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Gateways for Growth or Gateways for Economic and Immigrant Justice: Another look at the new report on the economic contributions of immigrants in Kent County

September 17, 2018

Last week, a new report on the economic impact that immigrants have in Kent County was rolled out at two separate events, one at the Goei Center and one at Cesar Chavez School.

One of the main groups behind the report is Samaritas, a refugee resettlement program. In a recent MLive article, a representative of Samaritas as quoted as saying:

“They are contributing to a lot of vital sectors in our community,” said Joel Lautenbach, executive director of development at Samaritas, a Detroit-based social service agency that focuses on refugee resettlement. “They are a very important source of labor in an economy that has long talked about a shortage of labor.”

Gateways for Growth or Gateways for Economic and Immigrant Justice

It is important to recognize that in the current economic reality of West Michigan, immigrants do contribute a great deal to the economy. The New Americans in Kent County report emphasizes this economic impact by stating that in 2016,  immigrants earned $1.3 billion dollars in Kent County and contributed $219.4 million in federal taxes and $101.5 million in state and local taxes.

This data flies in the face of the anti-immigrant messaging, which believes that immigrants don’t pay taxes and then use all kinds of social services that the rest of society pays for. The fact is that immigrants, whether they are documented or undocumented, pay taxes. However, just because this report reveals that immigrants pay taxes and contribute to the economy, it should not cause us to simply use the argument that immigrants are good because they bolster the regions economy. It is important that we look deeper into the data and question what it means for immigrant just.

The notion that immigrants are good for the economy should not be our argument for why all immigrants should be allowed to live in our community. In fact, the argument is flawed. The report notes that there are a few sectors where immigrants tend to find work, such as assemblers, fabricators, agricultural, production, cooks and packagers. These are all jobs that do not pay very well and in the case of agricultural work, may not even pay minimum wage.

The reality is that many immigrants who work in construction, assembly, agriculture, the restaurant industry and other service jobs do not make a livable wage. Most of these immigrant workers are exploited, meaning that not only do they make a low wages, they make money for business owners who take advantage of them. Think about all the immigrants who work as farmworkers, how hard they work and how little they get paid. According to the State of Michigan, the food and agricultural sector contributes $101.2 billion to the state’s economy every year. However, the fact is that most of this money stays in the hands of the agribusiness sector as compared to the immigrant population who does the bulk of the agricultural labor. 

This is exactly why the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the Right Place Inc. were involved in the promotion of this new report. Both of those entities don’t care about economic justice, they just want to promote economic growth, even if it is at the expense of certain populations, in this case the immigrant population. In addition, the GR Chamber of Commerce is opposed to any kind of organized labor force and works to influence state policy to make sure that wages, benefits and pensions are low or are eliminated. Again, these organizations support increased money coming into the community, they just don’t believe in economic justice.

Another reason why putting an emphasis on what immigrants contribute to the economy is that it means we put economic value above all else. We don’t value immigrants for their culture, for their creativity, for their skills and for their commitment to their respective communities. Why do we always emphasize the economic contribution of immigrants above all else?

The report also does not take into consideration the amount of money that immigrants send back to countries of origin to support other family members, what is called remittance. It would be interesting to see some data on how much remittances are sent to countries of origin from Kent County. Why? First, remittances would underscore the fact that for many immigrants, they rarely get by because they are not only supporting themselves or family members in Kent County, they are supporting family members in their country of origin. Secondly, remittances helps put an emphasis on why people come to the US and why they send so much money home. This would focus our larger collective discussion around the desperation that many immigrants experience, when they flee their own country, come to the US, experience economic exploitation here, along with political repression. As the report notes a high number of immigrants are from Mexico and Guatemala, two countries that US foreign policy has devastated, both economically and militarily. This kind of expanded understanding of why so many immigrants are coming to West Michigan, would force us to see the humanity of people, rather than to fixate on how much money they bring to the area.

This brings us to one of the most important pieces of data in the report, the number of undocumented people living in Kent County. In 2016, the report states that there were a total of 13,384 undocumented immigrants living in Kent County. In early 2017, the Trump administration made it very clear that if you are an undocumented immigrant, you will be a target. Indeed, as GR Rapid Response to ICE has made known, every week members of the undocumented community are be terrorized by ICE agents, often being arrested, detained and facing possible deportation. If Kent County, the City of Grand Rapids or any other local municipality really values the immigrant community, they would declare themselves a sanctuary city and Kent County would end its contract with ICE. You can’t celebrate immigrants for their economic contributions to the area and then not work to oppose federal policy that seeks to treat them as criminals just because they don’t have the documentation the government requires.

The new report on the economic contributions is a good start in terms of recognizing the value of the immigrant community in Kent County, but until we expand the conversation that includes the following:

  • Remittances of immigrants
  • Economic exploitation of immigrants
  • Reasons why people fled countries of origin
  • How US Foreign Policy is a major cause of migration
  • How state violence, especially through ICE oppresses the immigrant community

……….. Kent County will never be a welcoming community for immigrants.

10 years of ArtPrize critique and resistance

September 16, 2018

It has been 10 years since Rick DeVos announced that he and his family’s money (Dick & Betsy DeVos have bankrolled ArtPrize) would be hosting an annual event in downtown Grand Rapids, known as ArtPrize.

We have written about this event from the beginning, offering a critique of the monied spectacle, which uses artist labor and public resources that primarily benefit private wealth.

Early on it became clear that the local news media would not offer any sort of scrutiny of the annual event, instead they became cheerleaders and collaborators. Some years we even tracked election coverage and compared it to ArtPrize coverage. ArtPrize garnered more coverage than representative democracy.

We have also documented to benefits from the annual monied spectacle and we have posted artist responses to ArtPrize.

As the annual event gets ready to kick-off, we simply wanted to provide our readers with several of the articles we have written over the years, to provide some context for why it is important to critique and resist this monied spectacle.

ArtPrize trumps democracy: What the Press coverage tells us about the Press

What is ArtPrize? 

When elites give money to each other: ArtPrize financials for 2010

MLive article misses the point of the GQ article on ArtPrize

Photo bomb challenges the politics of ArtPrize , with online campaign 

The Political Economy of ArtPrize – Part I 

The Political Economy of ArtPrize – Part II 


Moral Pronouncements aren’t enough: Artprize, the DeVos Family and Trump’s Executive Orders

The funding scheme of ArtPrize

ArtPrize, art and the aesthetic experience: An interview with Richard Kooyman

Grand Rapids, ArtPrize and Whiteness

The People’s Commission and the End the Contract with ICE campaign action expands list of demands from the County

September 14, 2018

As a matter of transparency, this writer participated in the action yesterday at the Kent County Commission meeting.

Yesterday, some two dozen people attended the Kent County Commission meeting to continued to demand that the county agree to work to end the contract between the county jail and ICE.

People met on Calder Plaza before going up to the County Commission meeting. Waiting for members of the End the Contract campaign were more than a dozen law enforcement officers, some from the GRPD and some from the Sheriff’s Department.

The police told organizers that if they planned on marching in the street there would be arrests. The cops said that since government dignitaries were in town because of the DeVos funeral, that they needed to keep streets open and not allow for any disturbances in the city.

Just moments before people went into the County building, someone from the Sheriff’s Department told them that anyone with a backpack could not come to the commission meeting for “security” reasons. This was just the latest tactic used by the county to try to deter people from participating in county government business.

People went inside and up to the third floor where the commission meets and right away notice that there were several people with backpacks and briefcases in the room, clearly demonstrating a double standard. Undeterred, the End the Contract campaign members stuck to their plan. What follows is text for what those who organized the action were calling the People’s Commission.

Speaker during public comment It’s been over two months since we first asked you to end the contract between ICE and the Kent County Jail – to not accept money to hold our immigrant neighbors for ICE, when often they’ve only been brought in for a traffic violation.  There is nothing regarding ending the contract on the agenda.  Will you sign this resolution now?

[Holds up resolution document, calls each commissioner who hasn’t signed by name.]

This Kent County Commission has shown it will not listen to the people’s will.  Therefore we must call a special commission – a People’s Commission – to model how to listen to the people, how to represent the people, and how to act in a way that responds to their needs. For instance, a People’s Commission would have meetings in the evening so people could attend, not during the work day like this one. 

Commissioners Womack and Melton, you signed the resolution, so we invite you to join us, as long as you’re willing to listen to the public and act to end the contract.  This is the People’s Commission!

[People’s Commissioners stand up, form semi-circle that mimics Kent County Commission seating arrangement.]

Chair: I now call this meeting of the People’s Commission to order!  We are here to listen to the public about the Kent County Jail contract with ICE.   We represent the people of Kent County as we actually are!  And we want to hear from the public – tell us – is this contract between ICE and the Kent County Jail hurting our community?

Public (together): YES!

Commissioner 1: How is it hurting our community?  Help me understand.

[Stories from affected community.] 

Commissioner 2: Some say that ICE serves as a positive agency?

Public (together): NO!

Public 1:  No. There’s evidence that there have been over 33,000 complaints filed against ICE over the last 7 years, alleging a wide range of abuses in immigration detention. Those included sexual abuse.  Complying with a demand could get an immigrant released -but they could be deported to the wrong country if they didn’t. (1)  This is who the Kent County Jail is working with.  And the Commission has the power to stop it.

Public 2: The ACLU has obtained over 30,000 pages of documented abuses of immigrant children in ICE custody.  IvCE officers have:

  • Punched a child’s head three times, kicked a child in the ribs
  • Used a stun gun on a boy, causing him to fall to the ground, shaking, with h eyes rolling back in his head
  • Subjected a 16-year-old girl to a search that ended in a sexual assault which was too graphic to describe here.
  • They’ve done many other things – calling children dogs, threatening them with sexual assault by other inmates, running over a teen with a patrol vehicle, refusing to let children stand up for days, and more.  (2)

This is who the Kent County Jail is working with. And the Commission has the power to end the contract and stop being complicit in this violence.

Public 1: For that matter, ICE was only created after 9/11.  Before that immigration was handled by Immigration and Naturalization Services, which had a greater focus on bringing people into the country.  Now immigration is handled by the Department of Homeland Security, which created ICE.  Forms of immigration that had been common and accepted before were now made into criminal acts. (3)  The Kent County Jail is complicit in criminalizing our neighbors. Yet the increased violence in enforcement by ICE has not stopped migration.  There are still currently an estimated 11 million under-documented immigrants in the U.S.

Public 2: Also, this violence by ICE shows us that we don’t need armed officers to fix our problems.  Right here in this group we have non-violent crowd safety volunteers, looking out for us and willing to de-escalate problems if they arise.

Commissioner 3: How many people in Kent County does the contract with ICE affect?

Public 3: In 2016, the number of undocumented immigrants in Kent County was over 13,000.  The undocumented share of the immigrant population was over 26%. (4)

This means that most immigrant families and many non-immigrant families here have loved ones who are under-documented, and the fear of their detention and deportation affects all areas of their lives.  The fear of losing a loved one.  Of losing a family member.  Of losing the income they need to live.  All because the Kent County Jail has sold them to ICE – received payment for holding them for ICE and handing them over.

Public 4: What’s more, nationally, there are over 350,000 people detained each year.  The national detention budget for 2017 was $2.6 billion for locking up our neighbors – but immigrants contribute $2.3 trillion of wealth to the U.S . (5) 

My point is this problem happens everywhere in the U.S., and that’s why it’s important for local decision-makers like yourselves to fix it at the local level, here in Kent County.

Commissioner 4: How much does Kent County benefit or lose from the contract to hold immigrants for ICE?

Public 3: Kent County only made $18,000 last year from this contract. (6) But it is estimated that immigrants contribute $3.3 billion a year to Kent County’s economy, which benefits the county. (7)  So it is much better for Kent County to not lock up our immigrant neighbors or hold them for ICE.

Also, our Kent County residents’ quality of life is decreased and their human rights are being violated by this contract. In a city and county that already has a national spotlight on its issues with racial profiling, this just gives more financial incentive to pull over Black and brown drivers. (8)  Criminalizing immigrants should not be a source of income for the government.  They should be allowed to live and work and raise their children in peace and without fear. (9)

Commissioner 5: So is there an alternative?

Public (together): YES!

Public 4: Across the nation, cities and counties like us have resolved not to work with ICE.

The mayor of Atlanta just ordered the city to end the relationship with ICE and to remove all those detainees from the city jail. (10) The governments in Austin, TX, in Sacramento County, CA, in Springfield, Oregon, and in Alexandria, Virginia – all of them ended contracts with ICE and will no longer accept a ransom to kidnap their residents. (11) And Kalamazoo County right here in Michigan has also passed a resolution to not work with ICE.

Chair: I appreciate these examples and these points.  We know that the commission can use financial and legal means to end this contract. Will ending the contract really stop the harm ICE is doing in Kent County?

Public (together): YES!

Public 2:  It will show every immigrant resident that Kent County stands with them. 

  • Ending the Contract is the right thing to do! And you can do more! 
  • You can pass a resolution that says the County will not use any of their resources to support ICE.
  • You can make the County a Sanctuary for all immigrants, just like Ann Arbor and Detroit have done.
  • You can support the work of GR Rapid Response to ICE, who gets calls every week from families – you can help them to interrupt ICE and to support families who have been harmed by ICE.
  • You can pass another resolution to support state legislation that would allow drivers licenses for all.

Commissioner 1: I propose that we draft a resolution to end the contract and provide better support to our immigrant neighbors!

Commissioner 2: And I want to thank the public for all this engagement and for this great information.  We are listening!  With all the public engagement on this issue, I propose that we schedule our meetings during the evening, to allow more people to participate.  And we should change the process so that there can be a dialogue between the public and the commissioners during the public comment period.

Public (together): YES!

[New Resolution is provided – Chair reads aloud.  Chair calls a vote.  Commission Votes and Passes – Commissioners sign.]

Chair: [announces next steps] I call this meeting to a close.  Let’s celebrate!

The People’s Commission organizers fully expected to be led out of the commission meeting by law enforcement, which never happened. instead, Kent County Commissioner Saalfeld made the decision to adjourn the meeting, which allowed the People’s Commission to stay and complete their action.

When people returned to Calder Plaza, they found out that the County had moved their meeting to another location, but prevented some members of the public from entering. In various news stories, the commission claimed they were acting within their right to move the meeting and prevent people from entering, but those involved in the action believe this violates the open meetings act.

Once the End the Contract campaign people came back to Calder Plaza, there was a brief celebration, which also consisted of the People’s Commissioners signing the new resolution with added action steps mentioned above.

The police presence was still significant at the Calder Plaza, most with cops on bicycle. As people left to go to their cars in the city ramp, the cops on bike followed them, thus continuing to demonstrate a low level of surveillance and harassment that has been consistent with Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response organizing over the past eighteen months.

What follows are sources cited in the People’s Commission proceedings:


The Gateways for Growth Project: findings presented on September 12 at Cesar Chavez Elementary

GVSU Canonizes Rich DeVos, but some students push back

September 13, 2018

The Rich DeVos love-fest continues in Grand Rapids, particularly in the news media, where there are daily posting on the “legacy” of the co-founder of Amway.

My favorite headline so far has been, For Rich DeVos, giving away his millions was a full-time job. This headline is not only misleading, it is inaccurate in terms what the organizations who were the recipients of his contributions actually do that is harmful. For an counter-narrative, see A more honest obituary for Richard DeVos Sr

The canonization of DeVos has also extended to areas outside of the news media. GVSU has already erected a monument of sorts to DeVos and placed it on the Allendale campus at GVSU. (seen here on the right)

The commemorate piece states:

This Laker Light shines in memory of one of Grand Valley State University’s greatest leaders and most loyal friends, Richard M DeVos Sr. Mr DeVos’ vision for Grand Valley, including the building of the downtown campus, will benefit students and our community for generations to come.

Such a statement is fundamentally based on the amount of money that Rich DeVos contributed over the years to the campus, especially since the school transitioned from Grand Valley State Colleges to Grand Valley State University. This transit was in many ways influenced by DeVos in that it went from a place that was called the “Berkeley of midwest” to a campus that has a significant business emphasis and has become increasingly more conservative.

Some students are not being quiet about this new monument to DeVos, as they have begun putting up around campus a poster (seen here) that attempts to provide a counter-narrative to benevolence of DeVos. We are grateful that the student who created the flyer added a nod to GRIID, by including a link to our DeVos Family Reader, entitled, We’re Rich and We Do What We Want

When it comes to Rich DeVos and GVSU, we’d also like to share a few other resources that are important if we are to understand the history and how GVSU has evolved.

First, there is a GR People’s History Project post based on a student newspaper from the late 1970s called The Insider, where students confronted DeVos while he was on the Board of Control. If you go to page 26 of The Insider issues we have posted, you can read the student criticisms of Rich DeVos in 1977. 

Another important resource that was created specifically for students and faculty, is What’s in a Name: A Popular Guide to Wealth and Influence at GVSU, which provides a visual depiction and maps to show where there are names of wealthy donors on buildings and what harm they have caused with their money, with DeVos being the primary perpetrator. 

Lastly, when we produced A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids film, we devoted a whole chapter to GVSU, which talks about how DeVos was a major impediment to LGBTQ justice. You can view the entire film at this link. The section on GVSU begins at 1:06:10. 


Betsy DeVos Watch: At the G20 Summit, DeVos shares her Neoliberal Education vision while Argentinians hold a massive strike

September 12, 2018

In late July, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos traveled to Argentina to participate in the G20 Summit forum on education.

The G20 meets annually and is made up of the the countries with the 20 largest economies. These gatherings are designed primarily for heads of state from those countries and the leading global financial institutions to figure out how to continue expand neoliberal economic policies that will benefit these 20 countries at the expense of the rest of the world.

These gatherings are always met with significant opposition and this year’s summit was no different. There were major demonstrations with a massive strike organized by labor unions in Argentina, as you can see in the video below.

This is the context for the education forum at the G20 Summit, which included Betsy DeVos and her counterparts from other other countries. A major focus of the education forum was to discuss the link between education and work

This link was also part of Betsy DeVos’ brief message delivered at the summit, where she said: 

This gathering provides an important opportunity to learn from each other, acknowledging the vital link between education and the economy. Here, we can discuss our respective challenges, and, importantly, discuss ways to improve education for all students on their lifelong learning journeys as they prepare for today’s and tomorrow’s careers.

Indeed, education and the economy are indivisible, especially given the interconnectedness of the world today. In the United States, we are focused on expanding pathways to success. We recognize that a dynamic and changing economy requires dynamic and changing approaches to education.

We must first acknowledge that every student is an individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for every student – and there is no such thing as an “average” student. Each of them come to learn with different experiences, different needs, different learning styles and different dreams. Their education must be equally customized and individualized.

DeVos makes it clear that her vision and that of the US administration is to focus on: 1) what those within the neoliberal education model identify as talent creation, where education is a means to create future workers; and 2) that the best way to create future workers is to change the education system that is more focused on job skills, especially outside of the current public school structure.

In the end, what Betsy DeVos and the other G20 participants were doing was to further a world agenda that the people in Argentina were protesting outside the summit. Betsy DeVos is not only dangerous to the future of education in the US, but the future of education globally.

Michigan Governor’s race ads are being paid for by corporate money, on both sides

September 11, 2018

With the primaries behind us in Michigan, campaign money will to more focused up until the November election.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) recently released data on entities contributing to the Republican Governor’s Association (RGA) and the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA), in terms of who is financing paid ads for the Governor’s race in Michigan between Bill Schuette and Gretchen Whitmer. 

The DGA and the RGA are 527 organizations that disclose their donors on a quarterly basis through the Internal Revenue Service. Both groups raise money from across the country, including from some donors based in Michigan.

MCFN examined the top donors to each group from the start of 2017 through the end of June 2018 to see which donors listing Michigan addresses have given the most. Here’s what we found.

Top Michigan-Based Donors To RGA

1. DeVos family, Amway, $375,000
2. McKinley Associates, Ann Arbor, $200,000
3. Michigan Chamber, $100,000
4. ITC Holdings, $101,800
5. DTE Energy, $100,000
6. Edward Levy, Edward C. Levy Co., $75,000
7. J.C. Huizenga, Huizenga Group, $75,000

Top Michigan-Based Donors To DGA

1. Greenleaf Trust, Kalamazoo, $350,000
2. General Motors, $240,000
3. Fiat, $50,000
4. Dow International Finance, Midland, $45,000 (Dow gave $50,000 to the RGA)
5. Richard Schiffrin, Grant Eisenhofer, Farmington Hills, $25,000
6. Ford, $25,000
7. ITC Holdings, $25,000

For people in Michigan who are familiar with the big campaign donors, it’s no surprise to see names like DeVos, the Chamber of Commerce and JC Huizenga. What people may not be used to seeing are the list of entities contributing to the Democrats in this case, such as GM, Fiat, Dow, Ford, ITC Holdings and the Stryker Corporation connected Greenleaf Trust.

This raises questions, such as why would the major auto manufacturers, DOW and the other corporate entities be backing the Democratic candidate for Governor? What would these same corporations want in return, since no corporation or member of the capitalist class contributes to political campaigns without expecting something in return.

For those who are not blinded by partisanship, they would be aware of the fact that corporate America has been backing both major parties for decades now. If one does any kind of a search on, one can clearly see that most major industry sectors contribute to both Republicans and Democrats. For example, look at what the Insurance Industry has contributed to both parties in the past year and the past 2 decades.  Another example would be the pharmaceutical industry, which also spreads their money to both parties. 

The bottom line is that if we are going to be informed about where we put our energies in terms of social change, whether it be movement building or voting, we need to always follow the money before making decisions.

A more honest obituary for Richard DeVos Sr.

September 10, 2018

A few days have passed since the death of Richard DeVos Sr., yet the accolades continue to flow, especially from members of the capitalist class and organizations which he supported with his money.

One example of an organization that has made a public statement after the death of DeVos is the Acton Institute. The Acton founder, Rev. Robert Sirico stated, Rich DeVos never shrank from the conviction that the roots of liberty and the morally-charged life are to be found in the eternal truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” 

Now, I’m not really interested in making any kind of determination about what the “eternal truths” of the Judeo-Christian tradition are, since that same tradition has been used to justify, slavery, genocide, the subjugation of women, the theft of land, homophobia, white supremacy and the unbridled accumulation of wealth. These justifications have not been made by some marginal group of people, but by the leadership in most of the mainstream Christian denominations for most of its history.

What I am interested in discerning is a response to the claims made by the media, particularly the West Michigan media, about the life of Richard DeVos, especially after he and Jay Van Andel founded Amway. What follows is a look at how Rich DeVos used his wealth, power and privilege to expand his own personal wealth, the impose his own ideological worldview on the public and to go to great lengths to support organizations which shared his ideological worldview, especially those organizations which sought to dismantle anything that is part of the public sector, attack organized labor, undermine public education and cause harm to the most vulnerable members of society – communities of color and the LGBTQ community.

When Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel founded the Amway corporation, they did so by embracing some of the most deeply entrenched lies about this country. Rich DeVos has written numerous books that promote his values. In his book Believe, DeVos, in talking about freedom, states, “that call of freedom went forth from a rugged wilderness, and Europe and Asia and Africa sent their sons of adventure to hew out a new society in a land of forests and savages.”

An early critique of Amway and their ideological stance came from a student at Calvin College in 1971, who wrote:

The most important issue in maintaining a wealthy economy is maintaining the control of the raw materials needed by American industries to keep producing the finished products. The United States simply does not have the raw materials to maintain its wealthy economy. Almost every significant raw industrial resource that American industries use is imported from poverty-stricken Third World countries in African, South America and Asia. Thus, the American Way has a vested interest in maintaining control over the countries from which the resources come. The continuation might be maintained by sheer economic brute force, by political manipulation or rewarding governments which are friendly to us, by CIA-inspired coups who are not cooperative with us or by wars to “maintain freedom” and to “prevent the spread of communism.”

Another early public challenge of the power and influence of Rich DeVos came from a Grand Valley State College student in 1977, when DeVos was a member of the Board of Control (similar to a Board of Trustees). The student called into questions DeVos and his unwillingness to allow students to have a say in school policy.

This example from GVSC continued right up until his death, since DeVos has contributed millions of dollars to the school, often with strings attached. Many people who attended William James and Thomas Jefferson Colleges before the school became GVSU, has stated that Rich DeVos lobbied heavily for the school to shed its counter-cultural history and adopt a more market-based school with an emphasis on business.

In 1994, when faculty and staff at GVSU were meeting with then President Lubbers over the university’s willingness to offer domestic partner benefits, word got out that this was going to happen. At the time GVSU was raising money for a proposed health education building on Michigan St and Peter Cook and Rich DeVos had pledged millions. Once DeVos and Cook found out about the proposal by GVSU to offer domestic partner benefits, they threatened to withdraw their financial support if the university would support a domestic partner benefits policy. GVSU acquiesced to the wish of DeVos and Cook. For further reading on Rich DeVos and GVSU check out What’s in a Name: A Popular Guide to Wealth & Influence at GVSU and our film A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids

Anti-LGBT Legacy of Rich DeVos

The example from GVSU of DeVos threatening to withhold money from the university if they provided domestic partner benefits is just one example of Rich DeVos’ legacy of supporting anti-LGBT campaigns and organizations.

For decades, through his foundation, Rich DeVos funded anti-LGBT groups and Christian organizations that had adopted a homophobic and transphobic position, like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and the National Organization for Marriage. These organizations identified themselves as pro-family, but what they really were promoting was a hetero-normative, patriarchal family structure, which was never tolerant of people who identified as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender or queer. Rich DeVos contributed millions to these entities, in part, because they were anti-LGBT.

Other more specific examples of DeVos and his anti-LGBT stance came in the late 1980s when he was appointed to President Reagan’s AIDS Commission. HIV/AIDS had been devastating the LGBT community for years before the federal government created this and the LGBT community was demanding that the federal government take action.

With the appointment of this commission, Reagan was able to appease those who demanded a more sustained federal response to AIDS. He also answered the concerns of the New Right by appointing an AIDS commission that included few scientists who had participated in AIDS research and few physicians who had actually treated people with AIDS. In addition, the commission included outspoken opponents of AIDS education, such as New York Cardinal John O’Connor. O’Connor was not only opposed to AIDS education, he was openly hostile to the Gay community.

Another openly hostile opponent of the LGBT community was Rich DeVos, who was also on Reagan’s AIDS Commission. In an interview with MLive a few years ago, DeVos made some pretty revealing comments about his attitudes towards the Gay community while sitting on the AIDS Commission.

When HIV first came out, President Reagan formed a commission and I was honored to be on that commission. I listened to 300 witnesses tell us that it was every body else’s fault but their own. Nothing to do with their conduct, just that the government didn’t fix this disease. At the end of that I put in the document, it was the conclusion document from the commission, that actions have consequences and you are responsible for yours. AIDS is a disease people gain because of their actions. It wasn’t like cancer. We all made the exceptions for how you got it, by accident, that was all solved a long time ago. That’s when they started hanging me in effigy because I wasn’t sympathetic to all their requests for special treatment. Because at that time it was always someone else’s fault. I said, you are responsible for your actions too, you know. Conduct yourself properly, which is a pretty solid Christian principle.

Not only does DeVos show his homophobic bias, his comments demonstrate his ignorance of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.

On the issue of same sex marriage, DeVos was also an active opponent, providing at least $20,000 to fight the ballot initiative in Michigan in 2004 and another $100,000 for the ballot initiative in Florida in 2008.

Some people have claimed that in his later years, Rich DeVos had a change of heart, as was demonstrated by his family’s donation to the families of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida. While it is true that the family made such a donation, there was no acknowledgement that DeVos had funded the anti-LGBT marriage proposal in 2008 and that he had given millions of dollars to John Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church for decades, a church that is based in Florida and preached on the evils of “homosexuality” for decades, thus cultivating a climate of hate directed at the LGBT community.

Funding Right Wing Organizations that do harm

Beyond identity politics, Rich DeVos was also a champion of funding what are often referred to as conservative groups. However, such a label is not adequate, since many of the groups that DeVos funded were ideologically motivated and embraced far-right policy positions and above all a neo-liberal capitalist framework.

I wrote about the funding of these organizations in 1998, in an article entitled, Giving til it hurts others. Rich DeVos continued to give to some of these same entities right up until his death, groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation,  the Free Congress Foundation, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Acton Institute and a whole range of groups that sought to undermine social welfare policies, re-direct public funds to the private sector, an attack on labor unions, the privatization of education and the re-regulation of environmental laws and the financial sector.

The Heritage Foundation, for example, was a major architect of the Reagan administration’s policies to downsize government and to attempt to undermine social welfare policies. 

Closer to home, DeVos has supported the Acton Institute, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Policy Forum, all of which support the same neo-liberal capitalist platform we mentioned above. What is important to note about these groups and the funding they have received from Rich DeVos, is that all of these groups are working towards a radical reconstruction of government and society, one that is based on market principles. These groups all are involved in provided research and documentation that supports their ideological positions, that are them used to influence policy makers at the local, state and federal level.

Rich DeVos bought a lot of political influence

In addition to funding organizations that fit in the ideological framework of DeVos, he made it a point to buy as much political influence as possible. Depending on the source, some claim that Rich DeVos contributed roughly $200 million to candidates or incumbents since the early 1970s. According to, DeVos had already contributed more than $1 million in the current election cycle

Rich DeVos has contributed to the Republican Party at the federal and state level, plus he has contributed to specific candidates running for federal, state and local office from Michigan and in other states. DeVos has also contributed to support or oppose ballot initiatives in Michigan and throughout the country as well.

The amount of money that Rich DeVos has contributed to buy political influence is staggering, but it is also important to note that his contributions directly influence policy. Lets look at a few examples from recent years.

In June of 2014, Governor Snyder signed into law HB 4052, a law that takes away local control. Why is this relevant, because powerful entities like the DeVos family do not want local communities adopting policies like a living wage, regulations against wage theft or adopting anti-discrimination ordinances that would include or add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community. 

HB 4052 was introduced by Rep. Earl Poleski (R) and then went to the Committee on Commerce & Trade, which is chaired by Joseph Graves (R). Graves received $9,000 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, along with several other members of the Committee on Commerce and Trade. This committee recommended that HB 4052 be adopted and then it was put before the Michigan Senate. The Michigan Senate sent the bill to the Competitiveness Committee chaired by Mike Shirkey (R). Rep. Shirkey received $4,500 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, as did several other members of this committee.

A second example would be a bill that was also signed into law the summer of 2014, HB 4188. This legislation, often framed as a religious freedom bill, would allow adoption agencies in Michigan the ability to deny LGBT couples/partners/families from adopting.

HB 4188 was introduced by Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R). Rep. LaFontaine received $8,100 in campaign contribution in 2014 from the DeVos family.  Many of the cosponsors of this bill were also recipients of DeVos family funding. 

A third example would be legislation that was passed in September of 2017, legislation that is sort of a Citizens United for Michigan, allowing for greater amounts of money to be contributed during elections. We documented that in the Michigan Senate, most of those who voted for the legislation had received money from DeVos

The “benevolence” of Rich DeVos

One additional major claim that has been made in recent days is how benevolent Rich DeVos has been and how much money his foundation has contributed to charitable causes.

First, it is important to note that no matter what year one looks at the 990s from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, most of the larger donations are going to entities like the megachurch Willow Creek Community Church, the Haggai Institute, the American Enterprise Institute or Americans for Prosperity. Giving millions to groups like these is not charity, it is the funding of ideologically-driven groups that try to influence public policy or are engaged in work that does actual harm to people.

Second, the money that Rich DeVos has contributed to more traditional charity groups or service organizations, goes specifically to those organizations because they do not address root causes of problems or take a systemic approach to dealing with social ills. The non-profits that DeVos has contributed money to provide services to individuals who are looking for assistance in some way, but Rich DeVos never gave money to groups that were focused on challenging systems of oppression or those who encourage direct action to fight injustice. Contributions to non-profits helps to create a buffer between those in the capitalist class and those who could potentially be organized to challenge the wealth of the capitalist class, as we documented in our recent series on the Grand Rapids Power Structure. Obviously, a great deal more could be said about Rich DeVos and his wealth, power and influence. However, this article should provide you with ample evidence to counter the narrative from the commercial media since his death last week

If you want to read more about Rich DeVos and his family, check out our DeVos Family Reader entitled, We’re Rich and We Do What We Want