On October 18, the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors hosted Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington and Voters Not Politicians representative Rich VanderMolen for a wide-ranging conversation about gerrymandering, the police department's youth interaction policy, medical marijuana, housing inequity, lack of diversity within police and fire departments, and the role of education in the economic vitality of our community. We are grateful that so many pastors and city leaders came--and grateful that City Life Church could roll out extra tables and chairs when we needed them.
Washington got the group laughing right away when he said, "It's dangerous to give the floor to someone who is not only the city manager, but also a minister!" He is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, and has been bi-vocational, pastoring a church, for his entire 23-year career in government. Although Grand Rapids will be the first time he will not be bi-vocational, he intends to continue working with congregations. He said, "I've always viewed both my ministry and my vocation as a calling. I've always worked with faith communities, both in critical times, and to find out 'what the streets are saying.'"
He came to Grand Rapids from Austin, Texas, the 11th largest city in the United States (Grand Rapids is around 120th). But one thing both cities have in common is growth. Austin grew by 200,000 people between 2009 and 2017, and Grand Rapids was determined to have the 7th fastest growing economy in the country. Washington said, "Growing so fast, we would deal with the same issues, like housing, transportation, economic opportunity, social justice."
Although he had only been on the job for 3 weeks, he was already in thick of some of those thorny issues: "I did not quite anticipate that everything would be hitting at once, but I know we can collectively solve some of these social equity issues in our community."
Issue number one: the Grand Rapids Police Department's (GRPD) youth interaction policy. The GRAP meeting took place three days before a scheduled open forum with the GRPD Chief David Rahinsky County Commissioner Robert Womack. Washington sees possibilities to improve the current policy, and wants to learn from other communities about what is working for them, and also from school districts about how they handle difficult situations with their students.
Issue number two (that affects all the other issues): the budget. He said,
"We have a lot of fiscal challenges. With public safety, do we have the right resources allocated in the right way, with awareness that not every public safety call needs a uniformed response? We have a housing trust fund set up and now we have to do governance to make sure Grand Rapids is accessible to all residents. I told my executive team that we need to make Grand Rapids a livable city for everybody. We have vibrancy in some parts of the city, but it needs to cascade to all parts of the city. We need to make sure that the budget aligns with the values and priorities of the community--and make sure of that earlier in the process."
Issue number three: housing. Washington is looking at housing from a land-use standpoint, particularly because Grand Rapids has a limited physical area in which to grow. So even while the city looks at empowering property owners to more easily make changes to their properties that can increase housing density (row houses, accessory dwelling units, etc.), he is also keeping in mind the concern of residents in historic neighborhoods about parking and neighborhood character.
Issue number four: economic opportunity. In Austin, Washington worked with universities, community colleges, and high schools to make sure that they were preparing their students for the kinds of jobs that were driving the economy. He is looking forward to doing a workforce analysis to discover what kinds of jobs are driving the economy in Grand Rapids, and then working with educational institutions to make sure that we have a homegrown talent pool for those jobs. Initiatives like the newly-announced Academy of Hospitality & Tourism that will open at Ottawa Hills High School in Fall, 2019 will help; he said, "These businesses are booming and we need to develop our talent pool."
Our conversation was not all heavy, however. One of the pastors asked him what he was reading, and what books (besides the Bible) have influenced his leadership. He did sneak in the Bible, particularly since he just finished preaching all the way through the Old Testament, but after that, his list was wide-ranging: "I love Philip Yancey's Reaching for the Invisible God. I love Martin Heidegger. I love liberation theology. Cornel West. James Cone. Michael Dyson is very provocative and opens my eyes in different ways. Dr. King is classic. Dietrich Bohoeffer. Paul Tillich. Soren Kierkegaard."
We ended our time with Washington by having his new pastor, Rev. Dr. Willie A. Gholston II, of First Community AME Church, and the Executive Team of G-RAP surround him and pray for him in his new role, and for our city.
We also heard from Rich VanderMolen of Voters Not Politicians, the group that sponsored the anti-gerrymanding ballet proposal--Proposal 2--that we will get to vote on next week, November 6.
Gerrymandering is the result when politicians draw the boundary lines of voting districts to benefit the party in power, creating "safe seats" and representatives and senators that are essentially chosen at the primary level, not at the general election. Both parties do this. VanderMolen said, "Everyone running in Michigan is running in a gerrymandered district." Voters Not Politicians would like the voters to decide the shape and make-up of districts rather than politicians, and for the process of redistricting to be transparent.
VanderMolen noted that "communities of color are disproportionately affected by gerrymandering. Either by packing people of color into as few districts as possible, or by cracking up their influence by dividing them into as many districts as possible. Their power is either concentrated more than it should be or so dispersed that they lose their influence."
Voters Not Politicians is proposing that, after each Census, Michigan sets up a 13-person independent citizen's redistricting commission. It is made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five Independents. The invitation to be part of the commission is open to every registered voter in Michigan who isn't part of the political power structure. A general invitation to apply will be made, and then 10,000 invitations will go out from the Secretary of State--those 10,000 will be randomly selected voters throughout the state so there will be both full demographic and geographic representation. They will have to meet certain criteria:
* Submit a completed application.
* Be a registered voter in Michigan.
* Identify the party (if any) that they affiliate themselves with, to ensure a balanced commission.
* Not be, or be closely related to, a current or former (in the past 6 years) political insider, including a candidate for partisan office, elected official to a partisan office, registered lobbyist, and party officer.
* Not be otherwise disqualified from office.
Once there is a pool of qualified applicants, there will be a series of random selections until they arrive at the final commission of thirteen. VanderMolen said that, "In other states that have done this, they've found by and large that, because citizens were interested, the work was done very competently. Any lack of expertise they had was balanced by their authority to hire expertise needed, for example, to do the computer work."
There will be 10 public hearings before the commission even starts redrawing the districts; 5 public hearings after their first draft, and then 45 days of public comment on the final proposal. If a challenge to the redistricting goes to the Michigan Supreme Court and the court finds it unconstitutional, then it would be sent back to the commission for more work. In the past, the Supreme Court could approve a gerrymandered district, but if Proposal 2 passes, they would no longer have the authority to do so.
To find out more about Proposal 2 and to see some maps of current gerrymandered districts, please visit Voters Not Politician's website. And vote on November 6.
We look forward to seeing any Grand Rapids-area Christian pastors who are interested in unity, justice, and reconciliation at our next meeting on Thursday, November 15, at 11:30am (location and speaker to be determined).