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In Kent County today, there exists a rich mine of undeveloped talent, untouched resources, untapped wealth… actively thriving and growing, but largely undiscovered… possibly unrecognized… by investors and bankers and business leaders.
“Just look at the numbers, the demographics. If West Michigan is going to continue to lead, it will be based on how well it capitalizes on the growing Latino population,” says Roberto Torres, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan executive director and KConnect partner. “Growth in the next 10 years, growth of one million people, will be people who look like me.”
That population, according to Torres, is growing in pockets throughout Kent County, and it’s key to a thriving economic future.
“The reality is if we are not able to educate that population, to bring it to the advantage of economic opportunities, we are not going to be able to thrive economically. It won’t be good for the future of our region,” Torres says.
Many neighborhoods in Kent County are home to residents who are first or second generation Americans, recent settlers, or new arrivals from Spanish-speaking countries. In every one of the neighborhoods, business growth is organic and steady.
“You don’t have to give immigrants a loan in order to start a business,” Torres says. “We have four Spanish radio stations, five newspapers, four magazines. We have a very strong first generation community here, people who are willing to start businesses. That’s a picture that doesn’t exist in other communities.”
As a two-tour Marine, veteran of Desert Storm, and relatively recent transplant to West Michigan, Torres was looking for the “ideal community.” And he found four compelling advantages in Greater Grand Rapids:
“Darn, what doesn’t it have?” Torres says he asked himself. He quickly found the catch. “It’s the number one place to raise a family… UNLESS you’re black or Latino.”
But that meant there was a problem to solve, an opportunity to make it better.
“I said there, that’s it,” he says. “Along with a growing—actually booming—population of Latinos, it has the ideal mix to have some incredible things happen. There’s the opportunity.”
Part of the ideal mix is the African American community in West Michigan, also brimming with talent and ambition but similarly challenged by limited access to economic opportunity. Another pocket of untapped potential. Torres is working actively with Grand Rapids Urban League, headed by Joe Jones, to create an economic development partnership to create opportunities in both communities.
“Grand Rapids still deals with race relations in terms of black and white,” Torres says. “The good thing is Joe and I are not caught up in the race card. The bad thing is decisions are made by others based on the race card.”
Part of changing that paradigm, according to the Urban League’s Kyle Lim, is building public will, not writing legislation.
“Culture eats policy for breakfast,” says Lim, KConnect Equity and Inclusion workgroup member. “And we can’t afford to stay in the current space we are in. We as a community cannot afford to have our current outcomes, especially for children of color. That’s our future workforce. Unless we begin to invest in marginalized communities, we won’t be able to compete or even sustain our current state. We’re already beginning to feel the brunt of that economically.”
Lim said recent research about the science of bias, the innate values of people, and a deep understanding that people do not consciously choose their world view, are all helping the Urban League and KConnect craft a public will strategy to build that will, and to create systems and processes that advance equity.
“In our current state we mis-assign value to people based on where they come from, where they worship, what they look like,” Lim says. “When we assign value, we show how much we think they are really worth by the way we choose to invest in some of our neighborhoods, some of our schools.”
Investments in schools, particularly those segregated by race and class, is particularly telling.
“Not our theme schools, not our treasures, we take care of those,” he says. “But if we really valued the children who attend the neighborhood schools, we would make drastic changes to the way we invest in them and their kids.”
Despite the fact that people are naturally wired to value other people, many factors can get the wires crossed: the way media operates, systemic bias, history, legislation.
“People innately value other people; they want others to have opportunity; they want everyone to have access to the ability to thrive,” says Lim. “That’s core to the American Dream, and people want that. So let’s make that happen, let’s increase access to opportunity for all our children.”
He says that what benefits one, benefits all.
“A great example is wheelchair access. That was driven by disability advocates… with a very targeted solution, to build ramps,” says Lim. “But ramps have become a universal benefit, not just for people in wheelchairs, but for small children, the elderly, even the able-bodied UPS man. There are so many benefits to targeted inclusivity.”
“It’s not a zero sum game,” he says. “It’s not about anyone getting a smaller slice of the pie. It’s about growing a bigger pie, so everyone gets more.”
That philosophy is 100% consistent with KConnect’s collective impact model. Improving access and expanding opportunity, equitably and with strong public support, will increase self-sufficiency and economic prosperity throughout Kent County.
More pie for everyone.
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