Celebrating Black excellence in sustainability and business


A month ago, Robert Cloy was introduced as an Emerging Leader fellow at GreenBiz 21, the world’s premier event for sustainable business leaders. Cloy started his career as an intern with our organization and is now the urban forest coordinator for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, where he is working to increase Grand Rapids’ urban forest and connect our community to the cultural, social, economic, public health and environmental benefits of trees. Cloy worked with volunteers to plant 800 trees in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic and is now leading a pilot workforce development program that will train local youth to maintain newly planted trees.

The GreenBiz Emerging Leaders program aims to elevate, cultivate and support the next generation of BIPOC leaders in sustainable business — a goal shared by our organization and one that we had the privilege to reflect on recently through a series of 18 interviews with local Black leaders dedicated to advancing a more sustainable, inclusive and just future in West Michigan. You can find the three-part series on our website at wmsbf.org.

Cloy is one of many Black leaders working to improve our community through greening or growing, including Lisa Oliver King of Our Kitchen Table, James Moyer, and Crystal Scott-Tunstall of GVSU. Along with food entrepreneurs such as Alita Kelly of South East Market and Jermale Eddie of Malamiah Juice Bar, they are working to plant seeds, educate students and neighbors, increase access to local and healthy foods, cultivate partnerships and forward business models that prioritize their relationship with the community. They recognize the intentionality of sustainability, and the promise of sustainable business as a fusion between businesses and the communities they reside in.

“It is important for people of color to choose careers in the sustainability field,” said Scott-Tunstall, an affiliate professor in the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program at GVSU. “People of color suffer the most from environmental issues. I believe that representation in sustainability is key to bringing awareness to the environmental injustice that plagues Black and brown communities.”

Andrew Oppong is a justice mobilization specialist for the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice, where he focuses on creation care and climate change and co-leads its Climate Witness Project. He works with congregations to prepare them to be better stewards of Earth’s resources through training, energy assessments and introductions to renewable energy opportunities.

“As a member of an impacted community myself, if I could leave a legacy, it would be that I empowered and encouraged more BIPOC leaders and champions in this work,” said Oppong. “In terms of bringing others into this journey, I believe I will continue to emphasize the point that a vision for the future rooted in sustainability and equity benefits everyone; from the small business owner to the Indigenous community, we all have a stake in this.”

According to Kareem Scales, administrator of operations for Greater Grand Rapids NAACP, there is a “loneliness in onlyness” when you are the only person at the table who looks like you and comes from your background. Black, brown and others from under-resourced communities have not historically been included in sustainability initiatives. Today, people of color are increasingly sought out for their expertise and innovative ideas, including Dee Jones of Jump Ahead L3C, Synia Gant-Jordan of Legacy of Love LLC and Lynn Todman of Spectrum Health Lakeland.

Ana Jose, program manager for Transformando West Michigan at the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, highlighted the meaningful change happening through the Community Collaboration on Climate Change (C4), an initiative recently launched by city of Grand Rapids with support from the Wege Foundation that is providing the means for organizations such as the chamber, NAACP and sustainability advocates such as ourselves to collaboratively advance solutions for climate change.

“The more diverse the company, the more ideas will be generated to enhance all the sustainability efforts and thus the company,” said Misti Stanton, diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Mercantile Bank of Michigan. She is one of several change-makers we celebrated who are helping to redefine sustainable business in West Michigan. This group includes Jonathan Wilson of DTE Energy, Andrew Simms of Michigan Minority Supplier Diversity Council, Jeffrey Byrd of GRCC and Zachary Verhulst of Pure Architects, who was recently named West Michigan’s “Young Architect of the Year.”

Collectively, the business leaders and community advocates we had the privilege to celebrate recently are working to make sure resources, education and sustainability practices are accessible for all. They also are elevating important and necessary perspectives in various spaces.

“We need to value lived experience in the same way we value CEOs or any other type of ‘professional,’” said Eleanor Moreno, Cook Arts Center director with Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities. “We have talked so much about sustaining the Earth and fixing the Earth and doing better for the Earth, but the Earth will be here once you and I move on, so how do we look at building a relationship to each other?”

Carissa Patrone is the equity program manager and Daniel Schoonmaker is the executive director of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.

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