Economic Development, Government, and Human Resources

GR Forward diversity plan prompts questions

Organization opts to ‘weave’ inclusion into plan rather than identifying it as a goal.

July 17, 2015
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While diversity and inclusion isn’t among the six objectives making up the draft plan, there are strategies woven throughout the document that support making Grand Rapids a welcoming community for everyone. Photo by Michael Buck

After an overview of the GR Forward draft plan was presented earlier this month to Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority board members, questions were raised as to whether the plan addresses diversity and inclusion goals in enough depth to turn downtown into a neighborhood where everyone feels welcome.

DDA board member Jim Talen, who is also a Kent County commissioner, said while he was supportive of much of the plan, he had concerns that diversity and inclusion had not been more directly addressed, particularly given the level of priority those topics garnered during the GR Forward community engagement process.

“When you look at the amount of input they got about what kind of priorities people have for the future of downtown, diversity and inclusion is one of the top things,” Talen said. “I know for a lot of minority people in Grand Rapids, downtown simply isn’t — right now — a welcoming place to everybody.

“People come downtown, they don’t see people who look like them, they don’t see the food they like to eat, the music they like, business owners who look like them … and to me, for Grand Rapids to be all that it can be, we really need to figure that out and how to make it a place for everybody.”

While diversity and inclusion isn’t among the six objectives making up the GR Forward draft plan, Tim Kelly, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. planning manager, said there are strategies woven throughout the document that support the overall goal of making Grand Rapids a welcoming community for everyone.

Kelly noted more than 3,600 people participated in the community engagement process, and intentional efforts were made to ensure participation from a diverse cross sector of the community.

“Diversity and inclusion is something our organization has made a top priority and it’s something we heard over and over again throughout the plan (process),” Kelly said. “It’s something that has been top of mind for a long time, and that is why it lives throughout the plan.

“It doesn’t have its own goal because we felt that isolating it and looking at it in a vacuum was not the best approach, and that is something we talked about in those (diversity and inclusion) focus groups. It needed to live everywhere in the plan and not just in its own chapter.”

Talen said it isn’t so much that the plan doesn’t include diversity and inclusion as its own objective, but rather it does not state it as an overall goal clearly enough, nor does it go into as much detail in terms of strategies as some of the other aspects.

“It feels to me like many of the other things people brought up got addressed in great detail and very overtly,” Talen said. “I’m a firm believer that what we talk about, what we measure, what we set objectives for — those are the things we pay attention to.”

Paul Doyle, a principal at Inclusive Performance Strategies with more than 30 years of experience helping organizations develop inclusive environments, said it’s less about how diversity and inclusion is laid out in the plan than it is about the approach.

“If they want it to be weaved throughout, I think that is fine, but what are the criteria to support that? What are you doing to ensure it’s weaved throughout?” Doyle asked.

Doyle said during planning processes such as this, an inclusion filter would be created to help guide the process and ensure the right questions are asked.

“We’d have specific items, metrics, areas that would be utilized to guide the planning process,” he said. “There are some basic questions we should be asking, no matter what the area is. How will this truly embrace or impact the growing diverse population happening in our area and what is it that we need to know from those groups that would enhance or limit their participation in the change process?

“I think we need to know exactly what we want to achieve and what it is going to take to get there.”

Doyle said it’s important to know how every member of the community is going to be impacted by and benefit from the implementation of the GR Forward strategies.

“How do we create a plan that embraces the different levels of where people are at, to help get them to the universal goal of being able to interact, contribute, support and enjoy this new Grand Rapids?” he asked.

Doyle said there are areas of the plan that appear to be less solidified than other areas, particularly those trying to make connections to diversity and inclusion.

“Documenting it reflects the intent, but flushing it out to more detail of the how — there is a lot of room here for that to happen,” Doyle said. “When you talk about promoting job growth to overcome systemic barriers to living-wage employment, that’s great. But how? They are talking about the right stuff, but that’s going to take some consistent effort to make this strategy come alive. It’s a good start.”

In objective four, the plan does call for consulting diversity and inclusion experts, and Doyle said that is a good idea going forward.

“The use of an inclusion filter needs to be developed and getting a group of experts together to be able to develop that type of framework,” he said. “There’s some good people in this area doing this work, and they should be engaged.”

Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he’s been involved in the GR Forward process and served on one of its committees.

“Some of the goals that came out were part of the result of my being part of the conversation,” he said.

Based on the community engagement sessions he witnessed, specifically addressing the Hispanic community, he said the plan reflects the input received. He was particularly happy with the workforce development strategies and strategies focused on improvements at Grand Rapids Public Schools related to diversity and inclusion.

“I am happy they listened to the community and they are putting those plans into action,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to make sure those plans get implemented.”

Gonzalez noted the next phase is when the fleshing out of details that some members of the community are concerned with will happen. He said there are plans to meet periodically with DGRI to continue the work on the diversity and inclusion strategies.

“We have said there isn’t enough diversity in the businesses downtown. We are going to try to come up with how we attract more businesses specifically from the minority community into downtown, working with city and DGRI,” he said.

“How do we make that easier? Is it regulations? Is it red tape? Is it access to capital? Those are things we’ll be looking at specifically to attract more diversity into downtown. What are the reasons, then work on the solutions.”

Mercedes Barragan, president of BL2END, said her group was invited to listen to a presentation in April about the GR Forward plan, but some members were not previously aware of the plan and did not participate in the community engagement sessions. She noted there was a lot of interest and excitement about participating.

“I think the overall feeling of the group (was) they were really excited to know this was going on but were like, ‘Man, how did I not know about this?’” she said.

She said there are some points her organization would like included in the plan.

“When BL2END thinks of diversity, we are really looking to improve our communities through leadership. We would like to see diversity in leadership in our community,” she said. “We have great relationships with Jamiel Robinson, founder and CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses. We fully support that and other programs and initiatives that are working toward both economic diversity and helping communities of color really build.”

She said understanding the root causes of why various groups of people feel unwelcome downtown is necessary to developing solutions.

“If the sense is that people of color don’t feel welcome downtown, we need to know why,” she said. “As a person of color, I do ask myself when I go downtown and I’m supporting local businesses, taking advantage of different activities … I look around and notice there aren’t many people of color. Why is that? There has to be a reason.”

Barragan said there are several organizations already doing great work related to the strategies she’s seen in the plan that could be tapped to help create greater understanding of the root causes as well as develop more details for those strategies.

“I can tell they are definitely trying, but there is always room for improvement,” she said.

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