Two Lakeshore communities team up to explore racial, ethnic, cultural divides

While the drawbridge between Muskegon and Grand Haven physically links those two communities, a cultural gap still exists between them. A pair of local entities are teaming up to explore that racial, ethnic and cultural divide.

The Momentum Center and Muskegon Community College are providing community members the opportunity to learn about local cultures on a personal level. The first cycle of Cultural Immersion Experiences Across the Bridge has kicked off. During each cycle, five to eight residents from both Grand Haven and Muskegon will spend three to four days immersed in each other’s culture.

This idea formed after Barbara Lee VanHorssen, the Momentum Center’s director, led a cultural immersion experience for the Momentum Center in Egypt.

“These trips are not vacations or mission trips. They are about spending time with and getting to know people from a different culture who have an entirely different way of viewing the world,” Lee VanHorssen says. “They are life-changing experiences because they help us see the lens through which we see the world — and when you see the lens itself, it changes everything. 

“But I realized you don’t have to go halfway around the world to have that experience. In fact, you can do the same thing without ever boarding a plane. We only need to be willing to truly listen to people who have a different life experience than us—and for many of us in the Tri-Cities, that is as close as the other side of the drawbridge.”

Shared vision

When she connected with Kenneth James from Muskegon Community College, the ball rolled even faster.

“I started as chief diversity officer for Muskegon Community College in September 2021,” James says. “The vision for Across the Bridge was already set in motion by our then-president, Dr. Dale Nesbary. Dr. Nesbary championed me to work with Barbara at the Momentum Center to make it a reality. After Dr. Nesbary’s retirement, MCC’s new president, Dr. John Selmon, was just as passionate about ensuring MCC was instrumental in bringing Across to fruition.”
Cultural Immersion Experiences Across the Bridge brings together residents from Grand Haven and Muskegon to learn about each other’s communities.
This is the first trip Across the Bridge, and the hope is that it’s genuinely eye-opening for the participants as well as a great way to start conversations that lead to education and understanding.

“We really do experience the world differently,” Lee VanHorssen says. “We have life experiences that are genuinely different, and as a result we see the world through a different lens. 

“When we understand that, we stop being defensive. And we start to understand that we all play a role in maintaining the systems of separation and division that were put in place generations ago. Our goal is to dismantle the barriers that divide us and create a truly stigma-free West Michigan community.”

First group by invitation

The first groups of participants, eight from Muskegon and eight from Grand Haven, were by
invitation — local thought leaders who are considered to be voices in their communities. After this pilot group, Lee VanHorssen and James anticipate opportunities for people from each community to participate.

“Each group will experience a deep dive into the respective communities,” James says. “There will be cultural experiences, dining experiences, tours, and conversations with stakeholders from each community. The goal is to bring greater awareness and initiate cross-cultural dialogue to dispel myths and negative assumptions.”

Highlights will include intentional reflection; conversations around stereotypes and misconceptions about crime, poverty, and social safety nets; visits to iconic restaurants and tourist attractions; meeting with public safety professionals; attending worship services; and more.

“Both communities have stereotypes,” Lee VanHorssen states. “We will explore those stereotypes — in what small ways they may represent some truth and how each community is far more than those thoughts and images.”

The itinerary was developed in large part by the Momentum Center and Muskegon Community College, with input from a committee of volunteers from each community.

“By leading with discourse, dialogue, and dissemination of information, we hope to see increased positive conversations between our communities,” James says.

Initial session built new relationships

The first weekend Across the Bridge was Sept. 23-25, and the experience was “very thoughtful and impactful,” according to participant Andrea Hendrick, of Grand Haven.

“One of the most impactful events was a private tour by William Muhammed through the James Jackson Museum of African American History,” Hendrick says. “Mr. Muhammed was a friend of the late Dr. James Jackson and was able to share the story of his life and service to the Muskegon area. 

“The museum tour showcased the stories and accomplishments of the prominent African American leaders and groups throughout history while also bearing witness to the historical atrocities that made their accomplishments even more impressive. Some impactful subjects worth further research include the history of Black Wall Street, the Freedom Now Party, the holiday of Kwanzaa, and the teaching of the history of slavery in schools.”
A group visited the James Jackson Museum of African American History as part of a cultural immersion experience recently.
Lee VanHorssen agrees that the first weekend was a great success.

“I liked the overall sample we experienced, including meeting with business leaders, educators, and law enforcement,” she says. “We had great meals. A few of the hidden gems I really appreciated were the James Jackson Museum of African American History, US Café, and worship at New Light Baptist Church. Every person we met was helpful and welcoming.”

She said that the main takeaway was the relationships that were formed with the Muskegon
community as well as among the group participants.

Weekend was just a first step

Hendrick is thankful she is now equipped to start bridging the communities.
“I feel so grateful to be part of this exercise,” she says. “This was a space designed to allow for safe dialog about similarities and differences within our neighboring communities. I can’t wait to hear the perspective of our Muskegon counterparts. 

“There is no disputing that our country is segregated, and It has been since our founding. Many times, we interpret this fact through the lens of the place we grow up, the schools we attend, and the socio-economic factors that have shaped our understanding of the world. This exercise invited participants to expose themselves, with an open mind, to life experiences and historical content from another lens. 

“For me, this resulted in increased compassion, understanding, appreciation, respect, and desire to interact with people that are not like me and places that are not like mine.”

This cultural immersion experience is fully funded through sponsorships and donations.

Supporters include Baker College, Baker Lumber, Fifth Third Bank, First Presbyterian Church, Gentex Corp., Muskegon Community College, Rotary Club of Grand Haven, Rotary Club of Muskegon, Rotary Club of Spring Lake, and Shape Corp.

Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.