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Leadership Development Hiding in Plain Sight: Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network (GGRREN)

This year LLC will be keeping an eye out for Leadership Development Programs Hiding in Plain Sight. This “New Leadership Development Mindset” acknowledges that Leadership Development also happens outside of what most of us expect Leadership Development to look like. The differences may seem banal, but when asked by our community what these programs actually looked like, we realized that there are many exciting examples of how leadership is being developed in the context of work, like the RE-AMP case study. Examples like the RE-AMP are hard to spot because they do not call themselves leadership development and do not fit the mold. (If you aren’t familiar with RE-AMP, no worries check out this LLC webinar on RE-AMP). Although this model is a great example, some of us learn through multiple examples, so we at LLC have been scouting to provide more concrete examples.  Here is another.


About the Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network.


Through LLC’s Consulting arm, we worked on a Scan for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to identify Leadership Development programs and resources in the state of Michigan. During our series of interviews, Sonya Hughes was highly recommended by others as a key person in Leadership Development. Sonya is the current Vice President for Diversity and Communities Initiatives through the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and gave me a generous amount of her time to talk to me about the Racial Equity Network, which she has helped design.


What is the Racial Equity Network?


The Racial Equity Network is an all volunteer community initiative of 200 people who have some interest in racial equity work.  In monthly meetings, the group self-organizes around common interests and these sub-groups will meet outside of the group meeting and work on their issue. During the next meeting, they may present their learnings to the group not only learns more about this issue, but also dissects and provides other recommendations and resources. It’s an organic process.


How did the network get started?


The Network was born out of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s convening in March 2012 in Grand Rapids. Many left this catalytic meeting with more questions than answers and decided to regroup to continue to find solutions to racial equity.  The Network met in October 2012 and from that meeting, they surveyed attendees and were able to identify goals, knowledge, and availability. This roadmap was the first inklings of the work. Since then through the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and through word of mouth from Racial Equity Network members, the Network has been gaining traction and adding members.


How does the network work?


“The goal is that we have a space where people build skills to identify and work collaboratively. I might know some of the perspectives on racial boundaries within the business community and minority business owners. I can talk to that, and people understand how the resources they have can apply to this. The school system could improve trades programs, and there are schools that are not having great graduation numbers so we can help people connect the dots... [We are] learning from other organizations and growing our knowledge. Allowing us to advocate for each other’s initiatives. We are not trying to form another organization. We all have a structure we work with, so let’s come together. There are teams doing the work outside of the meetings. Then these teams may educate those in the room.”


A portion of the meeting is used to inform the entire group and another portion is used to work, as it relates to the people in the room. If you were to walk into one of the network meetings you would find teams that are working on prototypes for change.  For instance some may connect around living wages, systemic change as it relates to institution strategies, health disparities, etc. There are usually 10 to 15 different groups. When you come in folks post up the groups and people join the groups they committed to for that meeting and if their interests change they can join another group next time.

What are some of the early outcomes?


“Once a month we meet and design a theory process to help find out who we are. It’s open to participation to help us in ‘knowing together and growing together.’ [As a result] there is a more equitable environment in Grand Rapids.” The Network closely supports the work that its members are already doing outside of the group and team meetings to create channels of collaboration within these structures.  This increases the impact of the work not only of the individuals and their organizations, but of the Network as a whole. These individuals can leverage their work towards the network’s goals. For instance, you can have folks from YMCA’s Food Access Program, and have employment issues groups, or people working in community development; United Way and the Chamber of Commerce; and education school systems, all targeting outcomes in healthcare. 


For Sonya, the Network has created a space where through, “Learning from people and their understanding and their level of work, [the Chamber of Commerce] can bring the [Racial Equity] curriculum from global to local and how do we support these programs that are closest to the work. I learned to continue to teach those teaching the programs. [We are using] some documentaries and national and local data. Racism impacts every single person regardless of race. How do we share that story and promote this activity around healing racism? We’ve had lots of organizations that we’ve partnered with. I'm making connections with people I wouldn't work with usually. [I tend to] work with for-profit organizations and now working more with nonprofits. The support is phenomenal. You can talk about it and not explain it. They get it. It’s the space.”


What are some of the key elements of the Racial Equity Network that are successfully building leadership capacity to promote racial equity?


A network approach to collaborative learning:


The Racial Equity Network is incorporating the best of learning and action networks to increase the impact of people who care about racial equity in Grand Rapids.  They are taking time to build relationships and a shared understanding of racial equity that is drawing on different perspectives and experiences of people in the network.  In Sonya’s words they are still “working on making sure there is a base understanding of racial equity.” With this shared base knowledge, there is also a shared capacity.


Some individuals may have a greater capacity than others; some may even be new in their positions; but “we grow their capacity to do their work, we grow their capacity of compassion.”  They are incorporating a network principle often referred to as a ladder of engagement recognizing and valuing the different levels of contributions that participants can make based on things like current life conditions, workload, and commitment to the network. 


Another key element is making space for learning from each another. “We had a training through the National Equity Project. We are naming it and gave it common knowledge. Everyone knows what space they are in. Several organizations are showing great impact. [Before] we weren't always aware of the success of one another. We can challenge new things. Through the workgroups, for example; ‘What is white privilege?’ What they will do with that is both personal, and for their organizations, and then they report out to the group their insights to all that’s happening.  The workgroups can change but we are creating a space where we are getting smarter about what we are doing.”


Recognizing Leadership in Everyone:


The network is also recruiting members that are already working in organizations that impact racial equity. They bring together a multi-sectoral group that, together, can tackle this issue from multiple angles. The Network can tap into the collective knowledge of the group and therefore has a holistic view of problem and can find holistic solutions through cross-sectoral collaboration. The Network also implicitly supports many organizations because the work the individuals are doing within the network is an integral part of those organizations’ core work.


The network strategy is creating pathways for people to enter at different levels and develop as they access the perspectives and wisdom of the group.  People learn to work together in small and large groups and report back to the network about their experiments, successes and challenges. 


There are no appointed leaders in the Network. However, there was a core team that was part of the Design Team, Sonya Hughes and the Chamber of Commerce being among them. From the meetings, “everyone takes a part of the work. The role of the work teams is open for all, and the responsibilities rotate.” This flexibility allows for people to step in and out as their personal lives and work demands change, but without stunting the work in any way. There is a structure that allows continuity; they have agendas and notes for reference and the teams meet between Network meetings to continue the work and collaborate on their particular interest. Sonya says it best, “Every single person in the room is a leader. We are doing the work. It’s not a title. We all have different influence and power we can leverage.”


What types of skills, knowledge or behaviors enable participants to be more successful individually and together as part of the network?


The ideal Racial Equity Network member is one who is in charge of racial equity work in their nonprofit. This may look different in each organization, but the main characteristic that ties everyone together is their interest and passion for racial equity. That means “learning from people and their understanding and level of work.” Individuals need to be willing to “continue the conversation, listening deeper, and creating empathy.”


“Giving ourselves permission to fumble our way to this new experience; not using the old models of leadership and creating the space for new opportunities or models. Design theory thinking is new to the group. Let’s be ok with not having all the answers and continue to be open to understanding the pace that is developing and everyone's contributions. We are growing our capacity. We can slow our pace but still be available. Anyone can be a leader, anyone can contribute and flexibility is necessity.”


Even though this may not look like a traditional leadership program the network is developing people, creating conditions for learning by doing and helping people self-organize and practice working together to increase their impact.  That’s a pretty powerful leadership outcome.


For more information check out the attached introduction below, supplied by Sonya Hughes. If you're interested in connecting with GGRREN please contact Miriam Persley,, who will forward all inquieries.