Grand Rapids residents are experiencing a tale of two cities.
For some, the Michigan city has been a beacon of economic opportunity, riddled with jobs in health care and manufacturing and a flourishing housing market dubbed the best in the nation by Forbes Magazine.
But for residents living on the city’s south and west sides, historically-marginalized communities of color face impoverished conditions and aren’t able to access the same opportunities as their peers.
The locally-based nonprofit LINC UP exists to connect these residents to opportunities, providing housing and economic services and advocating for racial equality since 2000 to create long-term change for residents in Grand Rapids’ most vulnerable communities.
“A healthy community is capable of managing itself,” said Jeremy DeRoo, LINC UP co-executive director. “LINC exists to connect each community with the opportunities that ought to be provided to them so their potential can be realized.”
Darel Ross II, who serves as LINC UP co-executive director with DeRoo, said the process starts with community engagement. LINC UP’s team of more than two dozen staff regularly canvass neighborhoods, meeting with residents to address their concerns and connect them to various community services offered through its organization and partners.
“You have to believe in the indigenous wisdom of the community,” said Ross, adding that LINC UP hosts about 80 community meetings a year. “It’s not about parachuting in with logic models and best practices. It’s really about listening.”
After the 2014 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, residents told LINC they wanted more transparency within the Grand Rapids Police Department. LINC UP, along with hundreds of residents, expressed their concerns to city commissioners, resulting in a $1.5 million plan requiring city police officers to wear body cameras and receive training on implicit bias.
The organization’s success in spurring the citywide legislation has encouraged more residents and local leaders to look to the organization for leadership on community issues.
“You can’t underestimate the capacity of communities,” said DeRoo. “What has made LINC so successful today is our willingness to always go to the community for solutions, which has given us a significant wisdom to be working on things that are relevant for issues at hand and has given us a base of people that we can draw on for support for the work that we are doing.”
Data shows 39 percent of residents living in LINC UP’s neighborhoods of focus live with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $24,250 annually for a family of four. In response, LINC UP offers free services through its Financial Opportunity Center to assist with financial planning, budgeting assistance and career development.
Mariah Kennedy met with one of LINC UP’s financial counselors to improve her money management skills and has become more conscious about spending.
“People say money can’t buy happiness, but I realize that I’ll be much happier if I manage my money more wisely,” Kennedy said.
The LINC UP staff, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, also helps connect children to quality early learning programs, through numerous community meetings, neighborhood canvassing efforts and referrals to the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative and Baby Scholars, an initiative of the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation. In 2016, the organization helped more than 500 children attend quality educational programs.
Ross and DeRoo say neighborhoods cannot sustain themselves without a thriving business district. As such, LINC UP has helped leverage more than $42 million in several housing and commercial projects in Grand Rapids where property values continue to rise.
In 2014, the organization also developed a $10 million 44-unit affordable apartment complex in the Madison Square neighborhood with 6,000-square-feet of commercial space. The commercial tenants are required to be locally-owned businesses.
“We’re intentional in making the revitalization opportunities for the indigenous population of the community,” Ross said. “Most of our conversations are with small businesses that are already there that just never had an opportunity to connect to the resources or offerings to open up a business and pursue their dreams.”
LINC UP is also working to advance racial equity in its target communities as a member of the Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network – a volunteer community initiative to create a more equitable environment in Grand Rapids.
Additionally, LINC UP hosts community meetings in partnership with Grand Rapids Community College to ensure residents have access to the college’s Manufacturer Readiness Class, which prepares students to enter the manufacturing industry with guaranteed interviews. Since the partnership began in August 2015, LINC UP referred and provided scholarships to 25 residents; 19 participants received job offers when they graduated from the program.
“Revitalization is a full contact sport,” Ross said. “We really feel it’s our responsibility to not only know what’s going on in their neighborhood and what services are available, but to connect residents to those services.”