Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The Curation of Community at Grand Rapids’ Neighborhood Summit
By Kevin Peterson, Johnson Center for Philanthropy
A few years ago, someone I respect told me that people love reading the word “curate” and that I should try to use it wherever possible.
Whether or not that’s true, it has definitely led me to overuse the term. But here, I use it intentionally. People tend to see themselves as makers, builders, developers, and/or creators of things — whether we’re creating tactile things like coffee tables or cocktails, or intangible things like love and community.
There is a prevailing narrative that we as individuals can work with others to “build” a community. This notion is pretty core to studying community and urban development. But let’s take a moment and reflect on community: what images, thoughts, and emotions arise when you think about being in community?
For me, community conjures up images of being with friends, family, and neighbors, and having a sense of belonging. It’s the difference between that feeling you have when you’re surrounded by strangers, and the sensation of standing in a room with 500 neighbors. You might not know all those neighbors’ names, but you still feel connected to them. You belong with each other.
“Community is often a synonym for place,” states the influential urbanist Melvin Weber in “The Importance of Place and Connectedness.” “Someone may say Southam is a pleasant place; another may say Southam is a pleasant community, and both mean exactly the same thing. Yet the people in a place, as defined here, may or may not share certain elements of community in another sense.”
That’s because “community” cannot be built in any literal sense. We cannot will it into being. We can only help facilitate the creation of community through the careful curation of experiences and places that help connect us to one another.
This is exactly what the City of Grand Rapids is working to accomplish through its Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit and the Neighborhood Leadership Academy (NLA) — a development opportunity for neighborhood association leaders. (Learn more about the first NLA cohort here, and look for more information soon from the City of Grand Rapids’ Lead Neighborhood Connector, Jordoun Eatman.)
The Neighborhood Summit, now it its sixth year, is a day-long, community-centric event. According to the city, the Neighborhood Summit is for “residents, business owners and stakeholders to learn with and from each other about strategies, resources and opportunities to strengthen neighborhoods and advance equity.” This work is pursued through workshops, interactive activities, networking/mingling time, and a focus on accessibility and connection.
I have excitedly attended the Neighborhood Summit for the past three years (even getting the opportunity to lead a breakout session in 2018), and I can attest that the program gets better and better each year. The 2019 Neighborhood Summit offered 24 breakout sessions, covering a wide array of topics and issues ranging from “Event Planning 101” to exploring how to dismantle white supremacy.
The organizers went to great lengths to make this an inclusive event by not charging admission and by offering multilingual sessions, on-site childcare, a kids’ summit, and gender neutral restrooms (in coordination with Grand Valley State University). These actions show care and consideration for participants and demonstrate organizers’ efforts to understand and respond to unique needs.
These efforts do not go unnoticed, and the participants follow the example of culture set by the city. It is clear that care and patience are afforded to one another in this safe space. The Neighborhood Summit, quite simply, is an event where you can walk in and find yourself surrounded by strangers, but through the mere act of showing up and having breakfast, you quickly find yourself in the company of neighbors.
The Neighborhood Summit is necessary because this is the space where Grand Rapids transforms from a pleasant place to a pleasant community. These spaces are growing in importance and rarity as our country becomes more divisive and polarized. And, in particular, as Grand Rapids begins to recognize the challenges and mistakes of its own history.
Todd Robinson’s, “A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” reminds the reader that Jim Crow-style oppression was not limited to the South. Cities and towns across every region of the United States implemented both official policies and social mores that excluded people of color. The city of Grand Rapids, along with many of its inhabitants, had codified prejudice into its decision-making processes. Efforts to redline neighborhoods, segregate schools, and exclude African Americans from political and economic power were so entrenched in Grand Rapids that Robinson refers to the city’s operating style as “managerial racism.” It becomes evident that we need spaces like the Neighborhood Summit to come together, be in community together, and learn from one another.
We’ve come a long way since the 2015 Forbes report, “The Cities Where African-Americans Are Doing The Best Economically: Where African-Americans Are Struggling” identified the city of Grand Rapids as the second-worst metropolitan area for African Americans to succeed. The city is taking intentional steps to acknowledge its past. Rather than disregarding the works of Robinson, the book was named the “Mayor’s Book of the Year” in Mayor Bliss’ 2016 State of the City Address, noting, “we must confront a difficult issue that has grown to an unacceptable proportion in our city — that is the issue of racial disparities.”
In 2016, the city began its Racial Equity Here initiative with the mission of working collaboratively to ensure racial justice, equity, and inclusion exist in within the city’s programs, services, policies, and facilities. In March 2019, the city earmarked $1 million annually for the next five years to strengthen community and police relations. While none of the initiatives in and of themselves are a panacea, they are evidence of progress.
Recognizing and combating the system of oppression will require spaces and places where we, as a community, can come together and build trust, like the Neighborhood Summit. If we are going to continue making progress tackling the systemic challenges many Grand Rapids residents still face, we need to be able to learn together, ask questions, and discover our shared connections to one another.
In short, we need to curate our community.
An art collector doesn’t necessarily paint the pieces, but they play an important role in choosing the room, picking the frames, investing in the artists themselves, and bringing various artworks together so that the culminating experience and impact is greater than one piece could have alone
In much the same way, the city doesn’t create our community, but through the Neighborhood Summit and the careful curation of intentionally welcoming and inclusive places, it provides the space to grow and the tools to excel — and it brings strangers together so that they can see the potential impact they can have when working together. Connections are made, and bonds are formed.
At this wonderful exhibition known as the “Neighborhood Summit,” you quickly realize that you are not in a room of strangers, you’re in community. While I look forward to next year’s Neighborhood Summit — and hope to see you there! — I am reminded of our new City Manager’s closing remarks from 2019’s Neighborhood Summit: we do not have to wait until March every year to come together as a community.
Community curation happens through the ordinary actions of our daily lives. Just as you can find art in the simplest of places, it doesn’t have to be in the museum or a gallery — it can be found on walk or in a park if only you are willing to look for it — so, too, can we find community all around.
So, I implore you; be on the lookout for community — recognize the spaces where you experience it and understand the spaces where that feeling is absent. What can we do to support these spaces? What lessons can we learn from the Neighborhood Summit? Let’s follow the commitment and example set by the city and find ways to facilitate the work of community. Let’s start turning strangers into neighbors.
“The Importance of Place and Connectedness.” National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10262.
Kevin Peterson is a program coordinator for nonprofit services at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. Kevin is a member of the Grand Rapids Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), and previously served on the capital campaign committee for his hometown’s new library as well as two terms on the Terry McAdam Book Award Committee with the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. Learn more about Kevin.