We are grateful to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and to all the pastors who resisted the call to hibernate during our endless cold snap and came out for G-RAP's February 21 meeting. Thank you, also, to Pastor Jathan Austin and his One Church Empowerment Center team for their warm hospitality.
Mayor Bliss started the meeting by giving us some updates on major issues in Grand Rapids, and then she took questions, but first she gave a shout out to the pastors in the room she had worked with in city government: "I'm so grateful to serve with such an awesome group of public servants, people who truly have servant hearts."
Bliss had come from a sustainability summit earlier that day, so that topic was the first she addressed. She noted that the city has aggressive goals to eventually use 100% renewable energy. One of the tools she's most excited about is the biodigester the city is building to turn waste into clean energy. The city is also looking into adding solar arrays around the waste water processing plants. They are looking to move some yard waste composting into the city, instead of trucking it outside the city limits.
One of the highest environmental priorities for Bliss is lead poisoning. She has been working on that issue for 14 years, since the Granholm administration, but that has moved into a higher gear since last year, when 49507 had the most children who tested for high blood lead levels in the state of Michigan: "That is not the number 1 list I wanted to be on," she said. To address that jump, Bliss has created a Kid's Commission, and the city is working with the county and with a researcher in Chicago. One of the major issues is how to get funds for remediation, and she's hopeful that the new governor will work with us, since Whitmer has said that environmental issues are a priority for her.
Grand Rapids is in the middle of searching for a new police chief. However, it is City Manager Mark Washington who will be hiring the new police chief. As Mayor Bliss said, "I don't get to do that." She does, of course, have hopes for the person who is hired: "We have a long way to go to have a partner who can work with the community." There will be community surveys and meetings to solicit community input about the position, and she hopes that pastors will participate in those. She also noted that she will be getting briefed on violence prevention measures and the Cure Violence and Ceasefire proposals.
Mayor Bliss noted that Grand Rapids has come a long way from 10 years ago, when it was in a foreclosure crisis:
Now we have one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, but with that comes families priced out of homes and neighborhoods. So we've changed zoning codes, we've created programs to help those facing evictions, we're going after low-income tax credits. We just had the ribbon-cutting for the Genesis Non-Profit Housing Corporation's project at St. James School.
The majority of the 52 units at the old St. James Catholic School will be set aside for those earning thirty to sixty percent of of Kent County’s area median income, with 13 units reserved for persons with special needs. The elimination of the Kent County Land Bank in December of 2018 has meant that the city can no longer rely on its assistance in creating affordable housing, so "We're looking at what our options are how that we don't that those tools," Bliss said.
Equitable Economic Plan
"The flipside of affordable housing is wages," Bliss said. She's committed to making sure that the city is making an impact with its policies where the need is greatest. City Manager Mark Washington's previous city, Austin, was a Racial Equity Here site, and Bliss is grateful for the knowledge he has brought with him to Grand Rapids. The city has a team looking at ordinances and policies to see whether city practices are having a heavier impact on certain neighborhoods. For example, they found an unexpected effect of having a complaint-based system when it came to getting things like streetlights fixed. She said that they noticed that residents who tend to call about streetlights out tend to be in affluent neighborhoods; in neighborhoods where people struggle more to meet their basic needs, they don't call, and the light never gets fixed.
Two years ago, Bliss announced the formation of the Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative, which is chaired by her and Dr. Bill Pink of Grand Rapids Community College. They have pulled together 35 large employers and are looking at how they can be intentional about hiring a more diverse workforce. They are involved in training companies to build evidence-based hiring practices. As Bliss said, "It's our policy to lead by example, so it's key to have people to work with like Nate Moody and Mark Washington."
River Restoration Project
Bliss smiled as she said that she's learned more about the snuffbox mussel, an endangered species that lives in the Grand River, than she knew there was to learn, but assured the pastors that the river restoration project is moving ahead--just slowly. They are submitting permits and plans and making sure that the snuffbox mussel population won't be negatively affected and that lampreys won't be able to swim upstream. Next, state and federal agencies must review those permits and plans. Once that review has happened, Bliss said that they will add another level of priority: "When we start bidding we want to give priority to local, minority, and women-owned small businesses."
In the meantime, the city is working with the John Ball Zoo, the Public Museum, and the Wege Foundation to plan how to use the project as an educational experience for children.
In response to one of the pastors asking about immigration issues, Bliss said,
One of the most infuriating issues has been to see the impact of national policies on our immigrant communities. There is a frustrating lack of ability of local authorities to have any impact on the practices of ICE. Lots of mayors are struggling with this. We recently had an issue with an American citizen arrested by ICE and we're looking at what happened, but we are happy with the changes the county made.
[Kent County ended its practice of holding people in jail for Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless a judge has signed an arrest warrant.]
Bliss pointed out that Grand Rapids "came out years ago and committed to being a welcoming city. We will not ask for your status when serving you." The city is working at analyzing how it welcomes immigrants and at developing a strategic plan for honoring and celebrating diversity.
An issue related to this that concerns Bliss is the 2020 Census and the danger of not getting an accurate count because of the citizenship question that will likely be part of it--an inaccurate count would affect funding and representation. She and City Commissioner Nate Moody have started a Complete Count Committee to get the word out and work towards making sure everyone gets counted.
Bliss said that Grand Rapids, along with other cities, is suing three large pharmaceutical manufacturers because "money impacts practices." She noted that all of their police officers and firefighters carry Narcan and Naloxen, which can reverse an overdose. With the hiring of a new police chief on the horizon, she is hopeful that we can take another look at how we treat those who are in a mental health crisis or having an addiction issue: "Can we divert them from jails? There are innovative and creative models out there."
The city has been partnering with a number of organizations to help returning citizens. She was excited that the CLEAR program (Coalition, Leadership, Education, Advice Rehabilitation) started serving women in the last year (this is a program housed at Oakdale Park Church, which has multiple pastors active in G-RAP). The city is working with NextStep both for employment and for housing for returning citizens.
Bliss is passionate about the issue of "banning the box": removing the question on applications about whether a job applicant has a criminal record. She said, "The city needs to be the model for hiring and banning the box. I'd love to ban the box locally, but the state pre-empted us and prevented us from doing that."
She's also working with other mayors on these issues:
I'm part of an urban core mayor's group in Michigan and we've been talking about returning citizens for a long time. There are several pieces of legislation out there to reform corrections that are good practices that we're supporting.
One of the pastors asked Mayor Bliss about how she leads in these divided, contentious times. Part of her answer was to call on us, community and faith leaders, to continue to build relationships with each other and with elected officials so we can have tough conversations with each other and hold each other accountable. But, she also pointed out,
You also can assume that we know what we're doing and we'll never make a mistake. We have to get back to seeing people as brothers and sisters and giving each other grace. We have to do that because we respect each other. It's easy to make your circle smaller because things are so nasty out there, but that's the worst thing to do.
Bliss practices what she preaches: when people post terrible things about her or about the city on social media, she makes a point of calling them and inviting them to speak with her. She did that recently, and the woman came and they spoke; they don't always wind up agreeing with each other, but the tone of communication becomes less heated and more respectful.
We closed our meeting with Mayor Bliss as we do all our meetings with city officials, by praying for her and for the community we all serve.
If you are a Christian pastor in the Grand Rapids area and you are interested in issues of justice, unity, and reconciliation, please join us for our next meeting: Thursday, March 21, 11:30am - 1:00pm, at Esperanza Covenant Church, 1933 Tremont Blvd. NW, when our guest will be Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young.
If you are interested in seeing more from Mayor Bliss about many of these same topics, below is the State of the City address she gave less than a week after our meeting: