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Power Over or Power With: A Power Analysis of the top 200 most powerful business leaders in West Michigan, according to the Grand Rapids Business Journal

October 25, 2021

The Grand Rapids Business Journal recently released their list of The 200 Most Powerful business Leaders in West Michigan. 

The brief editorial comment about this list (page 12) states:

But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you live in Grand Rapids? It’s a big country and there are plenty of great places to live. Yet, you chose West Michigan. Why? I suspect it has a lot to do with the 200 people profiled in this magazine, even if you don’t know them personally or even by name.

There are a few more quaint comments from the editor of the Grand Rapids Business Journal (GRBJ), Tim Gortsema, but he ends his comments by saying, “I would argue that these 200 people (and countless others just like them) are the reason you chose to live in West Michigan. In the end, living in West Michigan is more about the people than it is about cool things to see and do.”

Unfortunately, the GRBJ never provides a definition of what they mean by powerful, even though it is the title of the document, The 200 Most Powerful Business Leaders in West Michigan. There are certainly a lot of people on this list who have a great deal of economic, political and social power. This kind of power can be identified as having power over people, because of their wealth, businesses, influence in politics and other social dynamics. In fact, many of the people in the GRBJ list of 200 are either part of the first or second tier in the Grand Rapids Power Structure. 

The most powerful people in Tier 1 are those who are millionaires or billionaires, such as members of the DeVos, Van Andel and Meijer families. In addition to their wealth, the make a great deal of their wealth off of those who work for their companies and institutions. Then there is the dynamic of these families and individuals who contributed a great deal of money to politicians and political candidates, with the goal of influencing public policies that benefit their economic and ideological position. 

Another reason why these people are part of Tier 1 of the most powerful, has to do with the fact that many of them have their own foundations, which not only works to hide some of their wealth from being taxed, the foundations allow these powerful people to engage in population management. Foundation funding generally has strings attached, so that non-profits which apply for grants will not be able to use the funding dollars for addressing the root causes of social issues, but simply to manage the individuals who access specific non-profit resources. This dynamic is what social theorist and anti-racist organizer, Paul Kivel, refers to as non-profits acting as a buffer for those in power. One last dynamic that the Tier 1 most powerful engage in, is to sit on the boards of organizations to further influence social, economic and political outcomes. Some of the entities that Tier 1 people act as board members would be the West Michigan Policy Forum, the Right Place Inc., the Acton Institute, and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

Tier 2 members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure often work in leadership positions of the businesses or the organizations that Tier 1 people have created. Many of these people also sit on the boards, along with often acting as participants and cheerleaders for the kinds of policies and social outcomes that Tier 1 members will champion. Tier 2 members could also be identified as part of the managerial or professional class and generally have less wealth than those in Tier 1. 

Tier 2 people also consist of local politicians, police chiefs and even some of the directors of non-profit organizations that are fundamentally not committed to social justice or challenging systems of power and oppression. Some of these people are Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, the police chief, the Kent County Sheriff, and non-profit leaders like Phil Weaver with Hope Network or Bridget Clark Whitney with Kids Food Basket.

There are a handful of people who could be considered powerful people, but in this case it is power with others and not power over others. Some examples might be George Bayard, the Executive Director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, or Jazz McKinney, the Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center. 

Most of the people identified as part of the 200 most powerful in West Michigan, according to the Grand Rapids Business Journal, are those that practice power over others. In fact, it would be my contention that the current wealth gap in this community is in large part due to most of those on this list of 200. Most of these people have tremendous wealth, while tens of thousands are living in poverty. 

Most of the people on this list are the perpetrators of systemic racism in West Michigan, along with being the beneficiaries of systemic racism. Most of the people on this list of 200 are also responsible for much of the gentrification in Grand Rapids, the tremendous amount of food insecurity, and the general maintenance of business as usual in this community. In fact, most of the top 200 most powerful on this list are the primary obstacles to the ability of grassroots groups to achieve social justice in this community. This is why, in social movement work, we name what we did in this article, as a Power Analysis. 

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