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Inside Track: Rachel Hood leads fight for a sustainable community
Little steps, like replacing foam coffee cups, started WMEAC’s executive director on her career path.
The first known incident of advocacy in the life of one of West Michigan’s most influential environmental voices occurred when she was in 8th grade.
Rachel Hood, executive director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council, remembers this moment fondly, giggling as she describes a neat and prim young girl, hands tightly gripping note cards loaded with facts and supporting points, standing before the deacons’ board of First Congregational Church of Royal Oak.
Her mission back then was to get her church to stop using Styrofoam cups. Hood won — sort of.
“I ended up obligating myself to do the dishes after social hour every week,” she said. “It did make a difference, and I’m proud to say that, today, they still choose to use their ceramic dishes instead of Styrofoam cups.”
This was the first of many environmental battles Hood has waged — and won — over the course of a career that has been recognized with her inclusion on both the Business Journal’s 40 Under Forty and 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan lists.
Hood steadily worked her way west across the state in the early stages of her career development, beginning with a move from her childhood home of Royal Oak to Lansing, where she attended Michigan State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social policy in 1999.
She moved to West Michigan soon after graduation to take a job as executive director at West Grand Neighborhood Organization, a community organization and development nonprofit on Grand Rapids’ west side.
Perhaps it was fate that brought Hood west instead of east. Originally, she had wanted to work with Detroit’s nonprofits and community development organizations, she said, but after interning in the Motor City, she realized she had come into the system at the moment when everything was starting to fall apart.
“Because of — to be really honest — because of race and because of the deep, deep challenges that Detroit faced at that time, I felt like I wasn’t really positioned well to do the kind of work that I wanted to do there,” she said.
“If I had graduated in 2009 — 10 years later — or today, I would probably have been compelled to stay in Detroit and work on those urban issues, but Grand Rapids got me instead because of the timing.”
West Grand Neighborhood Organization, where Hood stayed for three years, turned out to be a dream job, she said, the place where she learned about how environmental issues worked as a solution to urban problems.
“I began to really understand how development worked in communities and got to experiment with participating and building a vision for the redevelopment of that neighborhood and city as a whole,” she said.
Hood said one of her biggest career breaks came when WGNO received investment for the Turner Gateway Project, a beautification plan for cleaning up Turner Avenue on the near-northwest side of the city. The plan added rain gardens, plants, fences and a retaining wall, as well as new sidewalks, curbs and lighting.
After WGNO, she took a job as a community relations manager at Metro Health. It was during these years that she met Guy Bazzani, founder of Local First and president of Bazzani Associates, who became not only her ally in sustainable community development but also a dear friend and mentor.
From Bazzani she learned business management, green building, place making — and sailing skills, she said.
There were times during the recession when Hood and her husband, Dave, thought about moving to San Francisco, unsure if they were going to be able to make it work in Michigan’s economy. During those moments of doubt, she said, friends stepped in and encouraged the couple to see the bigger picture of what they could accomplish in Grand Rapids.
Hood said the most powerful thing she learned from Bazzani was the true character of the local community.
“The argument that he made — and continues to make — to keep (my family) and others here is that Grand Rapids is a neat place where a lot of people have opportunities to have influence,” she said.
“We are building not just a place but a community and a culture that allows for the kind of change that needs to happen to make us resilient for the future — to maintain our natural resources, our economy and our quality of life against bigger threats.”
Bazzani recommended her for the position she holds now at West Michigan Environmental Action Council, where she has won numerous awards, including being anointed a “Goddess of the Universe” by the East Hills Council of Neighbors.
Since coming to WMEAC, Hood has focused her energies on programs and campaigns dealing with three major environmental issues she feels the city is facing.
The first issue is the city’s storm-water structure, she said, a system in which the Grand Rapids community received “a living lesson,” thanks to this year’s spring storms that resulted in the flooding of the Grand River.
She praised the handling of the historic water overflow by the city’s Environmental Services department, but said the city must continue to invest in its storm-water system.
“Storm water is an issue like trash, where we’ve designed our world to make it go away — out of sight and out of mind,” she said.
“We’ve designed our communities to make storm water ‘go away’ … but if we don’t continue to invest in our infrastructure, we’ll essentially be disinvesting in our infrastructure because we’ll be failing to keep our roads safe, our water clean, and we’ll see significant impacts down the road.”
The second issue facing the city is energy sustainability, she said.
Hood recently served on a Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. stakeholder engagement committee, the Alliance for Investment, she said, and learned the city needs to be prepared for more frequent and intense storms, rising temperatures and the rising cost of energy.
“We have an old housing stock and our energy costs are not getting any more manageable. Both of those fall under a larger umbrella around climate resiliency,” she said.
“All of these buildings and parking garages need to have solar panels on them. They need to be powered by geothermal. We need to build them in such a way so they don’t shut down when it floods like the Plaza Towers did. We also need more tree space and canopies.”
The third issue is the overall environmental health of the community — particularly, pollution as it relates to children’s health, she said. There are intense air quality and noise issues for residents living in neighborhoods along U.S. 131, she said, adding that she witnessed many public health concerns of these residents, many of whom suffer from significant respiratory problems, asthma and lung disease. Additionally, heavy metals, including both lead and mercury, being leaked into the water system could lead to serious child development issues.
The necessary response is better community design through sustainable business practices, she said.
“Just like every household has small steps they need to take to leave (a better) environmental footprint, so do businesses. That’s a journey that WMEAC has been making over the past 20 years alongside the business community here in West Michigan,” she said.
“We just need everyone to get on board. It’s ultimately the aggregate impact of all these little steps that’s going to save us and our resources for future generations.”