Chamber reimagines OutPro Council

LGBTQIA+ networking group expands mission to be a ‘driving force’ in local education, advocacy.
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OutPro, an LGBTQIA+ professionals group within the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, is undergoing a transformation.

The Grand Rapids Chamber said in February it transferred the OutPro Council, a group established in 2013 and previously led by the chamber’s diversity and inclusion team, under the leadership of the chamber’s talent development team — a move the organization said would put the council on an even footing with its other leadership and professional development programs. These include ATHENA Grand Rapids, Leadership Grand Rapids, Leading Edge, LeadUp and others.

OutPro previously provided a platform for LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies to network at social and professional events, but now it is expanding its mission to be “a driving force in community education and advocacy.”

Monica Mendez. Courtesy Grand Rapids Chamber

Monica Mendez, talent development manager at the Grand Rapids Chamber, and Rowan Leo, account manager at 8THIRTYFOUR Integrated Communications and a member of the OutPro Council, recently spoke to the Business Journal about the group’s new focus.

Mendez, whose pronouns are she/her, said when the chamber made changes within the past year to its inclusion team, she and Mel Trombley, director of leadership programs, took the opportunity to advocate for moving OutPro under the talent team’s oversight to concentrate on aligning its programming with community needs.

“There had been, in the past, some issues that had kind of truncated the relationship a little bit between the council and the chamber, so Mel and I were very, very intentional about making sure the council was really involved moving forward with what we wanted the mission and the vision to be,” Mendez said. “We wanted to make sure that the council was part of that and that their input was part of this new rebranding of OutPro.”

At the end of 2021, the chamber hired Grand Rapids-based Urban Curry Consulting to lead a strategic planning session to help assess what wasn’t working and what they wanted to prioritize moving forward.

“We wanted to be the driving force for the LGBTQIA+ community within the business community — not just the social networking aspect of it, but what else we can do to be personal advocates within our organizations, within our circles,” Mendez said.

Rowan Leo. Courtesy 8THRTYFOUR Integrated Communications

Leo, who identifies as asexual and genderqueer and whose pronouns are they/them, has been with the council since fall 2019 and was on board when the chamber presented the changes it would be making.

“Since then, we’ve been able to start propelling toward what it seems like OutPro was trying to grow into without really knowing how — focusing on being a welcoming place and creating that bridge, because West Michigan gets a bad rap for being very conservative sometimes, and that could be hard for people who are looking to (come here) and don’t know much about the area,” Leo said. 

“We wanted to brand (OutPro) as a bridge to say, hey, here’s how you can learn about the community if you’re not a part of it, and if you are a part of it, here’s the resources that you can have. It’s been interesting to see the progression in the short time since.”

Part of the transformation of the group has included going deeper with its events, inviting subject matter experts to give talks on topics that are of importance to the LGBTQIA+ population, such as public policy, human resources and strategies for public education.

The group’s first event for 2022, on the subject of public policy, was hosted in partnership with the chamber’s government affairs division at Creston Brewery on March 8 and featured Andy Johnston, senior vice president of advocacy and strategic engagement for the chamber. 

Attendees received an Empower Toolkit that contained information on local schools, government and political officials, as well as a “terminology 101” sheet to educate people on the common terms and definitions used within the LGBTQIA+ community.

“We understand that people are in different stages of their journey,” Mendez said. “I think a lot of the time, people are fearful and embarrassed to ask questions, and so the Empower Toolkit is just precisely that — empowering people, if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions out loud, to at least have the information and the tools to be great advocates.”

Mendez and Leo both stressed OutPro events and discussions are open to allies and the general public, as well as to those who identify as LGBTQIA+. Additionally, chamber members and nonmembers are all welcome.

“A huge part of the magic of impact happens through meaningful connections,” Mendez said. “We want to make sure that we’re connecting people with (others) who they would not generally connect with otherwise organically in their daily lives.”

Leo echoed the importance of the social component.

“We have this idea of ‘other,’ and as soon as you know somebody who falls under ‘other,’ it’s so much easier to dispel those ideas that you had, because now you have somebody you can actually talk to like they’re a real person,” Leo said. “Those relationships really work.”

They added the educational piece will include, but not be limited to, making the business case for inclusion.

“(It’s) being able to say, hey, here is the data that says doing this helps you in the long run. This is not just an opinion. This is not just us trying to be progressive. According to this data, your business will succeed and do a lot better if you do this,” Leo said. “If for no other reason, if you are only motivated by finances, that’s a (fact) that we can point to.”

Speaking as a Chicago native who has lived in the Grand Rapids area for 10 years, Leo said there has been a shift in the past decade toward openness.

“I feel like West Michigan is really taking the initiative to move forward. Obviously, there will always be work to be done — I mean, I have work to do, too — but it’s really cool to see that progression and to see West Michigan saying, hey, this is a place for everybody, and we want people to feel that and want to put our actions behind those words.”

Mendez said the chamber currently is reviewing applications from individuals who want to join the OutPro Council, whether they identify as LGBTQIA+ or as allies. Those interested can email her at monica@grandrapids.org or visit grandrapids.org/talent-development/outpro to learn more.

Current members of the OutPro Council include Leo; Kayla Benda, with Oh Hello Branding Group; Wayne Bersano, New York Life Insurance; Roya Bruce, Steelcase; Courtney Failer, Warner Norcross + Judd; Janelle Hill, Arbor Circle; Charissa Huang, Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge; Carlos Kulas-Dominguez, Cherry Health; Jennie Knight, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine; Elisa Perez-Arellano, Inclusive Empowerment Services; Megan Persons, Grand Rapids Public Schools; and Jeff Sorensen, Out On The Lakeshore.

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