Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology publishes November 1, 2017 as part of Belt Publishing’s City Anthology series. Pre-order your copy here. Below is an introduction.

Our Act of Activism

by Ashley E. Nickels and Dani Vilella

This book is an extension of our friendship; an extension of our ongoing work …

To start, we are longtime friends — since third grade. We have known each other for decades. In fact, our first collaborative activist effort was in sixth grade. Together with our peers, we organized a petition to overturn a decision made by our school’s principal. We succeeded. Long before we knew the words activism, organizing, or advocacy, we were working together to make change.

The first time we both boarded a plane we were not headed to Cancun for spring break, it was to Washington, D.C., for “CloseUp,” a nationally recognized program that teaches democracy and civic engagement to high school students in the nation’s capital.

In college, we travelled together again, this time to Nicaragua to study poverty and social justice issues on an international scale. In our twenties, when we decided to take a vacation together, we traveled to Guatemala to work with orphans and victims of domestic violence.

Back in our native city, our activism continued. We sat on the board for the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW-GR). Through NOW-GR, we created an awards/community outreach event called “Then & NOW.” We collaborated with other community groups to organize protests, demonstrations, and community events. We helped the organizers of Grand Rapids’s first “SlutWalk;” we marched with Planned Parenthood and in the Grand Rapids Pride Parade; we supported women candidates for elected office.

[blocktext align=”right”]We did not want to write a book about Grand Rapids’s grass-roots community. We wanted to provide a platform for others to share their stories — stories about residents everyday lives and the work taking place here.[/blocktext]Our activism drives our friendship as much as our friendship drives our activism. We understand that the opportunities that we were offered and took hold of reflect our privilege — white, middle-class, and college educated. We sought these experiences not to “save the world,” but to learn firsthand what we had heard about in our classrooms. And we want to be clear, we don’t only get together to undertake large-scale activist projects. You can often find us, our third beer in hand, playing euchre or dancing to nineties music. We have had a little fun along the way, too.

Each of these experiences was one more stepping stone in the paths that put us where we are today. Ashley is a professor of political science at Kent State University, teaching the next generation of students about urban politics, community organizing, and nonprofit advocacy, and focusing, most recently, on her research on the politics of municipal takeover in Flint, Michigan. Dani is the Advocacy and Field Manager for Planned Parenthood of Michigan, training activists, encouraging civic engagement, fighting for social justice, and teaching people about politics.

This book is the next step in our activist journey.

Editing this anthology is, for us, an act of activism, in and of itself. The process for creating this book, too, was an homage to grassroots action. From crowdfunding the book, gaining support from 121 funders, to recruiting and working with the thirty-five authors in this volume, this book has been built from the ground up.

While the concept of “grassroots” means more than just activism, the task of reaching out to the community, gathering the stories of individuals, attempting to ensure a diversity of voices, and curating this collection of snapshots of the city we know and love is yet another strategy that we are using to create conversation and change in our community.

We both grew up in Grand Rapids, went to Grand Rapids Public Schools together, and, after college, both chose Grand Rapids as the place to start our families and careers. We bought our first houses, had kids, and started our respective careers here. Ashley moved away six years ago to pursue her Ph.D. in New Jersey and has since settled in Cleveland, Ohio, but Grand Rapids is still home.

We did not want to write a book about Grand Rapids’s grass-roots community. We wanted to provide a platform for others to share their stories — stories about residents everyday lives and the work taking place here.

Needless to say, Grand Rapids has been a major part of our lives.

We did not know what this book would look like in the end. We reached out as far and wide and as deep as possible, hoping to draw diverse voices, perspectives, and stories. We have been surprised and humbled at the number of contributors that have put time and effort into the telling of their stories, praising and critiquing their own city and baring their vulnerabilities in the process.

While we are happy with how the book turned out, it was rough at times. As with any activist endeavor, we faced multiple challenges — time crunches, human nature, fear, and network limitations, to name a few.

Some people were too busy. Or they didn’t identify as writers and felt intimidated by the prospect of putting virtual pen to paper. Some were confused about why we reached out to them, feeling like imposters who weren’t qualified to take on the mantle of activist/organizer/storyteller, often asking, “What have I ever done?” or saying, “I don’t even know what I would write about.” For many, it was too personal of a request and people were uncomfortable writing about themselves and taking ownership of their work in the community. These are all understandable human responses to being asked to contribute to a book.

More disturbingly, however, we often encountered people who wanted to write about exciting, controversial topics critiquing “the system,” who, when faced with the actual task of putting their thoughts on paper, realized that it could jeopardize their livelihoods or funding for their current projects, or burn bridges with people in power that they needed to maintain. This problem hits at the very reason that this book needs to exist. Grand Rapids is a city too often defined and designed by the wealthy power players who hold real sway over the ability of people on the ground to do the work that needs to be done.

While we tried hard to reach out as broadly and deeply into the community as was possible, not every issue of importance is represented here, not every community is present. We recognize and acknowledge these gaps. Like all activist projects, there is room for improvement and things we would do differently if we were to do it again. Because of these issues, it is just as important to read not only the stories that are represented, but the spaces in between them. The voices that are missing are just as much a part of this tale. This book is a snapshot in time; it reflects parts of Grand Rapids today, while trying to acknowledge its complex histories.

As happens in many cities, the dominant narratives about Grand Rapids and its citizens do not often align with the lived experiences of the people on the ground.

Contrary to the common perceptions, we are not all wealthy, white, conservative philanthropists. Grand Rapids is more than Amway, ArtPrize, Medical Mile, or the DeVos and VanAndel families. Recently we have come to be known as Beer City USA. This exciting, yet dubious title, provides us with an example to show the complexity of this paradox. Don’t get us wrong, we love beer, and the local breweries, but people who want to push development and tourism too often dominate the conversation, and people are being left behind, neighborhoods are being broken up, and voices are being silenced. While it has increased tourism and put dollars in the coffers of local businesses, it has also become a symbol of rampant development, gentrification, and skyrocketing housing costs disproportionately affecting the city’s more marginalized citizens.

While not all of the powers-that-be have an adversarial relationship with those who identify with the grassroots, due to the historical and social context of the city, there is a significant amount of antagonism between those with money and power and the people impacted by the use of that money and power. The local power of the purse is located in the hands of a few, who have their own agenda, and as such, the projects that they will support or fund are too often limited in scope or not responsive to the changing needs, identities, and demographics of communities within Grand Rapids.

This tension between development, growth, and progress, and those with the money and power to back it, versus the individuals, organizations, and communities that are creatively, innovatively, and doggedly attempting to make the city livable for everyone else, sits at the heart of many of the pieces in this book. It was our intent to provide a platform for people to tell the world about grassroots Grand Rapids — those people, groups, and organizations doing the often-hidden (or marginalized) work of community organizing, political and civic mobilization, and neighborhood building. When communities are marginalized, those voices are left out of important decision-making processes. Their interests are not heard; their expertise is not valued. We are more than rapid economic development. We are more than our industries. We are more than the big names plastered on the side of buildings. As Grand Rapids continues to grow and thrive, we need to bring the voices of the most marginalized to the center.

This is our small contribution to that process, our act of defiance.


Dani Vilella is the Political & Advocacy Field Manager for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan and is based in Grand Rapids, MI. She currently serves on the steering committee of the Fountain Street Church Choice Fund, is on the Board of the West Michigan Progressive Women’s Alliance, and is currently a graduate student at Grand Valley State University earning her Master’s degree in Non Profit & Public Administration.  She has previously served as the President of the Grand Rapids chapter of the National Organization for Women, and as the Action Vice President for MI NOW. She is a co-founder of Stop the War on Women, and organization dedicated to preventing anti-women legislation, and Service for Servers, a non-profit designed to encourage people in the service to give to progressive causes. She is a dedicated community organizer who is passionate about feminism, human rights and sexual justice.

Dani holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology with a minor in Women & Gender Studies from Grand Valley State University. She also holds a Master’s Certification in Non-Profit Leadership & Public Administration from GVSU.

Ashley Nickels is an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University in Ohio, where she teaches courses in public and nonprofit administration. She is an interdisciplinary scholar, whose work focuses on urban politics and policy, community based organizations, and local democracy. A self-described scholar-activist, Nickels began her career focused on feminist activism and organizing. She previously served as the Vice-President of the Michigan National Organization for Women and President of the local Grand Rapids chapter. She has been published in various academic journals and is co-editing two other books, one on feminist activism and the other on community development, with Routledge Press.

Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology can be ordered here.

Banner photo credit: Russell Sekeet

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