Inside Track: Enriching the culture of Grand Rapids


Michael Van Denend said he is inspired by his children, many of whom have experienced other cultures and are fluent in different languages. Photo by Justin Dawes

Thirty-three years is a long time to spend in one job. That’s what Michael Van Denend did, and then he changed careers.

The former executive director of the Calvin College Alumni Association now is the executive director of the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan.

Van Denend, 61, loved working at his alma mater. He interviewed alumni in many career paths — physicists, aid workers in Sudan, biologists, kindergarten teachers, politicians, business executives, foresters — from all seven continents; one woman he interviewed was working at the South Pole.

But when Calvin offered an early retirement incentive for employees over age 60, he started considering another vocational adventure.

The first job posting he saw was the one for his current position. He was immediately captivated, and he went for it.

“Late in your career, if you’re going to change careers, it better be something you’re interested and passionate about,” Van Denend said.

He started the position in October 2017 and will work with his predecessor, Dixie Anderson, until he takes over fully in the new year.

The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan is one of 100 such organizations in the country. The council brings notable speakers from across the world to Grand Rapids for lectures and presentations, hosting more than 40 programs each year. They are open to the public and are either free or a “modest” cost.

Past speakers include former U.S. President George W. Bush, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, former Poland President Lech Wałęsa, former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Barak and, most recently, Tommy Remengesau Jr., president of the Republic of Palau and a Grand Valley State University graduate.


World Affairs Council of Western Michigan
Position: Executive Director
Age: 61
Birthplace: Chicago
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Loni Van Denend; sons, Benjamin, Zachary, Luke, Jacob, Brent and Landon; daughter, Leah; five grandchildren
Business/Community Involvement: WYCE on-air volunteer programmer, active church member, former neighborhood association president
Biggest Career Break: “Because I wanted to run track my senior year of college, I didn’t student-teach for an education degree and instead graduated with a straight English major and went on to grad school in higher education administration. That changed everything.”


Van Denend said it’s important to note the council is nonpartisan. The point is not to promote one point of view or the other but to host “very, very knowledgeable” people who can facilitate discussion with “wisdom and civility.”

He said the public can trust the council researches heavily and only invites the most knowledgeable people in their respective fields from a variety of backgrounds and points of view.

“You may not agree with their conclusion and perspective, but they’ve done their homework,” he said. “They know what they’re talking about.”

Van Denend said he is honored to succeed Anderson, whose work during her 22-year tenure has blossomed the council into what it is today.

“Dixie and the leadership of the council here have positioned our council as being one of the most respected and watched councils in the county,” he said. “We’re a relatively small council but, on the other hand, do programming that rivals major cities.”

One of Van Denend’s focuses going forward is getting the word out. While he believes the council is known within the Grand Rapids business community, he realizes the public may not be as aware of the organization and its programs.

“I just encourage everybody who is interested in international affairs — which we all should be because they affect us so readily — to be engaged,” he said.

Van Denend added he would like the people of Grand Rapids to be known as “globally astute” and “internationally aware.”

“That’s going to draw more businesses here,” he said. “That’s going to draw more people to live here. And that’s going to make us better positioned to continue our growth.

“For them to come here and find a smart and aware and knowledgeable community — they’re going to want to stay and contribute to that.”

Van Denend said he has been thinking how to “pass the baton” to the next generation of leaders in Grand Rapids. He also said he wonders how interested the next generation is in global issues — he suspects more, perhaps, than previous generations because of their access to international information.

He enjoyed his college experience but said there weren’t as many opportunities to study abroad. Now, there are many opportunities, and it’s not uncommon for the generation of emerging leaders to have friends from other parts of the world.

Many of his seven children have had overseas experiences. He has a son who lives in Bangkok and speaks fluent Thai, another son who speaks Japanese and a daughter-in-law who speaks French.

He said his children’s actions have inspired him and his wife to further explore their interests in global affairs. The interest and openness to other cultures always have been there, though. It’s one of the reasons he loved his job at Calvin so much.

His house is full of art from all over the world, and he volunteers in a weekly three-hour radio spot on WYCE (88.1 FM), part of the Community Media Center. It’s his favorite station because it’s the only one he has found that plays world music. He is most interested currently in the variety of music coming from countries in Africa.

Van Denend said he hopes he can direct this interest in arts and culture into a development with the council. He already has made some connections with arts organizations in the community and has some ideas of how to partner. The arts offer another way to learn about the world and may be key in bringing in the next generation.

“People learn through arts and culture just as much as they do through speakers and presentations, maybe more so,” he said.

Van Denend and his wife, Loni Van Denend, have taken a personal interest in helping those in need from other countries.

They’ve provided service work in Haiti several times, and they have a heart for refugee issues. Their church, Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, along with Bethany Christian Services, has brought several families seeking refuge into the area, most recently a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The two recently helped support emerging Grand Rapids nonprofits that deal with refugees: Treetops Collective, dedicated to the long-term success of refugee women in West Michigan, and Refugee Education Center, an organization that helps refugee families adjust to their new lives.

Van Denend said he hopes his work on the council can reach the community members, create a more “vibrant” culture and foster a better understanding of the world we live in.

“I’m excited to be a part of this,” he said. “I think it’s got a very strategic, important role in our community.

“I hope that the entire Grand Rapids community can be reached by what we do. Because there isn’t one of us that isn’t affected by what goes on in the world every day, in some way, shape or form.”

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