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Leadership Grand Rapids: Grooming future leaders to maintain the status quo

April 12, 2023

For the past 30 years, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce has facilitated a leadership development program called Leadership Grand Rapids (LGR). 

According to a recent blog post from the GR Chamber, there are 40 people who are, “hand-picked to span a diverse network of backgrounds, specializations, and industries to bring together a group that is uniquely special and capable of confronting complex problems from all directions.” 

The goal of the LGR program is as follows: 

LGR serves to create a network of community trustees who act on the need, the desire, and the ambition to work for the common good and serve the primary needs of others by holding our community in trust. Ultimately, we’ll drive systems-level change to create a thriving and prosperous West Michigan for all.

This whole thing about making West Michigan a prosperous place for everyone is also part of the mission statement of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, but after more than 100 years of existence, there is no evidence that the majority of residents of West Michigan are prosperous or even have their basic needs being met. 

More importantly, the idea that Leadership Grand Rapids wants to drive systems-level change is just a flat-out absurd statement. Here are some thoughts about why LGR is not interested in systemic or structural change, at least not the kind that would benefit those most vulnerable in this community.

First, it you want to participate in this program (which means once a month from October – May), you have to pay $4,500 to participate ($4,000 if you are a GR Chamber member). The cost alone automatically excludes large sectors of society. Yes, they offer scholarships, but they also make it clear that participants are hand-picked, and I would argue hand-picked specifically from the business and professional classes of people in this community.

Second, in 2000, I was asked by my former boss at the Community Media Center to participate in LGR, but I declined, as my understanding of leadership is fundamentally different from what the Chamber of Commerce defines as leadership. I did however participate in the program from 2000 – 2006, as a presenter. 

The way LGR was structured in those years was around specific themes for each month, and one month they would spend the day visiting media outlets and talking about the role that media played in West Michigan, primarily the role that commercial media played. However, my former CEO at the Community Media Center (CMC) convinced LGR to come to the CMC for part of the day to see how media technology could be used for non-commercial purposes. In addition, I always did a 45 – 50 minute long Media Literacy presentation, in order to get people to think critically about how media functions in our world. Participants always gave high marks for the Media Literacy portion, especially since it is a very interactive form of critical thinking.

Being involved in LGR from 2000 – 2006 gave me an interesting perspective on the make up of the LGR participants and some insight into their worldview, especially since there was lots of conversation in my Media Literacy session. So, when I say that LGR caters to primarily the business and professional class, I was speaking from experience, as we would always get a list of people involved and what company or entity they worked for.

Third, the primary sponsors of LGR should be an indicator about what the function is of this leadership training program. You have Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Corewell Health, both of which are part of the For-Profit Medical Industrial Complex. The other two main sponsors are Experience GR, the lead tourism entity in Grand Rapids, along with Amway, the global corporation that was founded by and still run by members of the billionaire DeVos and Van Andel families.

Fourth, based on my own observations and from first hand accounts of people I know who have participated in LGR, the primary function of the program is to introduce people from the business and professional classes to other “influencers” or members of the local power structure. In addition to introducing participants to these people, the other benefit is to assist younger participants who are members of the business and professional classes to network with peers who are immersed in maintaining the status quo in West Michigan.

Lastly, it is worth asking if there are any measurable systems-change impacts that LGR has had over the past 30 years? I am not aware of such systems-changing outcomes and there are no examples of this listed on the page that features LGR. One would think that if there were system-changing outcomes they would have included that information as a solid marketing tactic. In fact, the only information we get on the LGR page, beyond the goals and how to apply, are a few testimonials from previous participants.

Make no mistake about it, Leadership Grand Rapids, like most of what the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce does, is designed to groom future leaders in such a way that will benefit those participants and not disrupt the interlocking systems of power in West Michigan that does not welcome people who want to radically challenge the status quo.

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