getting people from different sectors to row in the same direction. In his case, the goal with collective impact is racial equity in a given community.

“Collective impact allows us to, one, get to know one another and know one another’s work, and two, find a way to work with each other for a common purpose,” Lopez said. “And you hope the common purpose is equity and stability for all.”

KConnect’s main goal is closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students and also increasing achievement for all students, from pre-natal to college and career, hence its “cradle-to-career” approach.

Lopez said the process is data-driven and has work groups and facilitators who come together on the different areas of the cradle-to-career continuum.

“That is the scope of our work, but it’s also difficult to explain,” Lopez said, laughing. “There’s no easy way to do that, but what we try to do is use collective impact and systems building to do this broad work.”

The three core work groups within KConnect are prenatal to third grade, fourth grade to 12th grade and high school to career. Each group pools together resources from dozens of community partners, service providers and experts who examine the system of supports and improve results for students.

Specific projects for KConnect include the birth equity initiative, a two-part strategy the prenatal to third grade work group developed in 2018 with the goal of increasing the likelihood for women of color in Kent County to have a baby over five-and-a-half pounds.

Lopez said KConnect found not receiving doula services was related to disparities in prenatal health, which in turn affect a child’s path to economic prosperity. The work group launched the doulas of color equity pilot.

A doula is a nonmedical assistant in childbirth who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother and family before, during and after her birth experience.

The Business Journal previously reported the pilot was developed for more than a year by KConnect with local, state and national partners and addresses birth disparities by ensuring expectant women of color have access to culturally responsive care by doulas of color.

Housing also has been a major component of KConnect’s work for the past couple of years. Lopez said KConnect’s data-driven approach brings to light disparities in housing. The organization found one in six African American children in Kent County were in the homeless system in 2019, compared to one in 130 Caucasian children during the same year.

KConnect convened partners based on those findings and a common agenda to create a road map to diminish those disparities. The plan, called “Redefining the Path Home: System Building for Housing Stability in Kent County,” was developed over two years of cross-sector engagement, including representatives from the public and private sectors, philanthropy, nonprofits and education.

The plan identifies nine root causes of homelessness, including systemic racism, a lack of a cohesive strategy among providers and the prevalent idea that homelessness is an individual rather than a systemic problem. In addition to data analysis, it brings together community voices and a commitment to make Kent County a more equitable place to live.

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