Inside Track: Learning to trust her voice

Erika VanDyke builds platform to amplify silenced voices and increase community justice.
During her time in Guatemala, Erika VanDyke spent two months learning Spanish and was not allowed to speak English. Courtesy Duane Bacchus Photography

Building relationships with the Latino community in Grand Rapids that she didn’t have growing up changed the direction of Erika VanDyke’s life and led her to her current job in community philanthropy.

As program officer with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a role VanDyke has held for two years, one of the things she said she is most proud of is working with a network of Latinx leaders in West Michigan to help establish the foundation’s La Lucha fund in April that had raised $735,000 as of Nov. 11 and helped about 1,200 undocumented families receive COVID-19 relief dollars as of Nov. 30.

The effort was cited as one of the factors that won her the 2020 Grand Rapids Young Professional of the Year award in October from the Grand Rapids Young Professionals group.

To understand her ability in her professional life to build bridges and elevate voices that aren’t being heard, VanDyke said it’s important to know more about her intersectional identities as a transracially adopted, bisexual Latina woman.

VanDyke was born in Bogotá, Colombia, to a young mother who was from the mountains where coffee is grown. She had lost her own mother as a child, but with “stubborn determination,” she earned a 10th grade education, a rare feat for someone in her situation. She moved to Bogotá at age 16 and by the time her daughter — VanDyke, named Carolina Torres at birth — arrived, she already had a 2-year-old son. When she realized she couldn’t care for her daughter, she took her to the Foundation for the Assistance of Abandoned Children (FANA), a private orphanage in Bogotá. At eight weeks old, VanDyke was adopted by a white couple as their first child. They went on to have three biological children after her, and she was raised in Grand Rapids in a white neighborhood; was part of an insular, Dutch Reformed faith community; and attended a mostly white Christian school.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to see myself reflected in a lot of spaces until I was older, and I didn’t realize, as a result of that, how important it was to have those windows and mirrors,” VanDyke said. “My identity formation was a struggle. But at the same time, growing up in that space also gave me access to social and cultural capital (and) economic stability that opened doors for me. When I was in high school, I had a part-time job, but I also got to volunteer a lot because I wasn’t responsible for helping pay the rent or bills, and that opened other doors for me into the future.”

Although VanDyke said her parents loved her and tried to do everything they could to make her feel wanted and supported growing up, she wasn’t taught about her culture and felt like — and still feels like — she lives in a middle ground, a gray space she calls the “both/and,” where often people think she is “too Latina to fit into white spaces, but too white to fit into Latina spaces.”

Grand Rapids Community Foundation
Position: Program officer
Age: 31
Birthplace: Bogotá, Colombia
Residence: Grand Rapids
Business/Community Involvement: Communications coordinator of the Latino Community Coalition; member of the Urban Core Collective Transformational Leadership Alumni Advisory Board
Biggest Career Break: Her work with FoodCorps, a program of AmeriCorps, after finishing her undergraduate education. “It really gave me the opportunity to connect with a lot of community organizations in Grand Rapids. … Those relationships I still maintain, and they’ve helped me all along the way.”

Through her upbringing and her high school volunteerism, VanDyke said she learned the value of community. Interested in people and what drives them, she obtained degrees in psychology and women and gender studies at Grand Valley State University and earned a master’s degree in ecological and community psychology from Michigan State University in 2014.

But it wasn’t until post-college, working with community partners through the FoodCorps program of AmeriCorps, and later post-grad school at the Kent School Services Network, that VanDyke began forming relationships and building a deeper network of Latina women and people of color in West Michigan.

Stacy Stout, who then worked at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and is now assistant to the city manager of Grand Rapids, six years ago co-founded the Latina Network of West Michigan and invited VanDyke to meetings. Through that group and its brother organization, the West Michigan Latino Network, VanDyke formed many relationships she still has today, including with women she describes as great encouragers — Stout, Michelle Jokisch Polo and Brandy Arnold.

“I’ve experienced that love and grace from my community, and so, when people are new (to the area) or looking for ways to get connected, I love being able to direct them to the Latino or Latina networks or some other affinity group, because as people of color, we need that,” VanDyke said. “Sometimes, we’re the only ones that are looking out for each other.”

With the support and encouragement of Jokisch Polo and VanDyke’s then-partner, who was a fluent Spanish speaker, VanDyke took the leap to not only visit her home country and learn more about her birth mother, but to spend eight months learning Spanish through immersion programs in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico from January to September 2016.

“My family doesn’t speak Spanish, and they didn’t have the connections to the networks that they needed to really give me that kind of education and cultural learning, and so when I had the opportunity to go and learn, it opened doors professionally, but it was also just really important personally to go into those spaces and all of a sudden see myself reflected everywhere,” she said.

During her three months in Bogotá, she began with a foundation of grammar and vocabulary and then learned to understand spoken Spanish. When she was in Guatemala for two months, she had one-on-one Spanish instruction for five hours a day and was not allowed to speak any English.

“I got to have so many amazing conversations. We talked about gentrification, women’s beauty standards and things like that, and I was just trying to find the words to make sure that my teachers and I (were) communicating. It was amazing; it was a really positive experience. … Guatemala is really what got me talking.”

When she moved back to Grand Rapids, she took a job as community school coordinator for KSSN, where she already had been connected for several years as a volunteer, then as an intern in grad school. She was based at West Elementary, which has over 40% Latino students, and was one of only a handful of people in her building who could speak Spanish, which often meant she took phone calls from non-English speakers because no one else could do it.

“It wasn’t fair (to the families) that there weren’t more Spanish-speaking staff in that school,” she said, but added she was grateful to be able to help reduce barriers to information and success.

Her role as coordinator was to be a bridge between families, school staff and teachers, and community partners, which she said gave her a large network of resources she has been able to draw upon in her current role as program officer at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

While working at KSSN, VanDyke got involved with the Latino Community Coalition (LCC) in a volunteer capacity, with one of her functions there being the coordination of external communications and partnerships.

When it came time to put on her GRCF hat and find ways to help the community during COVID-19, VanDyke was able to leverage her LCC connections to help build the La Lucha Fund — or “the Struggle Fund” — for undocumented families. Five organizations that make up Latinx GR — the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, the Latino Network, the Latina Network and the Latino Community Coalition — were able to work with the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network (GRAMAN) and Movimiento Cosecha GR to figure out how to collect money for undocumented families and distribute it through GRCF.

After Latinx GR had studied GRAMAN’s aid model and other models across the country, GRCF agreed to be the “back-end” partner collecting donations and granting them to the Hispanic Center, which in turn distributed them.

VanDyke said she is proud that the entire process of setting up that fund — which garnered far more donations than expected and continued longer than it was designed to — was guided by the Latinx community in a way that would positively impact undocumented families, and that the community foundation followed the voice of the people in setting it up.

She said this is a perfect example of leaders using their platform to make space for and amplify voices that typically aren’t being heard or that often are intentionally silenced.

“A lot of times, we hear about people giving a voice to (someone) … and I think that that’s really problematic, because everybody already has a voice. There are a lot of political and social reasons why certain voices are silenced. … It’s less about giving voice to someone and more about making sure that we’re amplifying those voices.”

VanDyke said while the La Lucha Fund was only meant to meet short-term needs during COVID-19 and will come to an end when the funds run out, she sits on the foundation’s Latino Advisory Committee and through that will work on other initiatives to benefit communities of color, including via a Catalyzing Community Giving grant GRCF recently received from the Kellogg Foundation.

As her career continues, VanDyke said she wants to keep leveraging the power and privilege her “both/and” status gives her to build up young people and those who have been marginalized, so that Grand Rapids becomes a more equitable place for future generations.

“Philanthropy developed as a way for wealthy white people to be able to feel good about what they’re doing with their money, and as a tax haven. We have to rethink it entirely if we’re going to do good,” she said.

“That means making sure that we’re funding organizations that are led by people of color at all levels. It means funding general operating support sometimes, not just programmatic support. It means looking at advocacy opportunities like, how can we make sure that we’ve got that balance of patience and zeal, with patience being the long game with long-term policy solutions … and zeal being meeting the immediate needs?

“ … We have to make space for communities that have been deliberately not supported. … The ones that are closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

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