It’s hard to keep track of how many ways Brandy Arnold is involved with making Grand Rapids a better place.
She’s the new program manager at West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, but also on the advisory council for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the board of Spoke Folks, the planning committee of Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit, and the evaluation committee of Kids’ Food Basket, as well as an all-around volunteer for organizations like Harrison Park, Avenue for the Arts and East Hills Council of Neighbors. Try to keep up.
Of course, she didn’t start out so plugged in. Arnold grew up in the tiny town of Free Soil before attending Grand Valley for communications and African-American Studies. Last year, she started at WMCAT thanks to her work as a “community catalyst,” a group of diverse community leaders using design thinking to address social problems.
She also leads Step Year, which helps recent high school graduates find opportunities and create a plan, which Arnold says she could’ve used during that same period in her life. But now, she’s worked her way to a platform and is using it to facilitate conversations around the city.
What drives you to be so involved?
I think one of the things is that a lot of my friends do similar work and care about the same things, so even when we're not on the clock, we're involved in something because it’s a personal passion. For me, it's the personal experience of being a person of color in this community, with some of the experiences I've had, and then seeing the racial disparities that Grand Rapids has and feeling like, 'That's me. Those are my people.' So not only is it a professional aspiration, but it's also something I'm personally interested in. That's when you tend to want to get involved in things, whether it's because you had to do it for your job or if it's on a Saturday, because you're personally very passionate about it.
How else is your job allowing you to get connected?
We have a contract with the city for Housing Now. We have a contract with Grand Rapids Public Schools; as they reached the second phase of their transformation plan, they wanted to hear about what's working, what's not working, so we helped facilitate those sessions. We worked with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation as they bring forward their new framework they're using for grant-making. It's this large engagement initiative that we did to engage stakeholders to get viewpoints on grants in their community and how they're made and access to resources.
So it’s all about directly engaging with the community?
When you talk to a lot of people, they'd say they are engaging the community, but it's really about doing it an authentic and equitable way. Who are they talking to? Who are the voices they're missing? Who are the voices they're actively repressing? The focus is really about elevating all of those voices and doing our due diligence to make sure people are at the table and they have their voices heard. They might be doing it, but it might just be a quick survey they send out and it's online only and not translated into any other languages. If you do that, you can check off the box, but have you really got the full scope of the community?
Do you feel hope and/or concerns about where things are going?
I'd say Grand Rapids is a very unique community in that there's a lot of intentionality and energy behind making our city more equitable. However, I think there's something that still needs to give that's keeping us from really making big changes. There are so many nonprofits in this community that are doing amazing work at meeting needs that are happening now, but we can't seem to get to a point where these nonprofits don't need to exist anymore.
What’s holding us back?
I think there's just this reluctance from people in power to give up a little bit of that power or share and to make the changes that need to happen. It does feel like a slog through the mud sometimes, because it seems like everyone is doing so much work, but then you look at the data and it feels like things aren't changing or they are in very small increments.
So, sometimes that can be frustrating, but I do think there's power in small wins. I'd point to our recent development with Movimiento Cosecha GR, doing work around immigrant rights. One of those big pushes is for drivers licenses for all in Michigan, but another big one has been pushing Kent County to end their contract with ICE. They've been doing a lot of demonstrations and behind-the-scenes work and they haven't completely ended it yet, but the sheriff just agreed that they were only going to hold inmates for ICE if ICE provided a warrant, which is kind of difficult to get it. It's not the full victory they were hoping for, but it's a win they wanted to celebrate.
If you could request something from our readers, what would you say?
I greatly understand the value and privilege I have to have the platform that I speak from. I think one of the things we need is to have people really walk their talk. I feel like there are a lot of conversations around what we need to do in our community, but when it comes to you as an individual or as an employer, are you willing to make those changes in your home or your place of business? I don't always see that happening. That was one of the things that drew me to WMCAT, is they were willing to have these hard conversations.
I really think if we all could start doing that a little more, and start to show up for each other a little more — just because I'm not Latina doesn't mean I can't show up for Movimiento Cosecha. So, how do we all start to see our struggles and successes as linked together and start to walk our talk?
What do you love about Grand Rapids?
I think there's something to be said about being a mid-sized city where there's a lot of opportunity here that you wouldn't get in larger cities. There's a lot of things I've been able to be involved in and even lead on that I never would've had access to in a larger city. To me, that's really exciting because it's really in our hands to shape the future of what the city's going to look like. I really do think that is what this looks like. We're on the precipice here in terms of how we're growing.
I do talk a lot about my work, don't I? But I love the walkability. I'm a beer girl, so I love that part. The arts and culture in the city, sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to find some stuff, and I'm sure at Revue you guys know this, but I think the creative arts scene is really amazing.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Cosecha is working specifically for drivers licenses for all.