Partner Story

A Conversation with Together West Michigan on Broad-based Organizing for Effective Civic Formation + Engagement

Grant Recipient

Micah Center

Awarded Amount

$294,000

In January of 2019, the Steelcase Foundation approved a three-year $294,000 grant to the Micah Center to support the organization in its efforts to partner with community leaders to build a broad-based organization in West Michigan. With support from the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation, members learned basic organizing skills, held relational and house meetings to gain insights into the shared agenda of its membership, and launched a dues-funded member institution under the moniker Together West Michigan. Allison McCulley and Paul Turner shared her insights into the work that led to the creation of the new organization.

 Please provide an overview of the project and how it came to be.

 In his July 4, 2022 column, David French, editor of the online newspaper, The Dispatch, described three Americas; the red, the blue and the exhausted. French, an Iraq war veteran, and a Christian conservative, describes a polarized American political scene that leaves many of its citizens just plain tired.

It is in this context that Together West Michigan (TWM) was formed.

Now a broad-based organization of 22 community groups, faith communities, and nonprofits in the greater Grand Rapids area, Together West Michigan works to:

  • Build relationships across lines that tend to divide our community
  • Develop the members of our institutions as leaders
  • Galvanize citizen-led action on the pressures that families are facing

Nearly five years ago a group of local West Michigan leaders approached the leadership of the nation’s largest and longest standing organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation, (IAF) to ask if they would be willing to work with them to build a broad-based community organization in the region: one that would be institutionally-rooted, cross lines that typically divide, be emphatically non-partisan, include both secular and religious organizations, and locally owned and operated.

One of these leaders had seen this exact kind of organization built with IAF assistance when he lived in the Roaring Forks Valley of western Colorado and wanted to see the same for his hometown of Grand Rapids. He met with the Micah Center, whose board was comprised of volunteer leaders from the Grand Rapids area. Together they created a diverse initial organizing team that formed a partnership with the IAF. Two IAF lead organizers agreed to periodically travel to Grand Rapids to help with their efforts.

Please describe the work that you’ve engaged in so far, and your hopes for the work into the future.

Collectively, that first group of volunteer leaders began a systematic campaign of “relational meetings” where patient care and attention was given to the slow cultivation of relationships across the lines that divide. Over the next four years they:

  • Held more than 2,500 relational meetings
  • Ran 95 local training sessions
  • Sent 12 local leaders to national and regional IAF trainings
  • Recruited the first 10 institutions to form a “sponsoring committee” the leaders of which would sponsor the creation of a powerful broad-based organization in West Michigan.

The Sponsoring Committee was officially created in October of 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, with over 200 local leaders gathering via Zoom to pledge their time and money to the effort. Over $35,000 was pledged and matched by a local donor. Their next goals were to:

  • double in size,
  • double the dues base from local institutions,
  • officially name the organization,
  • kick off an intensive community listening (house meeting) campaign
  • select the first set of issues to organize around
  • host a first “public action” with press and local officials to announce the organization to the broader community

The first public action took place on June 30, 2022, when 600 leaders from over 40 local institutions packed into Westminster Presbyterian Church and pledged their time, money, and passion into the new organization, Together West Michigan. Twenty elected officials from both sides of the aisle attended the event and pledged their support to the issues agenda of TWM.

The issues announced that day were a direct result of the literally thousands of local conversations that TWM leaders had organized over the last several years in one to one, face to face meetings, small group house meetings, and neighborhood walks. The issues discussed reflected the very real pressures that local families were experiencing including:

Mental health care – Jamie Dalton, a local Grand Rapids mother, told the story that evening of her son, Jodeci Davis, who tragically died by suicide at age 26. Her efforts to form neighborhood-based mental health care services received a strong endorsement from the audience and its elected officials.

Public safety – Rev. Peter Tewinkle from Oakdale Park Reform Church told the story of 20+ TWM leaders gathering at his church one Saturday morning to walk and talk to the residents of their community in the third ward of Grand Rapids. While the national news media was churning over partisan division, people in that neighborhood just wanted speedbumps to slow down traffic so their children could play in the front yard. They wanted more programs for young people to have something interesting and productive to do to keep them out of trouble.

Similar stories were told in the areas of transportation, immigrant and refugee justice, housing, education, and childcare. These were stories told by the people who, themselves, were and are impacted by the problem. Those same people pledged, along with hundreds of others, to form resident-led Issue Research Teams to begin the hard work of crafting solutions to the issues identified.

The mantra of the issue research teams became, “the cost of a constructive critique is a creative alternative.” It’s up to these citizen leaders to research ways in which they can find concrete specific solutions to some element of the problems identified.

The Issue Research Teams are working to get at least three of their six teams ready to publicly present a solution proposal around a piece of their issue to decision makers in March 2023. From there, the hope is to build upon those foundational actions toward even larger possibilities for change.

Together West Michigan is also working to broaden its base and build relationships with more member institutions, hoping to grow to 30 institutions in the Grand Rapids area by the end of 2023. A group of local institutional leaders is also emerging in Holland, MI with serious interest in building a similar, broad-based organization in Ottawa County.

What have you learned and what might you share with others who are engaged in similar efforts?  

The Iron Rule. It’s impossible to build the level of relational power needed in our communities without engaging and developing new leaders and potential leaders to act. That means turning people’s desire for change around to them – do they want change enough to do something about it with others? Enough to invite a few people they know that are dealing with their same concerns to a house meeting. Enough to bring people from their institution to a public assembly. Enough to come to a meeting with a public official and share their experiences.

That’s where we’ve learned from the IAF that the Iron Rule of Leadership comes into play – never do for others what they can do for themselves. One of the most useful phrases our organizer and leaders have had to learn is, “Do you want to do something about that?”

The Iron Rule doesn’t mean throwing people unprepared into the fire. It means finding leaders and potential leaders with a desire to act effectively, helping them develop the skills, habits, and practices to do it, and connecting them with other leaders who want to do the same.

In broad-based organizing, we do want to make concrete change people can feel in their real lives. And, while the “getting something done” is important, equally important is the way to do that and keep doing it: constantly find and develop leaders in the practice of relational leadership – power in relationship with others. That never ends.

There is no there there. We set a goal to create a sponsoring team of 10 institutions, and we did it! Then, it was time to create an organization with at least 20 institutions, and we did it! Then, we needed to create an issues agenda, and we did it! Now, we have to create and train research action teams, broaden our base, build our institutional dues base, and evaluate all the new possibilities and needs that come out of our research work. Those possibilities and needs will open up ever new ones. There is no there there.

This means two things:

  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Be thoughtful and realize that it will never be perfect. So, decide what good enough to move is, then move and keep growing.
  • The joy is in the accomplishments along the way, the relationships, and the process of learning, growing, and doing.

“Hold the tension, keep the relationship.” – There is conflict in building and acting together. From naming an organization to how to run a meeting to choosing issues to act on, people come to broad-based organizing with a plethora of backgrounds and ideas. One thinker said public life is “rough and tumble,” and part of that means learning to fight well with each other. The ability to do so, to agitate, and to come back together around our shared interests stems from relationship.

Tension isn’t bad, yet there is something in the culture of West Michigan that seems to resist tension and conflict. Tension signals something is changing or growing. A disagreement doesn’t have to end a relationship.

We have learned some key practices to “hold the tension, keep the relationship:”

  • Go straight at the tension. You thought the meeting was disorganized? Don’t just quit and never come back. Say something about it to the people who ran the meeting! Put it all on the table and deal with it.
  • Evaluate every meeting and action. Even if it’s just a one-word evaluation to answer the question, “How do you feel at the end of this meeting?” and then unpacking any tense words that come up, do it. Get everything out there and give yourselves the opportunity to deal with it directly, not in “parking lot conversations” among small groups.
  • Talk to, not about. You can tell someone else you think a meeting was disorganized, but you had better also go straight to the people who ran the meeting and have a conversation about it with them. If you won’t talk directly to them, quit talking about it. If someone comes to you about someone else, your first question should be, “Did you talk with them about it?”
  • The price of a critique is a constructive proposal. We don’t allow members to just sit back and complain. If you’re going to critique something, you need to offer a constructive alternative for how to do it.
  • Check your humor meter. If you find that you and/or the person there’s tension with are losing your humor, check yourselves. That probably means defensiveness is arising, which will make conflict harder to navigate. Name it, take a break if you need to, or just acknowledge the humor that does still exist.
  • Slow, patient spade work. We can best deal with tension in the context of relationships, and a relationship isn’t formed in one encounter. It’s formed from showing up over and over and doing the work together. It is slow, patient spade work, and the fruit only grows if you’ve carefully tilled that soil.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

A major benefit of broad-based organizing is that it provides a container in which to practice the habits and skills of relational power in addition to teaching about them. So many times, we learn great lessons about leadership and change-making in books and seminars, then we are sent alone out into the world to try to make something happen with them.

The ongoing mix of relationship, training, action, and evaluation all mixed in and among each other makes broad-based organizing a unique and powerful change-making practice.