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Together West Michigan seeks to bring equitable change to communities

crowds fill church pews at Together West Michigan's event
Kylie Ambu
Together West Michigan debuts plans for community change

The group has centered in on change in areas of mental health, housing, immigrant and refugee access and well-being, affordable childcare, public safety and transportation.

Together West Michigan brought in a crowd of around 600 people for its official debut in Grand Rapids on Thursday evening. However, the group, made up of 20 organizations seeking to create substantive change, is far from new. It’s been building over the past four years, reaching into local neighborhoods on the state’s west side.

The group is working to give ordinary families a voice in decisions that directly affect their lives, crossing lines of class, religion, race and other categories it says often divides communities. Organizers recently led a three-month listening campaign reaching 1,350 people to hear what kind of change residents need. Now leaders say they’re ready to act on those calls for transformation of mental health, immigrant and refugee well-being, neighborhood safety, child care, housing and transportation.

"The one thing that this movement is about is actually getting something done. Finding maybe a handful of things that there is a feasible way to make progress on them, and we had to listen to people," team member Eric Richter said. "...“It isn’t going to change the world, but it may change a couple of key things in our corner of the world.”

Together West Michigan held its debut event at Westminster Presbyterian Church from 6:00-8:30pm on Thursday. The night included music and shared testimonies from community members over change they wish to see.

"When it comes to the traffic rules, you are very quick to punish me, but what if I don't know the rules at all? Can you help me learn them first? Most of the immigrant cases at court are traffic issues," Didasi Mbongya, a Congolese immigrant and member of the Cathedral of St. Andrew said, "How do you help me speak the language instead of using interpreters? What are those resources that can help me be independent? And not just refugees, but many people who struggle with transportation and being independent."

Monica Mitchell, another community member, told attendees more needs to be done in the way of affordable housing.

"Let me tell you about affordable housing. There is none for people on disability. Tell me how would you feel if you can't even make a dinner for your grandchildren or call your children over for Sunday dinner because you have no place to call home," Mitchell said.

As the night continued, several community leaders spoke about their experiences in the city, facing inequitable situations. A bipartisan group of 17 public officials, from various levels of government, have pledged to stand with Together West Michigan in its efforts to address issues. U.S. Republican Representative, Peter Meijer said, "You can count on me as a partner."

The group said next steps include breaking into research groups to tackle action plans over proposed issues. While only organizations can join this coalition, leaders encouraged individuals to get groups they belong to involved.

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