Chivis believes in knocking on doors

March 13, 2011
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Candace Chivis has followed in her dad's ceiling-breaking footsteps. Eugene Craig Chivis, who passed away in 2008, was the first African-American male to reach the rank of lieutenant in the Grand Rapids Fire Department. Candace is the first African-American female to be elected to the Kent County Board of Commissioners.

"It's kind of following in his footsteps and being a trailblazer," said Chivis, who said winning the 2010 election is her biggest accomplishment.

She gave a lot of credit for her victory to Our Kitchen Table, a local organization dedicated to solving problems surrounding food insecurity and proper nutrition for low-income residents.

"They threw my initial fundraiser and really helped me get the ball rolling," said Chivis, who has recently been hired to serve as program director for Our Kitchen Table.

But the group didn't light a fire under her to run against incumbent Kent County Commissioner James Vaughn in the Democratic primary for the district on Grand Rapids' southeast side. She lit that burner on her own.

"I just wasn't happy with the representation we were getting. … And as I am the first African-American woman to sit on the Kent County Board of Commissioners, and the first single mom, I'm going to just hazard a guess here and say, 'I wasn't being represented,'" she said with a laugh.

"So far, it's been wonderful," said Chivis of her first few months on the board. "Everyone has been extremely helpful and very knowledgeable.

"I have to give a shout-out to (Executive Assistant) Jim Day because he basically has the answer to any question you might have. Jim is pretty much able to tell you what to do, how to handle it and what you need to know."

County commissioners are elected for a two-year term, unlike their counterparts on the Grand Rapids Commission, who serve four years. The county is a complex organization, and it can take a new commissioner a year or so to get up to speed and then have to start campaigning again.

Still, Chivis felt the term shouldn't be lengthened.

"A two-year term allows the voters to say, 'Yes, I think this person is representing me adequately,' or 'No, I don't think this person is representing me adequately.' This really allows for turnover. Yes, I do think commissioners have to work a little harder to get up to speed. I've only been a commissioner for two months and I know there is a ton of stuff I still need to learn, and it'll be an ongoing process," said Chivis.

"I'm not really in favor of term limits, but I like the two-year term for any political office because it does give (voters) the opportunity to say, 'No, this person isn't doing what they're supposed to do,'" she said, adding that she currently plans to run for re-election in 2012.

After speaking with Chivis, it becomes obvious that the word "grassroots" holds a special meaning for her.

For one thing, she is preparing to become the marketing outreach coordinator for the Southeast Farmers' Market, which will be held Thursdays this summer in a parking lot owned by Redeemer Lutheran Church at 1905 Madison Ave. SE. She plans to spread the word about the market by going door-to-door in the nearby neighborhoods.

"We're just finalizing (the position) now. I start in April," she said. "It's really a fine little market."

Candace Chivis
Kent County Board of Commissioners
Title: Kent County Commissioner, 17th District
Age: 40
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Son, Amiel, age 5.
Business/Community Organizations: Grand Rapids Historical Commission; Grand Rapids Police Department Civilian Appeals Board; Kent County Healthy Infant I-Team; Kent County Breastfeeding Task Force; Progressive Women's Alliance; Grand Rapids Urban League; Advisory Committee for the Kusche Center for Local History at GVSU.
Biggest Career Break: Being elected as the county's representative of the 17th District last fall.

Secondly, Chivis was the crime prevention and community organizer for Garfield Park Neighborhood Association for five years.

"Most of what I did at Garfield Park was around gang violence and around anti-gang violence," she said. "We continued with that, and I started 17 new block clubs in 2006 and 2007."

Chivis said she has been successful at getting people involved.

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to go to people's doors and knock and simply talk to them about what the issues and the problems are."

Chivis said she soon will begin knocking on doors again, but this time she plans to speak with her constituents about the state's new budget, which may eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit that goes to low-income workers. Right now, she said it's too cold to do that.

"I don't want to be remembered as that annoying politician who bugged me at Duthler's and kept me outside in the cold when I was trying to do my grocery shopping," she said with a laugh.

Third, since 2004, Chivis has been involved with Our Kitchen Table, which surely qualifies as a grassroots group. She did occasional contract work for the organization before being named to her new post.

Chivis also has worked in the private sector. She was a researcher for Nordhaus Research, and most recently, she was a senior research specialist for Wirthlin Worldwide. She held that post while caring for her cancer-stricken grandmother, who lost her fight with the disease a few months ago. Her other grandmother also died recently.

"It's hard to deal with, that's for sure," she said about losing two women to whom she was very close in such a short timeframe.

Chivis also enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training. But her plan for military service was dashed when she broke both of her ankles during training. She was wheelchair bound with both ankles in casts for six weeks in the post's hospital.

"That was when the Army told me that I would have to go through training again, and they would have to pay me again for another two months. So at that point, they decided they would let me out," she said of the honorable discharge she received.

"It was disappointing. But at that point, I had had pretty much enough of the sore ankles, and I can't emphasize enough the gut-wrenching pain — I say this having gone through childbirth. That was nothing compared to breaking my ankles," she said with a smile.

Chivis earned her associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College and a bachelor's in history from the University of Michigan. She also completed the coursework for a master's in medieval history at Western Michigan University. To finalize her degree, she has to finish her thesis, and that involves translating Latin documents into English. She has transcribed a Latin manuscript on Cistercian Chant for Kalamazoo's Medieval Publications, where she was an assistant editor. But she said she isn't all that thrilled about digging into Latin again, so she has put her thesis on hold.

Her choice of medieval history may seem unusual in an age of constant technological advances. Chivis, though, had a very down-to-earth reason for choosing it.

"At the time, you had a lot of professors retiring. The word was out that this was a really good field to get into because there was going to be a lot of jobs. There also was a tremendous upsurge and interest in medievalism in the 1990s," she said of publications and TV specials on the topic, which convinced more students to study it and which, in turn, created more competition for those teaching jobs.

"When I started the program, there were 35 students in 1994, the year I began. In 1997, when I finished my coursework, there were 160 new students. So that's why I'm hemming and hawing about translating all of this Latin and writing my thesis. It's boring, it's tough and I'm not the best Latinist."

Chivis was able to go on an archeology dig 15 years ago in Charras, France, as part of her graduate study.

"Oh, that was amazing. That was one of the best things I've ever done in my life. It was a dual dig site at a Cistercian Monastery and a Grandmontine Monastery. There were two separate monasteries each with their own lovely, little architectural quirks," she said.

"I found out about that through the Medieval Institute, and I learned an awful lot about Cistercian and Grandmontine architecture."

Chivis has an active 5-year-old son, Amiel. "He likes to be outside, and for this winter he has been sledding a lot," she said. "In the spring, he plays soccer. He has played the last two springs, but he hasn't really decided if he is fond of it. In the summer, he swims a lot. He takes swim classes and is in the water a lot."

Amiel attends all-day kindergarten at New Branches Public School Academy, a charter school. "He likes it a lot, and I like it a lot," said Chivis. "And I was very pleased with his last report card."

Chivis is an art lover who takes in exhibits whenever she has the time. She is a member of the Grand Rapids Art Museum and saw the Princess Diana exhibit twice.

"I love to hang out at the GRAM. I think it's a wonderful museum and they have a wonderful program," she said. But she also expressed a concern. "In their quest to try to get people in there and try to make some money, their last three exhibits haven't necessarily been art, per se," she said.

"And I really adore ArtPrize. I like it that Grand Rapids is becoming known for it. It has put Grand Rapids on the map as being kind of an artsy town."

Chivis sees herself getting closer to her constituents this year while also tackling her new marketing position.

"This is going to be a rough year because of the budget cuts at the state level being more of an issue. I'm getting ready to be the marketing outreach person for this farmers market, which I'm really looking forward to because that involves grassroots-community organizing," she said of her immediate future. "Beyond that, I can't really get more specific."

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