TOTAL WORKING IN BUILDING: 37 FULL TIME & 27 PART TIME EMPLOYEES, 5 INTERNS
8 BOARD MEMBERS
900+ YOUTH, SENIORS AND PARTICIPANTS, 4,000 PEOPLE SERVED INDIRECTLY, ANNUALLY, INCLUDING 200 LOW-INCOME AGING ADULTS SERVICED THROUGH LANDSCAPING AND EMERGENCY SNOW REMOVAL SERVICES
ORGANIZATION / GRANTEE: Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT) / Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project
PROGRAM: Ignite the Movement Vision Campaign
GRANT: $100,000 to support development of a permanent, sustainable, multi-use space—the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation—for community development and economic activity in the Madison Square neighborhood to the Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project and its partners NAACP-Grand Rapids, Building Bridges Professional Services, Rising Grinds Café, and Youth Services at Bethany.
A conversation with Justin Beene on engaging people in transformative change
Director of the Nehemiah Project and Founder/Curator of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation
Unlike the private sector, nonprofit leaders need to galvanize passion and commitment from a broad base of people—paid staff, nonprofit allies, public officials, volunteer advocates, and more. Can you speak to this challenge and how you respond to it?
Well, I have always asked the question, Why does Grand Rapids have 800 churches, 2,800 non-profits, is one of the most philanthropic communities in the country and yet has massive economic, educational, and racial disparity? In fact Forbes has said we are one of the worst places for African Americans to live. There are lots of people working in our city, but I think that we are all challenged with the lack of a grand, audacious, and collaborative vision. The whole idea behind the GR Center for Community Transformation was to bring people together in a radically inclusive way. The Harvard Business Review stated the idea this way, “If the goal is big enough, ambitious, and transformational, people will put aside their differences and work together...the challenge is to build a positive coalition that is more powerful than the negative coalition” (Martin & Osberg, 2015, p. 3).
That’s what we are trying to do—to create a physical space in which all who come here enter into a transformative process that draws them back again—to work here, volunteer, invest, participate--ultimately being part of the change we desire to see in the city.
Who are the people who are directly served by your work and what are the greatest challenges they face?
We actually try not to use the language of “service” anymore. Unfortunately, it can become a patronizing word—those “with” helping those “without.” The reality is that we all are in need and we all have strengths. Lila Watson said it this way, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come here because you believe that your liberation is tied to mine, then let us begin.” We are about the growth and transformation of employees, investors, board members, youth, and residents.
We do engage specific historically disadvantaged groups; youth ages 14-24, aging adults living on limited incomes, and residents who have barriers to employment. However, we really do see our work as simply creating opportunities for transformation—and we know all of us need to participate in this process.
What innovative ideas does your organization bring to meeting the needs of those people?
We believe that real transformation happens at the pace of deep relationships. It’s when the real me meets the real you—over and over again. So I think our innovation is that we are creating a place that moves beyond “programs” to one of “presence.” A place that naturally invites each person to be fully themselves.
The transformative process we engage in is one of Action, Reflection, and then Discernment. It’s a cycle in which one informs the other. Most organizations are very busy doing stuff—stuck in the Action phase. We have created regular rhythms into our work life that allow for reflecting on our work, and discerning together what it means for us in the future.
I think because we have been absorbing such a vast array of reflections from all of the people engaged in this movement—we have a unique ability to speak authentically and passionately to many different people.
Who are the people within and outside your organization who are vital to achieving your mission (think groups/types/partnering organizations vs. individuals) and how do you collaborate to achieve your mission?
Over the years we have found some very unlikely partners. In fact, the first step to a transcendent consciousness is inclusion---include everyone. We like to say that we partner with people like us, not like us, and who don’t like us. When you are around people and organizations that are different from you—and you take them seriously, there is real room to both learn from them and see their humanity. For us, this includes organizations in the building—from Bethany to the NAACP. It’s a for profit and nonprofit, an advocacy group, and a social service organization. Our work includes hosting groups from the Pride Center to local government, from churches to businesses. We are about building deep relationships with republicans and democrats--getting them to come together for a shared vision of a flourishing community.
A very tangible example of this is in our current capital campaign. We are in the process of raising $ 4 million, but instead of one organization raising all the money, we have three organizations, Bethany, NAACP, and GR Nehemiah Project doing it collaboratively. This effort has allowed us to set aside differences and instead focus on what we share in common—and it has brought a very robust group of people to the table.
Thinking beyond those who directly benefit from your work, who are the people who indirectly benefit from your work (think volunteers, health community, NP partners, and those who benefit in the future) and how do they benefit?
Many of our investors/donors are challenged with “giving fatigue.” They have given financially but don’t see the impact they had hoped for. For them, we challenge them to see their own pain/suffering and to recognize that their solidarity in this work helps them become more human—and to stay engaged with us in the process as we collaboratively come up with more innovative and sustainable solutions.
For many of our 500 young people who have been labeled high-risk—more than anything they have been traumatized and then trapped by an unjust and inequitable system. They don’t see a clear path out of their historical situation. For them we are helping them experience real hope through tangible avenues for education, employment, and housing.
For the 200+ aging adults who we provide discounted landscaping and emergency snow removal services to—sometimes they need someone to chat with, someone to tell them that they matter and the community still cares for them, and that they have great knowledge and stories to share with the younger generation.
How and why does fostering the civic engagement of people toward a common good matter in achieving your organization’s long-term vision?
There is a great quote by Lau Tzu that we have fully embraced, “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say 'We have done this ourselves.”
I think it at the end of the day we want people to know that their voice, advocacy, and work, not only matters—it’s desperately needed for the flourishing of our community.
I often talk about the metaphor of “love of place”—or the idea that places, just like people, over time begin to bear the mark of the ones who loves it. If we want our community to be an inclusive and prosperous place for all, then we have to all get involved. We have to love it by creating the type of culture that we want—because if we stop loving it, caring for it, someone else will make it theirs. So our leadership role is to courageously call forth authentic action in our community—for the common good of all its residents. That is a transforming community!
In 10 years I believe the people we serve will...
Have a greater sense of hope. Not just hope that things will get better, but a collective sense of hope in our humanity—that together we can, have, and will continue to make a difference.
We want to see a transforming community—one in which continued personal growth, interdependence, financial security, and flourishing is happening for everyone. It’s where there is more vulnerability and there is a sense of mutuality between people—where we are able to recognize and celebrate our differences and diversity. Its where those who are the most vulnerable (kids and the elderly) are able to play safely in local parks have homes that are affordable and are lead free, economic mobility, and relationships that cross traditional boundaries.
Tangibly, we hope that we are building a movement and community center that helps become a platform to accelerate that big vision—and will remain a beacon of that hope and sign of transformation for millennia to come.
JUSTIN BEENE is a Senior Fellow with Street Psalms and founder of the innovative GRCCT, a collective and colocated model of nonprofits and for profits working together to create a flourishing city. He, lives with his wife, Karianne, and their three children, Jelani, Cheyenne, and Azariah. Justin holds a BSW in Social Work and Family Studies, an MSW in Social Work in Management, an MA in Ministry Leadership, and a doctorate in Transformational Leadership with a focus in Entrepreneurial Transformation.
ADDITIONAL PROGRAM DETAILS
4,000 PEOPLE SERVED INDIRECTLY, ANNUALLY, INCLUDING 200 LOW INCOME AGING ADULTS SERVICED THROUGH LANDSCAPING AND EMERGENCY SNOW REMOVAL SERVICES
3 COLLABORATIVE PARTNERS:
NEHEMIAH, BETHANY CHRISTIAN SERVICES YOUTH SERVICES, AND NAACP-GR
2 SUBSIDIARIES: RISING GRINDS, BUILDING BRIDGES
500 YOUTH AND RESIDENTS TRAINED ANNUALLY
250 YOUTH AND VOLUNTEERS PARTICIPATED IN RENOVATION
“That’s what we are trying to do—to create a physical space in which all who come here enter into a transformative process that draws them back again—to work here, volunteer, invest, participate—ultimately being part of the change we desire to see in the city.”