Letter: State of the City focuses on racial equity, promises future outcomes
Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ second State of the City address, delivered March 2, provided ample proof the mayor intends to continue to make racial equity issues a central focus of her work. Before an audience of several hundred, as well as those who live streamed the event, Mayor Bliss discussed racial equity issues and the city’s work on these issues in depth.
The mayor highlighted the city’s Racial Equity Here project, a partnership with Living Cities and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which aims to develop a racial equity lens for every city department. She announced a new racial equity initiative that will include advancing collaborative racial equity goals and an equity dashboard. She also discussed hopes for Our City Academy, an immigrant education program in partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and Sister Cities International.
Mayor Bliss has opened up the dialogue on issues of race and equity like no other Grand Rapids mayor; her commitment to advancing equity couldn’t be more timely. As pointed out in the mayor’s 2016 Book of the Year, “A City within a City,” which describes the origin of the structural and managerial racism that continues to exist today, Grand Rapids has truly struggled with being a tale of two cities, providing far more opportunities for whites who have not experienced generational segregation and racism than for people of color.
We desperately need leaders who will help galvanize the city to address this divided reality. Equity PAC applauds the city’s work on these issues — and urges even stronger action in key areas, including affordable housing, diversification of the city staff and policing.
Affordable housing is a critical issue in Grand Rapids, with housing demand now far exceeding supply and, as a result, pushing housing costs (for both existing and newly developed housing) out of range for low- and moderate-income families. The city’s new affordable housing trust fund, which the mayor highlighted, is a step in the right direction, but the long-term plan for the fund has not yet been developed.
We need public sector solutions to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing and to prevent displacement of long-term neighborhood residents. Without solutions to this urgent problem, Grand Rapids will continue on the historical course laid out in “A City within a City” — with the economics and resources of the city being shuffled in ways that ensure the most marginalized can never feel quite at home in their neighborhoods.
With a 90 percent white workforce, the city staff currently is far from reflecting the diversity of the city’s population. However, nearly 700 city employees are expected to retire within the next five years, creating a huge opportunity to address this critical issue — if the city acts quickly and effectively.
Mayor Bliss discussed the city’s Grow Your Own initiative, aimed at involving young people in city employment at an earlier stage in their lives. The city also recently announced its plan to conduct job fairs to attract a more diverse candidate pool.
But it’s not yet clear how the city plans to implement other recommendations of a committee it convened a year ago to review hiring practices. The group’s suggestions included improving publicity and promotion of openings, hiring a recruiter, paying a finder’s fee to community organizations that assist in diversifying the city’s employment pipeline, and pushing for state legislation to require employees live in the city. If our city leaders do not act on these recommendations with urgency, the current opportunity will fade away — and the current untenable situation will still exist in 20 or 30 years.
We also applaud the work of Racial Equity Here. The impact of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity in Seattle was nothing short of phenomenal, and we have high hopes the same can be accomplished here in Grand Rapids. It’s confusing, however, to see the Grand Rapids Police Chief is not a member of the core Racial Equity Here team. While the police are often dealing with the results of historical segregation, disinvestment and racism, and are not necessarily the historical causes, they are absolutely identified as the flare point for poor relations between cities and communities of color. The chief’s absence from the Racial Equity Here team is of great concern, because it raises questions about whether this good work will impact the Grand Rapids Police Department in a meaningful way.
Our hope for Mayor Bliss, the city administration, the city commission of Grand Rapids and our community is the promises made this year will result in quantifiable wins in the coming year. We are confident the city can strike the needed balance between thoughtfully addressing complex issues and acting quickly to take advantage of current opportunities. We want our leaders to know we are ready to support this process. The need is urgent, the opportunity is here and the time is now.
Jeremy Moore and Kelsey Perdue
Board of Trustees