The Rapidian Home

Grand Rapids residents 'embrace the tension' at 10th annual neighborhood summit

Residents gathered at Grand Valley State University for the 10th annual Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit, focusing on racial equity and community connection through workshops and discussions.
Residents work together during workshop at 10th annual neighborhood summit May 18, 2024

Residents work together during workshop at 10th annual neighborhood summit May 18, 2024 /Theo Scheer

Want to comment on the City's Community Master plan?

You have until June 24, 2024 to submit comments through the City's online engagement portal

A Community Master Plan can address concepts related to land use such as equity, housing, environmental justice and economic development. The last plan is from 2002.

The City is looking for resident feedback "about the objectives and recommendations that have been created from the public input gathered during the entire process." The draft plan is available here

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss speaks at 10th annual neighborhood summit May 18, 2024

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss speaks at 10th annual neighborhood summit May 18, 2024 /Theo Scheer

Residents attend 10th annual neighborhood summit May 18, 2024

Residents attend 10th annual neighborhood summit May 18, 2024 /Theo Scheer

Over one hundred local residents and community stakeholders convened at Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus Saturday for the 10th annual Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit, a day-long event held by the City to connect community members and explore racial equity. 

This year’s theme encouraged participants to “embrace the tension that inspires us to take action, honor the tenacity of changemakers in our community, and renew the intentionality in our words and deeds,” according to the event’s agenda.

“When we think about Grand Rapids and the rich culture here, we know that there are spaces where there is real tension,” said Interim Director of Equity and Engagement Brandon Davis in his opening remarks. “There are spaces where we have difficulty navigating how we view things differently. But today we're coming together to embrace that and to learn from each other.”

The event is an opportunity for “people to come together and share ideas” and to strengthen the city’s neighborhoods, said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss during the opening presentation. The summit hosted a variety of presentations, workshops, informational booths and activities throughout the day.

“So many great things have been spurred from the neighborhood summit,” said Bliss, who helped start the event ten years ago. “It's really bittersweet for me because it's my last year as mayor, but I know that I'm leaving this summit and this place and this city in really good hands.”

Workshops held throughout the day further promoted the theme of connection and education. 

Urban Core Collective, a coalition of local nonprofit organizations that supports the self-agency of marginalized communities, held a workshop on what various city and county leaders do and how residents can engage with them to solve local issues.

Addie Donley, a community organizer with Urban Core Collective, told The Rapidian that the workshop sought to “teach residents that their voice matters.” 

A long-time resident from the southeast side of the city, Donley said a common misconception about her neighbors is that they aren’t interested in local politics.

“It's not that they're not interested,” Donley said. “Some people are just not aware of their opportunities, or what’s on the ballot, or when to do it.”

Senita Lenear, a mayoral candidate and former Third Ward commissioner, attended the workshop.

“It’s so important to show people how to get involved,” she told The Rapidian afterward.

Another workshop, held by Dwelling Place and Habitat for Humanity, advised on how to facilitate relationships with neighbors and city leaders. Participants practiced having purposeful conversations with each other about their goals.

Residents also gave feedback on the final draft of the Community Master Plan in another workshop. 

The document will guide the city’s growth in the next 20 years, said Project Manager Layla Aslani. It seeks to combat the rising cost of housing, revitalize Grand Rapids’ business district and address transportation needs as more people move to the City. City leaders have been holding community engagement sessions to seek input on the plan in recent months, and hope to officially adopt it this fall.

Participants discussed a part of the plan that concerns housing development. They were asked to match policy recommendations with a set of community values.

Many residents in the session expressed concerns about housing affordability, something the Community Master Plan seeks to address. The city needs 4,078 additional rental units and 1,934 owner-occupied homes priced at 80% or below the area’s median income, according to the 2022 Grand Rapids and Kent County Needs Assessment.

Following a raffle and a presentation on a community program that gives grants to local entrepreneurs, the day closed with remarks from City Manager Mark Washington.

“Our country was founded on tension,” Washington said. “The city has made a lot of progress, but we recognize we have a lot of progress yet to make. I'm confident that engagement moments like this — empowering our community, listening to our community, informing our community —- allow us to be the city that we aspire to be.”

The closing ceremony was followed by a ‘community celebration’ with live music from local group Avalon Cutts-Jones Music.

‘The Third Ward gave me a safety blanket when it felt like the world was falling apart…’

The day began with a keynote address from Shannon Cohen, a consultant, author and business owner who has lived in Grand Rapids for 23 years. 

Cohen shared her experience moving to Grand Rapids in 2001 to work for Grand Rapids Sister Cities International, a nonprofit that aims to build relationships between Grand Rapids and its sister cities. 

She moved into her new duplex in the Third Ward the day after planes hit New York City’s Twin Towers.

Shortly after, Cohen got a call from the then-city manager.

“He says, ‘Shannon, we have to rescind your job,’” she said. “‘We don't know what the municipal response is going to be to this tragedy.’”

Stunned, Cohen walked out to her car. It wouldn’t start.

“In less than 24 hours I became unemployed, with big-girl bills,” she said. “I had no car. No family. I knew no one.”

Cohen soon found out her duplex didn’t have a dryer, forcing her to take taxis to the nearest laundromat.

But out of her unfortunate circumstances came hope, she said. 

Thanks to her frequent patronage, the taxi company assigned her the same driver to get her anytime she needed to go to the laundromat. She got financial assistance from local programs. She began to forge deep connections with her neighbors.

“The Third Ward gave me a safety blanket when it felt like the world was falling apart all around me,” Cohen said.

Cohen said in Grand Rapids — which she described as “a city caught between trauma and transformation” — struggle must be overcome by collective action.

“Evil is iterative, y’all,” she said. “It hides under policies, practices, behaviors and procedures. And we need all of us if we're going to dismantle it.”

She asked participants to recognize their strengths and how they can work towards a collective purpose.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.