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City of Grand Rapids hosted meeting on Public Safety was highly managed and prevented those in attendance from hearing all of ideas and perspectives discussed in small groups

March 22, 2023

I attended the 2nd meeting hosted by the City of Grand Rapids this morning, the meeting which focused on public safety and public health in the wake of the GR Chamber of Commerce proposal that would have criminalized the unhoused. 

I wrote about these forums on March 12 (with hyperlinks to the GR Chamber of Commerce proposal and the 120 businesses that signed on in support), where I questioned the process and what might happen with the information collected.

I want to talk about the process of this meeting that was listed as being from 10am til 12pm, followed by who was in the room, the questions that participants were asked and the very brief discussion at the end about “solutions.” 

First of all, the meeting ended at 11:30am and once you factor in the time that organizers spoke, there was only about an hour for people to have conversations about  public safety and public health.

I noticed the Spark sisters were there – Monica Sparks, who is a Kent County Commissioner and her sister, who is a City Commissioner in Kentwood. At some point it was revealed that the Candied Yam, which is owned by Jessica Ann Tyson (who is the Kentwood City Commissioner) provided refreshments for this forum, which meant the City of Grand Rapids had contracted with them for the event.

On top of that, as I mentioned in the March 12 article, the primary facilitators were representatives of the Civic League, which also meant that they were paid to be there. Lastly, each table had a facilitator and note taker, all of which were representatives of Global Bridge Builders, which is run by Skot Welch, a person who makes money off of DEI work, mostly for the corporate world and is a person who does not threaten the existing systems of power in Grand Rapids. Global Bridge Builders was also likely contracted for this event, which means there were likely three separate entities that were contracted to make this forum happen.

Who was in the room?

The Civic League representative asked if there were elected officials in the room and if there were City staff, with a few people putting up their hands as either elected officials or City staff. However, no other group was acknowledged, like working people, students or people who were unhoused. I say this because it is condescending to only acknowledge elected officials and government staff as present and not people with other vocations, etc. I also bring up this point, because there were more than a dozen people in the room who said they were unhoused, and I was told by someone who was unhoused that there were probably twice that number of people who are currently unhoused.

GRPD Police Chief Eric Winstrom popped his head in the meeting before it got started, but I don’t think he stayed around fo the discussion. At the table that I was seated at, not including the facilitator and the note taker, there were 2 high school students who were there just to observe, someone who works with youth who are unhoused, a person who lives in East Grand Rapids, but had a very critical view of what was happening with public safety in the downtown area, plus a young trans person who has also been unhoused. 

What questions were participants asked to answer?

Before we provide the four questions that dictated the conversations around all fo the tables at this forum, there was never any discussion or clarifying terms around what public safety is. There were no definitions or real world examples provided, therefore, it was most often limited to the notion that public safety was something that the cops provided, as opposed to a more comprehensive view of public safety as when people have all of their needs met.

Therefore, the dominant culture notion of what public safety is – what cops do – didn’t provide the necessary space for a more expansive view of what a more honest notion of what public safety can be. 

  • Question #1 – What brought you here today? What makes this topic important to you?
  • Question #2 – What does it mean for you to feel safe as you are out and about in GR?
  • Question #3 – What did you hear from others that you want to know more about or discuss further in your groups?
  • Question #4 – How can we collectively create a safer Grand Rapids Community?  

You can see from the questions, which are vague and do not name or provide space to talk about structural issues or root causes of the problem(s) that brought about these meetings in the first place. What if there was a more expensive notion of what community safety is or what are the root causes of people feeling unsafe or why there are unhoused people in Grand Rapids? 

Fortunately, the table I was seated at, there was a round Black man who worked directly with unhoused youth and who had a deep understanding of the root causes, plus a young trans person who was unhoused and now does advocacy and organizing work around this issue. They both understood well what the larger issues were, which were identified as lack of funding. When they said lack of funding, they meant that the real needed of those who were unhoused were directly tied to the fact that Grand Rapids spends about 40% of the City’s budget on policing rather than on meeting basic needs of the most vulnerable residents.

Our table did make it clear that re-directing funding from the police budget to meet basic needs of the community was a necessary step and an important solution that addressed question #4. However, when the facilitator at our table relayed the larger sentiment of our group, nothing was said about funding priorities or about the over funded GRPD. 

Now, the notetaker did write that information down, but I would be curious to know if that information makes its way to the Public Safety Committee, which is supposed to have the information/ideas shared by the community for their April meeting. This is why having these discussions exclusively in small groups is so problematic, since it prevents people in the room from hear perspectives and ideas that they have never heard or considered, particularly ideas that challenge systems of power instead of focusing just on those affected by systems of power.

While I was glad I attended and met the people at my table, I left the forum feeling like there was little possibility for systemic change, which is often the case when governments control the narrative and dictate the terms for how these issues get discussed. All the more reason why we need lively social movements that are rooted in collective liberation. 

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