Opinion | When cities don’t invest in neighborhoods, youth are the victims

Tiffany Clarke

Tiffany Clarke is the director of programming at the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, which was established in 2015 to address the lack of accessible employment for young adults and community residents.

Grand Rapids has seen incredible growth in the past decade, gaining national recognition for being one of the best places to live and the best city to raise a family in the United States. Despite these positive strides, not all youth have benefitted from the recent expansion of the Grand Rapids area.

A new study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found outcomes for African-American adolescents in Michigan are among the worst in the country, with only Mississippi and Wisconsin trailing. So how did we get here? It starts with disinvestment in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

In Grand Rapids, between 2012 and 2017, only 1.5 percent of all private investment for development activities was directed to projects in the city’s Third Ward, the region of the city with the largest population of African Americans. Without investment from private businesses, families struggle to find employment in their communities. This translates into a low-income tax base, lower home ownership rates, and lower investment in schools, which further contributes to racial and geographical disparities. These disparities greatly impact youth, as 30 percent of the population in the ZIP code 49507 is younger than 19.

Located in the Madison Square neighborhood is an innovative approach that is making a positive impact on those statistics. The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT) is a multi-agency collaborative consisting of social enterprises Building Bridges Professional Services and The Rising Grinds Café, the Grand Rapids Chapter of the NAACP, and nonprofits Bethany Christian Services and the Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project. GRCCT was founded in 2015 with the goal of fostering collaboration among partners on their common vision of transformed communities.

The most underserved individuals in the community come to GRCCT to access opportunities to transform their lives through employment, workforce development, vocational training, educational opportunities, housing and meaningful relationships. GRCCT takes a holistic approach to helping youth in the Third Ward overcome barriers, fully recognizing the economic, social, and cultural aspects of poverty.

Thriving communities are made possible through thriving individuals. It is critical to remove societal barriers, creating opportunities for everyone, especially people like 24-year-old Marcus. He came to GRCCT experiencing homelessness and inconsistent employment. Marcus already displayed his incredible resilience by overcoming drug addiction and significant trauma in his childhood. What he needed was access to local educational programs, job training and a support system to get him on track to stability.

Marcus took advantage of education and job training programs through GRCCT, completing a GED program and vocational training in building and construction. A case manager assisted him with housing insecurity by helping him obtain stable housing. After completing his education and training programs, Marcus was offered a full-time construction job with a local partner of GRCCT. Despite the incredible statistics stacked again Marcus, the opportunity he found at GRCCT allowed him to gain the skills he needed to obtain stability and economic mobility.

Marcus is just one of hundreds of success stories to come from GRCCT. We’ve been addressing the gaps in the community, but we can’t do this work alone. We would like to see the city increase their investment in business and infrastructure to provide employment opportunities for youth in the area. This is a critical step to creating economic mobility.

City officials must step up and take action to break the cycle of poverty that is perpetuated through a lack of investment and inaction in the Third Ward. Youth and families are depending on it.

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