Dunn Spearheads Development

December 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Sometimes a smile from Kayem Dunn takes an instant to spread from one corner of her mouth to the other. It’s a relaxed and broadening smile that could only belong to a confident woman, one who has traveled unfamiliar career paths and has succeeded in finding her way without asking for directions.

For instance, many may not know that Dunn became the first female to be appointed by the city to the Downtown Development Authority in 1998, “only” 18 years after the group’s inaugural meeting. Then she was elected as the board’s first female vice chairwoman nearly two years ago.

“I was very interested in being appointed to the DDA because I wanted to be involved in the revitalization of downtown. So I was really motivated to get involved with the cause. And I like the city. I saw so much potential for the growth to continue downtown and I’ve worked downtown for many, many years,” said Dunn, who has been the executive director of the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research for 17 years and who lives near the sector.

“It just happened that I was the first,” she humbly added, while noting that Catherine Mueller and Michelle VanDyke have followed her to the board — and women now hold a third of the nine seats at the table.

But the capper came earlier this year when Dunn became the first woman picked by her peers on the board to chair the DDA, arguably the body with the most influence on downtown’s economic future.

“It’s been fascinating. I’ve learned so much about how things work — and sometimes don’t work,” she said with a laugh. “I’m very much an advocate for the DDA to think hard about the next five to 10 years and how we can be effective and live up to our name, the Downtown Development Authority.”

Dunn crossed another new frontier a decade before she joined the DDA. In 1988, then Kendall College President Phyllis Danielson urged her to take over the reins of the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER). It was based in New York then. Danielson helped convince Dunn to transfer the organization’s national headquarters here, a move she considers her biggest career break.

“It was a very small organization. None of the staff moved here. So I just moved files and papers, and one computer,” said Dunn.

For the previous seven years, Dunn had been the executive director and publisher of West Michigan Magazine, a monthly periodical owned by the West Michigan Telecommunications Foundation. She had no prior experience with the work of FIDER, which sets the standards for interior design education and accredits programs at colleges and universities. But Danielson felt Dunn would be the right person to head it because of her leadership skills, personality and background.

“My professional experience had been as an executive director, and I’d been very active in the community. I’d been on the chamber board and I knew a lot of people. Phyllis put two and two together. She knew that I was interested in another opportunity and learned of this position,” said Dunn.

Directing the foundation means Dunn travels a lot to advise and review interior design programs at higher-learning institutions across North America. But last spring her work took her to the Middle East for the first time — specifically to Doha, Qatar. The excursion resulted in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts receiving accreditation in July for its Doha program — and Dunn getting an up-close look at an alternative way of life.

“It was just fascinating, a fascinating view into another culture. I felt really fortunate to be there. The travel and working with designers, who are really interesting people … I’ve always been grateful to have a chance to work with this particular organization.”

Dunn was born in the nation’s capital, but grew up in a Virginia suburb. And, by her own admission, she attended a lot of colleges before she earned her degree in organizational development from Grand Valley State University. When she isn’t working, she likes to scuba dive, travel, read, get her hands dirty in the garden, and stay fit.

“A big priority for me is fitness and gardening. Fitness is a year-round thing, but the gardening has some limits in Michigan. I do strength training and walking,” she said.

“You do become more in tune to the cycles of nature. Gardening has been both humbling and instructive. Humbling because you can’t control everything that happens in a garden, so you have to learn to work with it, including the cycles of the season.”

Dunn has two children. Michael Bernstein, her son, is an aspiring stage and film actor. Rebecca Robbins, her daughter, directs network development for social services providers at Public Partnerships LLC. Dunn also has a grandson, 11-year-old Gage Robbins.

Dunn not only works downtown and makes decisions for the sector; she also lives near it.

“I feel very connected to this part of the community,” she said.

Dunn feels FIDER has a good future. The organization has accredited 145 professional programs so far and Dunn believes that total will only get larger because more designers are becoming licensed.

“There are now 25 states with legislation addressing interior-design designers because of health and safety concerns about the design of the interior environment,” she said. “What that means is there continues to be interest in the quality of the educational programs that are preparing graduates to practice. So I see growth in our impact on the profession of interior design.”

As for the DDA, Dunn isn’t sure the general public clearly understands what the board does because of the complexities that accompany development in the sector. She said that is a concern board members need to resolve in the coming years.

“I don’t think it’s well understood, and that is a challenge for us. As a board, I think we need to be clear about telling our story to help people understand the role that we play.”    

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