Former GRCC chief finds road to Kalamazoo

October 20, 2008
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Former Grand Rapids Community College President Juan Olivarez joined Kalamazoo Community Foundation as president in July, after 37 years in education.

Olivarez, 58, and his wife, Mindy, a Grand Rapids Public Schools special education teacher, are now a two-city couple, with homes in both locales.

“The learning curve is steep, mostly in the organization and people, and getting around town and knowing the streets,” said Olivarez, who served on the Grand Rapids Community Foundation board and oversaw the Grand Rapids Community College Foundation prior to accepting his new job.  “The other, not-so-hard part is the dynamics of human need.”

Olivarez spoke with the Grand Rapids Business Journal prior to the Council of Michigan Foundations’ annual conference at the Amway Grand Plaza last week.

GRBJ: How would you describe the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s role in the community?

I see it as a leader, one of the community leaders that helps the development of the community. It’s well-recognized for a lot of its leadership initiatives.

GRBJ: How does that differ from education’s role?

I think there’s a lot of similarities. There’s no question that having been in education and having a leadership role, I was involved in many facets of the community, so there’s obviously some similarities. I think what differs with the community foundation is that we are more integral in convening the community and leveraging community with its resources.

GRBJ: What is the biggest challenge facing the community foundation right now?

I think very obvious is the economic times and wanting to make sure that we are being both responsive to the community, but also being proactive with the community in terms of the challenges that everyone is facing because of the economic times.

There’s always a need in communities, regardless if there’s good times or bad times, but there are more needs when there are bad times, because more people are out of work, people are losing their investments, people are losing their homes. Those things lead to other needs in the community:  mental health, keeping people active, keeping youth positively active.

And so the needs out there are just growing and are going to grow in these times. So the challenge is, one, how our assets are affecting our ability to help, and then making sure that we are using what we do have in terms of our assets in helping the community in best ways. Unfortunately, we’re all going to lose momentum at a time when we need to pick it up.

GRBJ: What are some of the most promising initiatives?

One of the things … is these Changemaker workshops, which are really grassroots, working with people in the neighborhoods, helping to shape their thinking about how they can create positive change in the community at a very micro level. The workshops teach them how to write a proposal and then have those funded by us. They are small grants, but they are very powerful grants. I mean, talk about how every person can make a difference in the world — this really plays it out.

I’ve been very impressed with what the foundation is doing with very small amounts of money with people in the neighborhoods, youth, high school students. Then giving them the ability to create a project and fulfill that project, and then report back on what difference it made is helping the community learn how you can make a difference, and then growing that. It’s just very powerful. It just goes to show that it doesn’t take necessarily the big things and the big dollars to make a difference, because it all helps and it’s all important.

GRBJ: Should a community foundation get directly involved in economic development?

I think that indirect role is probably the primary role. I think a lot of our work is indirect. We fund people who do the work. That to me is probably a great majority of what we do and what our role should be, and that we can support those efforts because the experts at economic development are the ones working at it in the direct way, and they should. But there is a lot that they need in terms of support that we can assist with.

Now, there is some direct work that I see as very appropriate. One is being a part of the leadership in a community, being able to be at the table and think through ideas and be a thought leader with others that are thinking about economic development with those are more directly involved. So there’s a leadership role I think we play, that I should play as the CEO here.

In this foundation, which is quite unique, we have a tool here called a BRI, a Business Related Investment, where we have money set aside to help launch things that are good for economic development. So that to me is a little more direct, because we are more of a partner in the effort that helps to fund either venture capital or some other things that make things happen, and we have some of those going on.

We’re not an economic development organization, but we certainly influence and help that happen.

GRBJ: You spent many years of your career in Grand Rapids. Has it been difficult to get established in a new community?

Not yet. It’s been difficult to come in and work with a whole new set of people you haven’t worked with and to come into a community you know very little about. Yes, it’s a challenge. I would have to say that everyone is making it as easy as possible for me to get to know the community by introductions, by being at the right places, by giving me right materials, by being welcoming.

GRBJ: What is it about this job that keeps you showing up every morning?

The passion for community, the passion for creating a learning community that plays out as a community, that works together for the betterment of all people. That keeps me going, being a part of that.

No matter where you are, there are needs. No matter what kind of job I’ve ever had, my work has always revolved around helping people, learning and working toward being a servant leader and wanting to do my best every single day for the sake of others. I want to keep doing that. I have enjoyed being in education for 37 years and I am finding this new field just as rewarding, because it’s the same drive for me, it’s just from a different angle. I am so privileged to be coming into this new field and learning new things and learning how to work in new ways, and yet using everything I’ve developed over the years. It’s very exciting.

I’m very happy to be here and having had this opportunity, I feel that I want to be here for a long time.

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