For Joy Gaasch, the six-part Tuesday Forum Series: "Envisioning Our Community's Future" exceeded expectations.
“To have 160 people that stuck with us through this journey is just absolutely phenomenal,” says Gaasch, president of the Chamber of Commerce for Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg, who organized the event with the support of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation.
After featuring five national experts, the last session gave participants time to reflect on the six-part series, discuss their key takeaways, and share tangible ways to enhance their community's future. The series is being billed as just the beginning as organizers and participants look for ways to move the effort forward in the months ahead.
“The next big step is how do we have those big-picture conversations with people about things that we are really pretty passionate about. It's about finding common ground and moving it forward,” Gaasch says.
One secret to the series’ success was assigning people to tables, where they often met people they didn’t know.
"The first session was interesting because folks were a little bit surprised by the seating, but they came to look forward to meeting somebody new and learning something,” Gaasch says.
Countering political polarization
The series was a way to bring people together at a time when politics is having a polarizing impact on communities.
Karen McPhee, who worked for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District for 31 years, including her last 11 years as superintendent, was brought in as a facilitator for the series.
"I think the polarization in the country can be contagious. And you have to have leaders willing to say, there's got to be another way to move forward in this conversation,” says McPhee. “There was an agreement that this was worth investing in, and it wasn’t an inexpensive venture, but this community was worth it. If nothing else, we could come together around this learning and figure out where we might go. There were so many good and common ideas.”
After each presentation, attendees were asked to discuss what they heard and answer questions. The highlights were presented to the larger group. For the final session, the attendees gave concise presentations of their list of ideas to pursue in the coming months.
"We all hear a little bit differently what's said in those presentations, so that opportunity to debrief that information you heard immediately after was a chance also to hear what others heard before cementing the information in your own thinking. So that's why we use that strategy,” says McPhee
A necessary investment
Andrea Hendrick, a small-business owner and trustee on the Grand Haven Board of Light and Power, says the series was needed.
“Collaboration and getting people in the same room so that they can talk is key to moving forward and having buy-in from our community,” says Hendrick. “I loved having professionals from all over the country who could provide insight on important issues. And then spending time with like-minded professionals or not-so-like-minded professionals with different ideas. We had an opportunity to wrestle through what the problems are and what potential solutions might be together.”
She compares the last day of the series to watching the credits roll after a movie.
“You’re sad that it's over but I'm glad that we're moving on to the next step and will continue. And there's a sequel to this.”
Ottawa County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Jake Mackeller
Sgt. Jake Mackeller was one of two Ottawa County Sheriff's deputies invited by the Village of Spring Lake, where the county is contracted for law enforcement services, to attend as its guests.
“Being here just reiterated that everybody has a common goal,” says Mackeller. “We just need to set aside our own bias and come together as a community to work to make it better. The experts who came in reiterated everything we see daily, that our community is good. We need to get more involved to make it better.”
Former Grand Haven Mayor Bob Monetza says he’s glad he invested his money and time into participating in the series.
“They were very thoughtful in how they put together the speakers so that one built on the next. You had a foundation to start with and then you worked through information with more details. We finished with the last speaker talking about personal positivity, and it was the icing on the cake because attitude is the glue that holds it all together,” Monetza says.
The importance of housing
Many participants agreed that affordable or attainable housing is key to creating a more inclusive community. It’s also essential for bringing a new generation of workers and families into the community.
Tuesday Forum Series participants talk about their community-building ideas.
The Tri-Cities region is ahead of many communities regarding this issue, says Brooke Oosterman, director of policy and communications for Housing Next. The nonprofit partners with local governments, developers, and nonprofits in West Michigan to move housing supply solutions forward to create equitable housing choices at all price points.
“It was really interesting to hear community leaders, from municipal partners to business leaders, agree we need to accelerate the work of creating more inclusive housing opportunities that are affordable and attainable for everyone in this region,” says Oosterman.
The Housing Next Initiative began working with Grand Haven area leaders more than five years ago to address the issue.
“Right now, the state is starting to recognize and understand and put resources behind ideas that started five or six years ago with the leaders in the room. I'm looking forward to what the next five or six years look like,” says Oosterman.
She praises the Grand Haven region for coming together to talk about change, and exploring solutions that are tailored to the community.
“I'm really excited about what that means for the community's future,” says Oosterman. “I would love to see West Michigan as a whole region take a look at how this could be replicated. Because I think it's the only way we're going to see impactful change in West Michigan.”
Read more about the Tuesday Forum Series: