A multiorganization partnership unveiled a plan for creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for new Americans in Kent County.
The Gateways for Growth Grand Rapids/Kent County Steering Committee, comprised of representatives from the city of Grand Rapids, Kent County, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and Samaritas, debuted the Welcome Plan for Kent County at a virtual event Friday.
The city of Grand Rapids is one of 13 communities across America that received a Gateways for Growth (G4G) assistance award to become more welcoming to immigrants and refugees. G4G is a national initiative focused on helping communities develop multisector plans to be more welcoming to immigrants and refugees through a combination of tailored research, direct technical assistance and/or matching grants from New American Economy and Welcoming America. Grand Rapids received technical assistance and a monetary award of $12,500, according to the city last year.
The top five countries of origin for immigrants living in Kent County are Mexico, Guatemala, Vietnam, Bosnia and Canada.
“This comprehensive welcoming plan is a result of months of dedicated planning, community outreach and multisector collaboration,” said Mo Kantner, director of state and local initiatives at New American Economy, and Molly Hilligoss, Midwestern regional manager at Welcoming America. “Through two rounds of our Gateways for Growth program, we have had the pleasure of supporting and learning from the Grand Rapids community. We are excited about the tangible recommendations of this plan, and we look forward to seeing the community work together to ensure all residents are welcome and have pathways to success.”
The Gateways for Growth Steering Committee includes:
- Patti Caudill, diversity and inclusion manager, city of Grand Rapids
- Omar Cuevas, vice president of sales and marketing, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce
- Guillermo Cisneros, executive director, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
- Elvira Kovachevich, Welcome Plan project coordinator, Samaritas
- Lori Latham, communications and government relations director, Kent County
- Joel Lautenbach, executive director of development, Samaritas
- Stacy Stout, director of equity and engagement, city of Grand Rapids
The steering committee worked alongside a task force of 36 organizations from across the community.
Stout said the Welcome Plan is just the beginning of the partners’ work.
“It focuses on local efforts. However, there is much to do at the state and federal levels to advocate change and equitable inclusion of new Americans and other communities who face systemic racism and oppression,” she said. “We encourage you to leverage your influence to make change locally and at the state and federal levels and call on the community to explore what recommendations you as an individual or organization can impact.”
Cuevas said much remains to be done.
“One thing I am reminded of when I think of Grand Rapids and Kent County is that we know how to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” he said. “Immigrants are our neighbors, our friends, our customers and our co-workers. They are — we are — new Americans.”
Cisneros said in 2018, there were 2,031 immigrant entrepreneurs contributing to Kent County’s economy.
“I’m certain this number has only grown since then. Our immigrant entrepreneurs and business owners have faced and overcome many challenges and systemic barriers. I am always proud and energized by their resiliency but can’t help feeling like we have fallen short to their needs when I listen to the struggles their journeys contain,” he said. “However, this plan gives me hope that change is coming for our immigrant community.”
Lautenbach added new Americans are key contributors in the region that are often overlooked.
“The 2018 Report on the Economic Contributions of New Americans in Kent County highlights the importance of immigrants and refugees as a growing percentage of the population, as well as the outsized role they play in the workforce, especially in key industries like agriculture, manufacturing and hospitality or tourism,” he said. “We saw significant contributions to the tax base, incredible spending power and impressive entrepreneurship. But we also know simply living somewhere does not mean you belong.”
The goal of Gateways for Growth is to create a Welcome Plan that promotes welcoming, belonging and overall immigrant integration. Kent County’s Welcome Plan was guided by the voices of new Americans and their recommendations through surveys and focus groups that helped identify their top priorities and barriers to achieving those priorities. The results were then articulated in the Welcome Plan in late 2019/early 2020.
The Welcome Plan is structured to address each barrier within five categories: civic engagement, economic development, safe and connected communities, education, and equitable access to services.
Not one entity is responsible for carrying out the plan; rather, it requires everyone to find their place in the plan and collaborate to carry it out.
The plan is a living document that will be reviewed and revised according to successes and needs.