Negotiations for white space: Quest to enact robust human rights ordinance in Grand Rapids

Reposted from The Rapidian. By Lyonel Lagrone, 7/17/18 11:40am, Place Matters.

Grand Rapids

To gain true equality in Grand Rapids a new municipal vision of belonging must be imagined. A belonging that allows black and brown bodies to speak into the formation and reconfiguration of policies that actually protect them from illegal discrimination.

The fungible nature of basic citizen rights afforded to minorities in Grand Rapids has been the impetus for the racial tension for quite some time now. Discrimination is clearly a national problem and not unique to Grand Rapids. Nevertheless, one of the most profound enclosures of black and brown access to economic opportunity, housing and public accommodation in the United States is in the City of Grand Rapids.

For over a year now, I have been involved in individual and collective conversations about the state of race relations in the City of Grand Rapids. It has become abundantly clear to me that, in the words of Andrew Hacker, we essentially reside in two cities that share the same name and boundaries, “One black, one white, [and those cities are] separate, hostile and unequal.” What was birthed out of those conversations is a draft of a new Human Rights Ordinance for the City of Grand Rapids. The newly proposed Human Rights Ordinance represents a culmination of voices. Some on record, but most who spoke and advised in confidence for fear of retaliation.

As I met with people, while simultaneously drafting the ordinance, I found myself immersed in a series of conversations that essentially could be reasonably interpreted as negotiation for black and brown citizenship rights in a predominately white city. The negotiations were quite dynamic.

Internal and External Negotiations

First there were, what I call, the internal negotiations. These were conversations with people and groups that have expressed profound suffering in our city at the hands of illegal discrimination. I’ve heard stories of people losing jobs, being denied promotions, facing illegal evictions, not being allowed to enter places of public accommodations, or made to feel incredibly unwelcome, because of their race or national origin. Most internal negotiations for support of the ordinance resulted in quiet, confidential consultation and an expressed reluctance to show up to any community meeting on the ordinance or go on public record as supporting the ordinance because of fear of retaliation. The major retaliatory fears of this group: loss of employment, as well as social and political capital.

Then there were, what I call, the external negotiations. These are individuals and groups of people, mostly white, who sympathize with a stronger anti-discrimination ordinance but question the practicality of such an effort. Major criticism from this group is the fact that we have federal and state anti-discrimination protections. It’s important to note that these federal and state protections were in effect when Forbes Magazine listed Grand Rapids as one of the worst cities in the United States for Black folks to prosper.

Citizenship Rights

The main question to be asked here is: Are we ready as a city to take Human/Civil Rights as seriously as we take criminal justice?

We have achieved true equality when we swiftly respond to employment discrimination as swiftly as we would respond to theft of property. When we respond to black and brown bodies being held to a higher standard in our places of public accommodation (i.e. black/ brown cover charge v. not for white) as we would an unsafe or impaired driver on our roads. Discrimination, just as criminal acts have devastating effects in the lives of the injured party. Yet we see one as optional. If a group of citizens in an apartment complex called the police and reported massive car break-ins one evening, would the police respond and investigate? Or would they hire an outside consultant to examine the validity of the collective complaint? We all know the answer, the citizens would lodge their complaints and the investigation would commence. Why is that?

The historical mindset of the citizen in Grand Rapids has been cultivated inside the processes of displacement for black and brown bodies. As a result, it is extremely difficult and in most cases impossible for minorities to be considered an equal partner in affirmatively furthering their own civil and human rights, but relegated to the position of student. Never the teacher of their experience, always the student. A student whose sole place in their hometown is to go to work and carry the burden of discrimination and be reprimanded for how they process their experiences with discrimination.

By virtue of this inverse relationship, the connectivity is lost between the municipality and the daily reality of black and brown citizens in our city. Therefore, any attempt at majority rationality will be shallow at best and irrelevant at worst.

To gain true equality in Grand Rapids a new municipal vision of belonging must be imagined. A belonging that allows black and brown bodies to speak into the formation and reconfiguration of policies that actually protect them from illegal discrimination. Policies that are not disrupted in an attempt to maintain the racist aesthetic status quo.

One of the most riveting testimonies I heard during the “internal negotiations” was from a group of black men and women that so eloquently stated that the, “City has a disdain for our sense of Journey.”  In this conversation, the “City” meant the spirit of the municipality as a whole. Unfortunately, this narrative is very common in the Black community. The sense of journey refers to the career aspirations and the quest for what Dr. Randall Jelks terms, “Middle class respectability.” As a result, professionals of color seek opportunities in other towns across the country where their expertise is respected regardless of race or national origin. It is important to note that for every professional of color that leaves Grand Rapids to fulfill their sense of journey and gain that respectability, that is another black/brown person that contributes to the narrative of Grand Rapids being an unwelcome town for people of color.

But I believe there is hope for the future. We can change the trajectory of the separate and unequal narrative. We have an opportunity here to double down on illegal discrimination in Grand Rapids. The proposed Human Rights Ordinance for the City of Grand Rapids will require thorough investigations of complaints of discrimination and seek to make people whole who have been victimized by it.

Right now, the City’s department of Diversity and Inclusion has been tasked with writing a counter proposal (this is common in policy development). Now as we await the City’s response and counter proposal, I am asking everyone who truly cares about fairness and equality to send an email to your commissioner and the Mayor expressing your support for the passage of a Human Rights ordinance with real investigations and remedies. The contact information for your commissioners and the mayor is as follows:


Rosalynn Bliss

Ward 1

Jon O’Connor

Kurt Reppart

Ward 2

Ruth Kelly

Joe Jones

Ward 3

Senita Lenear


Healthy Homes to share resources at farmers’ market Saturday

seafm logo

11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays through November
MLK Jr. Park, 900 Fuller Ave. SE 
Bridge Cards/EBT/SNAP and WIC Welcome!
We do Double Up Food Bucks!

Staff members from the Healthy Homes Coalition will be at the July 14 Southeast Area Farmers’ Market to share resources and information about their programs. “The mission of the Healthy Homes Coalition is to improve children’s health and well being by eliminating harmful housing conditions.”

Programs include:

  • Healthy Homes for Healthy Kids. Healthy Housing Specialists provide preventive in-home visits for low-income families with children 0-5 years of age or children with asthma. Issues include lead poisoning, asthma, accidental injury (trips/falls, burns/scalds, poisoning, suffocation, etc.), and lung cancer.
  • Breathe Easier Asthma Program, for households with children with asthma who have repeat emergency department visits or hospital admissions. The project includes provision of consumer goods and home repairs to address asthma triggers (carpet removal, fix leaks and control moisture, pest management, ventilation, and more).
  • Fire Safety Program, a one-on-one in-home education on fire safety coupled with free smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detector installations.
  • Radon Testing via do-it-yourself radon kits. Radon is a naturally occurring gas and is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
  • Get the Lead Out! Assistance to repair all lead hazards in the home.

For more information and qualifications, stop by Saturday or visit the Healthy Homes Coalition website.


Our farmers’ market is back!

Southeast Area Farmers’ Market, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays through November at MLK Jr. Park, 900 Fuller Ave. SE 49506. 


First day of the 2018 market!                           Photo by Grace Michienzi

gmichienziLast Saturday, the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market held its first 2018 market. We got off to a good start! (Despite the competing clean-up event.) The Grand Rapids Fire Department was on hand sharing resources from its Residential Safety Program (RSP). And, area residents enjoyed a nice selection of local produce.

If you stopped by the market, you may have noticed a new face at the main table. Grace Michienzi is spending her summer as an intern with Our Kitchen Table and MSU Extension. Originally from West Michigan, she went to Hudsonville High School. She says that she is excited to be working in a community that she considers her home.

Grace is a junior at Michigan State University studying Social Relations and Policy with a minor in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Throughout her life, she has had a passion for social justice issues, but it was not until she went to college that she learned that she also has a passion for food and food justice.

“It all started with a research paper that I wrote about urban farming and its
history,” Grace says. “I began to learn about food movements within cities to address the social and environmental inequities.”

She also loves to learn about organic gardening and farming, food policy issues such as the Farm Bill, and environmental issues regarding food production. You may have read Grace’s very informative post about the Farm Bill on our website.

“Mostly, I want to learn about the connections between people and their
food, and in what ways food movements can be as successful as possible at serving the
communities and neighborhoods they are meant to serve,” she says. “I have already learned so much in my weeks as an intern so far, and I am looking forward to learning more!

Besides her studies, Grace loves to hike, be outdoors, garden, cook, and travel. She has an adorable dog named Fish who she love to spend time with outside. She adds,”I love that I will get to spend a lot of time outside at the South East Farmers Market this summer!”

Growing food and eating healthy at MLK Jr. school 

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OKT’s Program for Growth at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy , in collaboration with Grand Rapids Public Schools, challenges students and their families to eat healthy through growing food and learning to cook more nutritious meals. Way to go MLK!

Urban Roots hosts farm open house Wednesday

downloadUrban Roots Farm Open House
June 20, 2018 5:30-7:30 pm June 20, 2018
1316 Madison SE 49507

Farm Open Houses are an opportunity to celebrate our community together and explore the farm. Come when you can, stay as long as you are able, and share a farm-fresh meal with the Urban Roots staff. There’s a seat for everyone at the table. (And all the fresh strawberries you can eat.)

The Open House will be from 5:30-7:30 at 1316 Madison SE 49507. There is plenty of street parking or in the lot across the street.  Check out the Facebook event.