Mayor names champions of diversity


George Heartwell, left, and Christopher Smit. Courtesy KCAD

A prominent educator and the executive director of an inaugural art festival is one of four disability advocates who were recently recognized as a Champion of Diversity by the mayor of Grand Rapids.

Christopher R. Smit, executive director of the inaugural DisArt Festival, received a Champion of Diversity Award from Mayor George Heartwell during the annual State of the City Address on Jan. 17 at DeVos Place for his long-standing advocacy work for the disabled.

In response to the recognition, Smit said he is deeply honored to receive the prestigious award from Heartwell.

“These awards are a symbol of our city’s commitment to becoming an accessible place for all people, especially those who live with physical and mental disabilities,” said Smit.

The inaugural DisArt Festival has been in development for more than a year with the collaboration of a number of organizations in the West Michigan region. Organizations represented include: Kendall College of Art and Design, Ferris State University, Disability Advocates of Kent County, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Calvin College and Arts in Motion Studio.

Oliver Evans, interim president at KCAD, said Smit deserves the title of champion when it comes to advocating for diversity.

“We have had the distinct pleasure of seeing his passion for changing perceptions and uniting communities manifest itself in truly incredible ways,” said Evans. “We’re proud to work alongside him.”

DisArt is meant to facilitate a dialogue challenging the perceptions of disability and ultimately influence a cultural change. With a mission to connect people through art, celebrate and honor disability as a natural human experience, educate people about the role of disability, and increase social inclusion, the festival is also designed to contribute to the sustainability of Grand Rapids in terms of accessibility and hospitality.

“The goal of the festival has always been to create conversations about living together in community,” said Smit. “Art has this wonderful way of challenging our expectations of one another, while at the same time offering us a common thread of experience.”

As executive director of the festival, Smit also worked collaboratively with the mayor’s office to create the event, which is considered part of the larger initiative developed by the city of Grand Rapids for 2015 to become the “Year of Arts + Access.”

“Chris Smit is a dynamic leader who knows how to get things done,” said Heartwell. “Physical disability is not a limiting factor on creativity. No one proves that better than Chris.”

Smit, who also serves as director of KCAD’s Arts and Access Initiative, board member of the Disability Advocates of Kent County and a media studies professor at Calvin College, was recognized with three other disability advocates during the address: Rae Bower, Joanne Reeves, and Dave Bulkowski.

Both Bower, who served as a member of the Disability Advocates of Kent County and on the city’s Community Relations Commission, and Reeves, co-chair of Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts public relations committee, were honored posthumously. Bulkowski serves as the executive director of the Disability Advocates of Kent County and is a Kent County commissioner.

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