The voices coming out of Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods are getting stronger.
More than 400 community members gathered during the daylong Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit earlier this month to have their voices, best practices and innovative strategies heard.
The theme of the second annual conference was “Inclusion and Community Building” and featured a keynote address by community engagement leader Eureka People Smith, founder of Indianapolis-based Evolve! It also featured breakout workshops on affordable housing, neighborhood schools, economic and community empowerment, and race and equity.
The community-driven event was intended to provide an opportunity for a variety of stakeholders, elected officials and neighborhood residents to collaborate, innovate and provide recommendations.
Rachel Lee, summit co-chair and director of East Hills Council of Neighbors, said the event was an incredible opportunity for residents, stakeholders, nonprofits, private businesses and public organizations to come together.
“We are working toward making our city a better place by being together and by having residents and stakeholders use their expert voice about what is happening in their neighborhoods,” said Lee. “The panel is leading different workshops about race and equity, housing for all, how to have a neighborhood school renaissance and economic empowerment.”
Jamiel Robinson, summit co-chair and founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, said the summit allowed residents and city officials to hear about what is happening in their neighborhoods. It also was a chance for residents to connect as a whole rather than focusing on specific challenges in one of the city’s three wards.
“This summit is definitely important. It is bringing a lot of different voices together, but also it is learning new ways and learning from other neighborhoods,” said Robinson. “Other neighborhoods may be starting an initiative or they already have done something extremely well, and this gives an opportunity to use best practices and also hear from other people from outside the community, like some of the different presenters.”
Information gathered at the event will be presented to city officials.
“The most important thing is the voice of the people and the surveys and feedback the city is going to get,” said Lee. “Those, we hope, are actually going to be turned into action steps with the city.”
Robinson said the area’s economic growth can be both a strength and a challenge for the city, and it is important to balance development with potential neighborhood issues such as displacement.
“How do we grow in a balanced way and an equitable way, and how are we inclusive and how are we building community? How do we make sure that all voices in the community are represented and all people in the community benefit from prosperity?” said Robinson. “It has been a very economically exclusionary city, it is a segregated city, and this neighborhood summit brings together a lot of different people.”
In situations where development has the potential to displace residents, Robinson said it is important to have an open process and partnership between the community and developer.
“We are stronger as a community and we are all in this community together, so whether you are a developer or business owner or resident or send your kids to school in Grand Rapids, we are all part of this same ecosystem,” said Robinson. “We do need more opportunities, or we need to look at different models or ways where we can build and develop this community and make it great, but make it great for all.”
Based on surveys and input from last year’s neighborhood summit, the city created a new position and hired Stacy Stout to manage neighborhood coordination, and it also is working to create a neighborhood matching fund.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who helped plan last year’s inaugural neighborhood summit, said the event is important because neighborhoods are the heart of the city.
“The city is a beautiful tapestry of neighborhoods and downtown, and we need to make sure we put just as much emphasis on neighborhoods. We have 32 neighborhoods and they are all unique,” said Bliss. “The city can’t have a cookie-cutter approach to supporting neighborhoods. The most effective programs throughout the country are the ones that are more targeted, more intentional, and they recognize the strength of the neighborhood and the struggles.”
Bliss indicated in addition to producing new ideas, building new relationships and hearing from experts, the summit is a chance to take a proactive approach to address neighborhood priorities.
“So often in my work — and I think this is true for so many people — you get into this reactionary mode where you are always reacting instead of taking time to think what do we need to do proactively, what do we need to do differently, and what can we do better,” said Bliss.
Participants in the summit also provide feedback, which the City Commission uses to make informed budget decisions, according to Bliss.
“I think it is meaningful that this happens in March because we are just embarking on our budget discussions and so we will start meeting for our budget next month,” said Bliss.
“I was really excited when I saw the final plan for workshops and topics because I do think they are all really critical issues right now, whether it is equity or schools. I think it is a great lineup. I’m sure I’ll be inspired and challenged,” added Bliss.
The 11-member Summit Committee, along with direction from the four-member co-chair taskforce, used community feedback from last year’s surveys to identify “key hot trends” to be talked about for the focus of this year’s summit, according to Lee.
The four workshops — housing for all, race and equity, economic and community empowerment, and neighborhood school renaissance — included presenters and speakers from a number of organizations.
Workshop presenters included: David Allen, Grand Rapids City Commission and Kent County Land Bank Authority; Gustavo Rotondaro, Metrica LLC; Andrew Brower and Yazeed Moore, W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Bridget Cheney, GRPS; and Elizabeth Hoffman Ransford, East Hills Loves Congress.
Event speakers were: Valencia Johnson Cooper, Madison CID; Jorge Gonzalez, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Lisa Haynes, Westside CID and West Fulton Business Association; and Kara Wood, of the city’s economic development staff.