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Six words to describe Grand Rapids

July 6, 2011

It was announced during the 4th of July celebration that the Amway corporation, along with MLive and the Grand Rapids Press have teamed up to offer yet another contest.

The contest is called My GR 6 and is designed to get people to submit a 6-word phrase that best describes the City of Grand Rapids. The winner of this contest will be showered with $10,000 worth of local prizes that have been donated by some of the larger local businesses and entertainment venues.

Already there has been a significant media buzz around the issue and lots of people submitting their 6 word statements. First, I want to state upfront that there are a lot of things happening in this community that are beneficial, creative and truly support what the famous educator/activist Scott Nearing called “the good life.” What Nearing meant by the good life was social justice, ecological integrity and economic simplicity.

Second, while this project may get people to reflect fondly on the positive attributes of this city, it will not likely get much critical reflection. Some obvious criticisms are that this new “contest,” which was hatched by some marketing personnel with the Amway Corporation, should raise red flags for anyone who hasn’t completely bought into the PR generated history of the Ada-based company, its founders and their families.

The Amway Corporation and the DeVos & Van Andel families have a long history of influencing Grand Rapids both economically and politically. Using the wealth these families made off the backs of workers and those who bought into the pyramid-scheme sales structure, the Amway families have purchased property in the downtown part of Grand Rapids and played a major role in the re-construction of that part of the city.

These assets that Amway family members have acquired has provided them significant leverage in determining what kind of development was to occur, such as hotels, the arena, convention center and medical mile.

In addition to the property assets they possess, they have also leveraged what happens in the city through the political process, whether that has been through major contributions to the Republican Party or area candidates running for office at all levels. They have also influence downtown development through support and participation in such groups as the DDA and Grand Action.

More recent participation in cultural institutions such as the Art Museum, the Public Museum, UICA and the now popular ArtPrize have also provided tremendous clout to the Amway families who have become much better at using the wealth they made from other people to create a much friendlier buffer between unbridled greed and a growing class of people living in poverty.

Grand people, great faith, generous giving.”     Richard and Helen DeVos MyGR6 phrase

The Third and last point to raise here is that while it is certainly important to point out the positive elements of what makes up Grand Rapids, it too often means that we do not look at the negative and even destructive forces in this city. Not directing our gaze or our creativity toward these very real elements of this city is exactly what the Amway families want us to give our attention to.

So, in keeping with the spirit of the MyGR6 contest, I would like to offer up 6 words to get us to think about the not so pleasant realities that permeate our city.

Poverty – Last week we reported on the new unemployment statistics for Kent County, which currently has 8.8% of unemployment. What the statistics don’t reveal is that there are thousands of people living in poverty in Grand Rapids, both the unemployed and underemployed. This means that thousands of people are faced with the possibility of being evicted, not being able to pay utility bills, forced to rely on food pantries and purchase cheap foods, which is often unhealthy food. Living in poverty often leads to people living under significant stress and coping with depression.

In the neighborhood that I have lived in for 26 years, this kind of poverty also has led to abusive landlords who take advantage of those in poverty by taking their monthly rent but not investing is a safe and healthy environment. This is part of My Grand Rapids!

Racism – It is not a secret that Grand Rapids in one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. In addition to the segregation, communities of color are still disproportionately treated as second-class citizens. The poverty rates are higher for Black and Latino/a communities and there is a disproportionately higher rate of incarceration for these two communities of color.

I also know numerous people in the Arab American community who continue to receive threats and verbal assaults on a daily basis. The same is true for all communities of color and those that are also part of recent immigrant communities, who constantly live in fear of harassment from both individuals and cops. Grand Rapids is home to thousands of migrant workers who make poverty wages and endure harsh working conditions even though they provide the labor that brings us most of our food. This is part of My Grand Rapids!

Sexism – According to the Kent County Sexual Assault Prevention Action Team, there are significant numbers of women and children who are sexually assaulted on a monthly basis in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is no different from the rest of the country in that roughly 30% of the women who live in this community will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. This is not a marginal number, but the number does not convey the realities of the ongoing trauma that those who are victims of sexual assault experience throughout their entire lives, which includes some of my closest friends and those I work with. This is My Grand Rapids!

Homophobia – While it is true that the City of Grand Rapids passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in the mid – 1990s, there is still significant discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. This discrimination is faced in the areas of housing, employment, health services and within religious institutions. After months of research and interviews with people in the LGBTQ community for the People’s History Project, it is clear that Grand Rapids has a long way to go to not only respect people in the gay community, but to provide social, cultural and public space for them to feel safe and welcomed. This is My Grand Rapids!

Pollution – For some, Grand Rapids is known as a “green” city. However, despite some progress being made around environmental issues, Grand Rapids is still a community with an unsustainable amount of pollution. Air pollution is problematic for everyone, but particularly for people with asthma and other respiratory issues. Communities of color and working class neighborhoods are disproportionately closer to the highways that run through this city and are exposed to more air pollution caused from vehicle exhaust.

Grand Rapids doesn’t have adequate green space and needs to improve the urban canopy of trees significantly. Water pollution has improved in some areas but we need to drastically reduce both the amount of contaminants going into water and the amount of water consumed in this city. Grand Rapids does not as of yet have a plan for dealing with composted matter, does not allow people to raise chickens and is still far off from being a city where bicycle and mass transit are the dominant forms of transportation.

Exploitation – The economy of Grand Rapids operates within a Capitalist model and is even celebrated as a place of famous entrepreneurs – ie., the Amway families. This means that we have significant concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, while working people are exploited on a daily basis.

The “captains of industry” have mechanisms they have created to dictate what happens in Grand Rapids, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Right Place Program, the DDA and other business programs that exist to push forth a corporate agenda. We can see this —  what Michael Barker calls soft power — with the power of business schools at local universities as well as the clout that wealthy families exert through their numerous foundations.

In fact, writers like Barker would argue that Amway’s creation and participation in the MyGR6 contest is a form of soft power because it ultimately supports a system which only benefits a certain sector of the population. If we truly want Grand Rapids to be a grand city, then we need to have critical dialogue followed by the kind of systemic change that would not allow so few to have power over so many.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Keleigh Wolf permalink
    July 6, 2011 7:03 pm

    My 6 words? “This is so not London.” It’s such a boring, homogonized community with a meager, at best, art infrastructure mostly run by the De Vos/ Van Andel’s, who are increasingly becoming much like Nazi’s & imposing their belief systems on others. Where is NHS? Why can’t I go to the doctor? Where are the pensions? If I lived in GR as an elderly person, I’d continue to have to work. GR is a microcosm of the greater American problem – passive acceptance that laissez faire capitalism will save us. God, help us. & God save the Queen.

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    July 6, 2011 9:57 pm

    Amway’s concern about not receiving entries that pointed out the essential corruptness of their business model was somewhat hilariously framed by the fact that their entry software excluded submissions that contained “trigger” words like “millionaire,” “pyramid,” “scheme,” etc. Still, people managed some clever ways around that to make their points about both GR and Amway. One of my favorite entries was: “Be like us. Resistance is futile.”

    Humor aside, Jeff’s point is well made: Our Grand Rapids encompasses some good but a lot of negatives: the widening gap between the ultra-rich and the poor in this area, with the poverty rate here up to a stunning 25 percent; increases in foreclosures; unacceptable pollution zones and poor water quality; and a whole lot of open, community-accepted bigotry.

    Case in point: an article on today’s Grand Rapids Press site about the conservative anti-gay leader of the DeVos-and-Prince family funded American Family Association of Michigan. Comments by GR residents–which have apparently been screened by the Press’s laughably inadequate “sweep team” and found acceptable, include:

    “The fact that they (LGBTQ people) are attracted to the same sex proves mental illness.”

    “What ever happened to the good old days when this was considered sick unacceptable behavior which WE would’nt put up with & sure as he!! did’nt have to witness.”

    “I am a small business owner & pay taxes as any other business owner does however, I would NEVER hire a rump ranger or doughnut bumper…EVER ! Hire a SICK & DISGUSTING individual to work for me ? Their behavior is a vomit rendering ABOMINATION !”

    “I don’t want me no queers serving my dinner salad … ”

    Similar comments are made on a daily basis about the unemployed, people of color, immigrants, and members of unions. This is our Grand Rapids (and, unfortunately, Grand Rapids’ newspaper).

    Here are my six words:
    “Working for social justice; undermining elites.”

  3. Bob Chavarria permalink
    July 6, 2011 11:25 pm

    I’ve only lived in GR for a year. Moved here with my family from Waco Tx. Compared to Waco, GR may as well be San Fransisco, with the underground music scene, best taken in at Mexicains Sans Frontiers, and the whole art community, visual and performing, that would never win ArtFarce even if they wanted to enter it, having said that I have learned a lot about why this creative subculture is buried so deep, and it has everything to do with this handful of families and the wealth they’ve gained off the backs of the people they squeeze harder everyday. Here’s MY GR6: “Shove Your Cake Up Your Ass”.

  4. Jon Vander permalink
    July 7, 2011 3:59 am

    “South of Wealthy, out of mind”

  5. Kate Wheeler permalink
    July 7, 2011 4:20 pm

    Jon, that’s perfect!

  6. July 8, 2011 11:11 am

    Is there a Twitter hashtag for these “alternative entries” because if not there needs to be.

  7. Samantha Kennedy Zaverl permalink
    July 20, 2011 9:31 pm

    Just a few thoughts.

    The City that never stops dreaming…
    The City that follows your dreams… (emphasis on yours with italics)
    Chase your dreams with Grand Rapids… (emphasis on yours with italics)
    The City that never stops believing…

    Grand Rapids, The City of dreams….

    I’m probably not supposed to enter more than one phrase, but I had a few ideas, so I just went with it!

  8. autumn permalink
    October 5, 2011 2:41 am

    My GR6. History,prospering,colleges,businesses,creative,promising.

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