Innovator’s Journey: Celebrating Diversity While Supporting Local Artists and Businesses

Hear from the City of Grand Rapids, MI as they discuss lessons learned from Bridge GR, an event series championing economic vitality and diversity in their community.

ARTICLE | Nov 12, 2020
by Evette Pittman & Doug Matthews, City of Grand Rapids
Bridge GR Performers
Bridge GR Performers

Bridge GR is a collaborative event series that brought together the many diverse Grand Rapids groups by promoting local artists and businesses. The City of Grand Rapids and local partners put together this series in a matter of months in reaction to the cancellation of annual events due to COVID. AFI talked to the City's Special Event Supervisor Evette Pittman and Assistant City Manager Doug Matthews. They described how the event series came to be and its role in economic vitality and celebrating diversity.

AFI: To start, give us a breakdown of Bridge GR. What’s your elevator pitch?

Doug: The elevator pitch answers the question, how do we put together an event, or series of events, that captures the spirit of Grand Rapids but also experiments with how events can happen under the current circumstances?

Evette: What was wonderful about that initial conversation was that it wasn’t a question of “should we do something?” it was a question of “what should we do?”. Every entity that was involved knew that we needed to do something. In order to be a resilient community, we needed to look at the whole picture and remind people that we’re a united community.

How do we reimagine those experiences to do them safely and in a way that puts artists back to work? When we say artists, we're not just talking about painters – we're talking about getting musicians, entertainers, artists of every genre, back to work. Then, we wanted to find a way to reactivate our local economy and help many shut down restaurants get back to business.

It was easy to have that conversation and to come up with the concept of the Bridge GR. It was interesting because the bridge has so many connotations. Bridging the communities, their neighborhoods, our downtown. Bridging our local economy, bridging the events, and the activities.

Doug: Part of that bridge was recognizing what had happened in late May/early June. Some pretty extraordinary things happened here in Grand Rapids after a night of civil unrest. We had hundreds of people show up the following morning to clean up. Then we had a collection of local artists, primarily artists of color, who stepped up, worked with several other agencies and painted murals on all of these boarded-up windows downtown. This effort became a contextual underpinning for everything we did.

Bridge GR Performers

AFI: Let’s explore the topic of celebrating diversity. What did that celebration look like? What are some details that helped capture that?

Evette: Our Open Windows event kicked off the Bridge GR series and was held in Rosa Parks Circle. Which is our central civic center in Grand Rapids where everyone comes together. We brought out some of the artists who had participated in creating art on the boarded-up windows, and they painted more art on windows for an online auction.

We bookended the event with a series of live podcasts in Rosa Parks Circle.  The community got together to talk about what equity, justice and equality means both now and in the future. Our first podcast featured the City Manager being interviewed about civic unrest, social justice, GRPD reform, and so many other topics.

Then we had a panel of LatinX women who talked about race, opportunities and obstacles right here in Grand Rapids. The final podcast was called Diatribe and was two African American men and an African American woman talking about similar topics. Interestingly, while we were live streaming these podcasts a demonstration started on our main street. You could hear people calling for social justice and reform in the background while we are talking about those very topics. It was very timely and very impactful.

Bridge GR Panel

AFI: Was there any feedback shared during the podcast interviews that either surprised you or stuck with you?

Evette: One thing that stuck out was that even though there were things that had been said before, I feel like we heard each other better. We weren’t just trying to check a box – we were listening to one another and working together to find a resolution because we finally understand that these topics affect all of us. It doesn't matter if you're Latino, Black, Caucasian or Native American; we're all in this together.

Doug: A warning to government agencies is that if we're asking people to partner on a solution and take a risk, we need to get out of the habit of asking them to do it for free. We do that consistently and, unfortunately, we tend to do it more with people of color. Whether that's doing events, organizing community activities or soliciting community feedback. We wanted to be very intentional about that, and we were always making sure that we compensated folks for their time because they are equal partners in this activity.

Bridge GR Panel

AFI: It sounds like Bridge GR got a lot of positive energy flowing – do you think it changed the community? Do you think this is a long-term evolution of Grand Rapids and its residents?

Evette: We had several goals out of the gate with the Bridge. One was to encourage locals and visitors to get out of their homes and shop in our local businesses. That's that economic recovery piece, but we also wanted to reinforce resilience economically and as a community.

Our last goal was to create a platform for healing and advancing a culturally and economically equitable, inclusive and diverse community. The civil unrest that we had here was jarring and shocking to many people who live here in Grand Rapids. People who have been born and raised here thought it would never happen in our community. The Bridge was an opportunity for people to listen, hear, heal, and come together.

Bridge GR Guests

AFI: It seems like the Bridge was an opportunity to communicate safety measures. Did you see that as another way of educating your community on how to stay safe?

Evette: Absolutely. We worked directly with the Kent County Health Department for every event, even the art installations. Every event had a COVID-19 event plan that included chalking off areas six feet apart, having people counters so we could close the doors after 100 people entered, and a socially-distance line for people to wait in. It also included having PPE - every event had extra masks, gloves and hand sanitizer that were free for attendees. We hoped that these events could act as role models for other event organizers to show how they could safely put on events.

Bridge GR Performer

Want to hear even more about Bridge GR? Check out the Innovator's Journey podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


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