Solving complex social problems with innovative sustainable models.

Author:Beene, Justin S.
Position:Locally speaking

With a background as a recipient and provider of philanthropic efforts and human services support, I often wonder how to truly develop the economic capacity and well-being of people on the margins of society. I wrestle with some seemingly contradictory statistics and a puzzling trend in my own community--while Grand Rapids, Michigan, is consistently rated among the most philanthropic communities in the county, (1) it also continues to be one of the worst cities in the country for African Americans to live economically. (2) Despite all of the supportive efforts that have lauded national recognition, these alone have not proven powerful enough to drive outcomes for the African American community and address systemic issues underlying poverty.

Experiencing this juxtaposition has caused me to ask some deeply challenging questions. A friend of mine once told me, "Once a question is raised, it must be addressed." So I started asking these questions: "What are the frameworks and models that are innovative, sustainable, and provide dignity to people living on the margins of society? What frameworks are being implemented that work with young people who have aged out of foster care, are engaged with multiple systems, and create cross-sector solutions?" Unfortunately, the models seemed to be few and far between; so I gathered some folks and we started drawing up some models on our own.

Today, we refer to ourselves as a movement, the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation. It's a partnership between Bethany Christian Services (funded through relationships with the local, state, and federal Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor); through foster care contracts, Chafee Funding (for youth aging out); a Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education grant; local foundations; donations; two sustainable social enterprises, Building Bridges Professional Services and Rising Grinds Cafe--a landscape company and cafe that are funded through customer purchases--and a for-profit specialty window and door company, Double O Supply and Craftsman. Together we are addressing root-cause level needs in sustainable ways through creative multisector partnerships.

Collaboratively, the partners renovated 30,000 square feet of a previously abandoned 120-year-old building in a historically disadvantaged neighborhood. The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation now provides 350 youth annually with GED/high school completion courses; vocational...

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