Community conversation gives youth wider perspective

Caroline Henry is glad to be part of an important community conversation. 

“It was a really great opportunity to be invited to answer some of those really tough questions that we don't always have answers to,” says Henry, who is among a contingent of high school students invited to take part in the Tuesday Forum series.

The Chamber - Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, in partnership with the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, is offering an opportunity for area businesses, local leaders, and community members to learn about and discuss issues critical to Northwest Ottawa County and plan for a shared future through a six-part breakfast speaker series, “Envisioning Our Community’s Future.”

Caroline Henry is the chair of the GHACF's Youth Advisory Council. (Shandra Martinez)

All the students are from the foundation’s Youth Advisory Council.

Reflection on inclusion

Henry was particularly inspired by a recent presenter, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein. He spoke about the importance of inclusivity, finding the courage to make mistakes, and turning adversity into something impactful and transformational. A community conversation led by facilitator Karen McFee followed Bernstein’s presentation.

One of Bernstein’s comments about how the high school experience resonated with Henry.

Tri-Cities community members listen to Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein speak.

The Justice shares: “So often, how we feel in high school is how we feel in life. Think about those feelings you had when you were in high school when you weren't wanted and you weren't asked, or you weren't able to participate or you weren't able to do things. things like that stay with you forever because it's really defining. It really has that impact.

He adds, “then think about when somebody would come and invite me to do something or say to me, ‘We don't want you to be left out. We don't want you to feel like you're excluded.’ Think about how much that meant, how much you value that, and how that thought and sentiment really stays with you today.”

Henry notes that those words made her appreciate that she appreciates coming to the community conversation while she being in her high school experience.
“It’’s really neat to be able to still have the perspective and be involved in the conversation,” she says. 

Wider perspective

Henry says being part of the series has been important for the work she does with the Community Foundation.

“We are involved in different grant-making opportunities,” she says. “Being able to see this whole perspective of bringing in new people, getting their viewpoints and hearing different stories – we can take that back into our grant-making opportunities and see them from a different perspective. We came up with two new application questions just in this setting that we should ask to hear different people's life stories coming onto the board. It’s one way to help further expand diversity within our board.” 

Henry is a senior at Spring Lake High School and plans to attend Hope College in the fall to major in communications.

Speaking to a packed house, Bernstein spoke about being born legally blind as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, which has given him perspective on accessibility and inclusivity. Before being elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014, he dedicated much of his legal career to protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

“We appreciate the gift you brought to this community. It’s exactly what we were looking for,” Hadley Streng, foundation president, shares with the justice after his speech, saying she found his words inspiring. 

Grand Haven Township Fire/Rescue Chief Shawn Schrader speaks to Michigan Justice Richard Bernstein. (Shandra Martinez)

Grand Haven Township Fire Chief Shawn Schrader adds that Bernstein’s insights about making people welcome resonated with him.

“I love our community,” says Schrader, adding that inclusion is “something where we have a lot to learn from each other, and we have a lot to grow, but the foundation is there for the greater good.” 

In response, Bernstein says he appreciated being asked to speak and was impressed with the “people, the energy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the spirit, the vitality” of the audience.

“That's why this is such a great place to be a part of and why I just enjoyed this immensely,” Bernstein said. 

The group will gather again on April 11 for a presentation by Jennifer S. Vey, a senior fellow with Brookings Metro and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking. She will present on Transformative Placemaking: Creating Vibrant, Connected, and Inclusive Communities.

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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.