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GVSU chair of philanthropy demonstrated his allegiance to the billionaire families that run Grand Rapids in a recent radio interview

December 16, 2019

Last week on the radio show Stateside, part of the program was devoted to the influence that billionaires have had on Grand Rapids

The text for the program that dealt with the influence of billionaires on Grand Rapids, reads as follows:

Stateside continues our series exploring the impact of billionaire philanthropy in Michigan. We have talked about billionaires’ influence in Detroit and Kalamazoo. Now we look at Grand Rapids.

Michael Moody is the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. He broke down how powerful families with deep pockets, like the DeVos, Van Andel and Meijer families, have made their mark on the Grand Rapids area.

Michael Moody didn’t really break down how billionaires have made their mark on Grand Rapids, Moody simply praises them in such a way as to suggest that Grand Rapids is thriving because of the likes of the DeVos, Van Andel and Meijer families.

The first question posed to Moody was how these families impacted the philanthropic and business communities. Moody particularly zeros in on how they transformed downtown Grand Rapids.

Moody was also asked about comparisons between Grand Rapids philanthropy and Detroit or Kalamazoo. Moody believes that Grand Rapids billionaires have done some things differently, such as create entities to help foster project based development, such as Grand Action. In addition, Moody thinks that the DeVos, Van Andel and Meijer families have figured out a way to work with local, state and federal governments to get public money used for project-based development in the downtown area. Moody celebrates this dynamic and the interviewer doesn’t question the fact that public money has been used for every major development project in Grand Rapids, even though the public had no say in it – the Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, the Downtown Market, etc.

The interviewer then asks Moody if the public should be concerned about the influence that these billionaires have over public life and even government influence? Moody responds with vague comments about democracy and public dialogue, but he avoids responding to how families, like DeVos, deeply influence public policy through their funding of candidates/politicians at all levels of government. Moody says there should be checks and balances, and that philanthropy is trying to figure out a way to better engage the public, so we should all just relax and enjoy their generosity.

The interviewer continues to outdo themselves in terms of offer up softball questions, by then asking how popular the billionaires in Grand Rapids are? Moody’s response was that if people attend events at the Van Andel Arena or DeVos place they then realize that these spaces were made possible by the billionaires, so they would then look favorably on the buildings that are plastered with billionaire names.

The last question posed to Moody was, what would Grand Rapids look like if the local billionaires were not donating their money? Again, the interviewer doesn’t challenge the existence of billionaires amidst massive levels of poverty in Grand Rapids, but assumes that they are a sum benefit to the community. Moody doesn’t think there would be places like the arena or the convention center, the public/private projects, which are essentially Neo-Liberal economics at it best. Public/private partnerships ultimately means that public money gets transferred to the private sector with little or not public oversight. In the Global South this is referred to as Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs), but in the US we call them public/private partnerships, which means that the partnership is really just taking public money for private gain.

None of what Moody had to say is a surprise, especially considering that he works for the Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy at GVSU. The DeVos family has been the single largest contributor to GVSU for several decades now, so it would follow that their center for philanthropy celebrates the role of billionaires and millionaire donors.

The radio show continued with a conversation with Anand Giridharadas, former New York Times columnist and author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadas definitely provided a counter to the overall comments made by Moody, but it is unfortunate that there was no West Michigan counter-part to Moody’s comments.

One counter to Moody’s glowing review of Grand Rapids billionaires could be a panel I participated in in 2017, entitled, Grassroots Responses to Big Philanthropy: Grand Rapids Activism in the Shadow of Amway, ArtPrize and DeVos

For all of Michael Moody’s lofty comments about democracy, he ended up demonstrating his allegiance to the billionaire families that run Grand Rapids. If he is serious about public input and dialogue, then he should actively seek out critical voices in this city, especially those on the front lines of social movements that are not only countering the billionaire class, but creating a new and radical vision for how we can practice collective liberation.

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