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Using green spaces to change the narrative

Public parks can help us create better communities and disrupt stereotypes when we adopt a mindset of connected collectivism.
Kids playing at Joe Taylor Park

Kids playing at Joe Taylor Park /Erin Wilson

Underwriting support from:
Shannon Cohen, interim director at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

Shannon Cohen, interim director at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks /Courtesy of Shannon Cohen

This article is written by Shannon Cohen, Interim Executive Director for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks (FGRP). In this interim role, Shannon is serving as the bridge between the leadership of founding Executive Director Steve Faber and the upcoming hire of a permanent replacement for the ED vacancy. Cohen is also the founder and principal of her own consulting firm and publishes a weekly encouragement video for contemporary leaders and changemakers. Learn more about Shannon on her website.

July 12 was a hot Sunday afternoon, and my 18-month-old son was full of boundless toddler energy. My husband and I decided to turn dinner into a picnic with splash pad play at Joe Taylor Park. When we arrived, there were 50+ people in the park. Pinatas waved in the wind under the park pavilion as a family celebrated the birthday of a loved one. Fathers walked around with children hoisted on their shoulders enjoying water play under the infamous buckets. Families rode through the park on bikes.

All around, you could see the smiles and hear the squeals of youthful laughter as children made new friends and enjoyed water relief from the 88 degree temps. Grandparents sat feeding snacks to their grandchildren, and many families like us enjoyed dinner on benches by the water. The park was a rich display of neighbors of every heritage and every hue.

As I fed my son, I overheard a conversation by elder residents seated on the bench beside me. Their chatter abounded over the antics of youth and the dog days of summer. They had no clue of my connection to Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, but their conversation about the state of our city's green spaces naturally piqued my interest.

“This is the best thing that ever happened to this park…I am so glad there is something positive to do now in this park," they said. "The space was always here, but there was there was nothing to do in the park, so kids got in trouble. Now there is space with something to do... this is beautiful...this is wonderful."

In that moment, my heart swelled with pride. I had just finished my first week on the Friends team, and I was never more excited to be a part of an organization committed to using green infrastructure to create spaces that redefine social norms.

On that Sunday afternoon, as I scanned the faces at Joe Taylor Park, I saw how the space was changing the narrative around the role of fathers and the presence of fathers in the lives of their children. I saw proof that the spirit of "neighbor helping neighbor" is alive and vibrant in central city neighborhoods. I saw a narrative that disrupted false beliefs that communities of color are absent from green infrastructure conversations.

Those residents may not have known the names of FGRP staff, volunteers or partners, but on that Sunday afternoon, they were living witnesses of the intangible power and spirit of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. That afternoon reinforced my belief in what we as a community can create and the greatness that emerges when we adopt a mindset of connected collectivism in the spirit of shared destiny.

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is more than any one person...this work and mission is the story of many hands, many voices and many gifts working in tandem for the good of all. Together, we are friends.

The green infrastructure movement in our city needs all of us.

The Green Gala is Friends of Grand Rapids Parks' annual fundraiser to support our ongoing mission to protect, enhance and expand parks and public spaces in the city. Visit and for additional information.

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