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‘It might spark a desire to want to change something’

Trio of students launch speaker series

After Jalen Finn read an article about how much less economic investment Grand Rapids’ Third Ward was receiving than other wards, he mentioned it to Rodney Brown, principal of Grand Rapids Learning Center at Grand Rapids Community College.

“I saw the mLive article and I was like, ‘What?’ It just surprised me,” said Jalen who lives in the Third Ward and takes dual enrollment GRCC courses at the Learning Center.

It motivated him to examine the city map.“I was like ‘oh my gosh, a lot more people than I think live there.’ ”

He also learned the ward has the highest percentage of African Americans, at 33.7 percent.

According to the article posted in October by reporter Justin P. Hicks, the Third Ward, which covers roughly one-third of the city’s land size and population, received $19.4 million — or 1.5 percent — of the $1.29 billion in private investments supported by the city’s economic development programs in 2012-17. That’s compared to $750 million and $516 million invested in the First Ward and Second Ward, respectively.

“(That’s) scraping the bottom of the barrel,” Jalen said.

Brown, impressed with Jalen’s interest in the topic, contacted an expert: Grand Rapids Third Ward City Commissioner Senita Lenear, who has advocated for improved equity in investment.

Grand Rapids Third Ward City Commissioner Senita Lenear visits with students and Learning Center staff members

Launching a Series

Jalen and classmates Miguel Hererra and Elijah Mikel were inspired to learn more by having Lenear speak on the topic. She was the first guest for the Lunch & Learn series, created by the trio, to bring in people representing different careers and backgrounds to speak on various topics. They plan to host four to six sessions this school year.

Lenear, a Creston High School and Cornerstone University graduate, spoke about her reaction to learning about the scale of inequity at a city workshop. “Why is everything happening downtown? We want the same type of thing for the businesses in our neighborhood.”

She also spoke about how young people can get involved in civics and  about her own trajectory from interested citizen to Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education member and city commissioner. 

The students say they are considering their next steps to advocate for improved equity.

“I know we are just three students in a high school, but we definitely have some ideas,” Jalen said.

Having Lenear speak is a start, Elijah said. “Bringing in someone like the commissioner helps bring awareness and puts a visual on how big the inequities really are. I feel like it might spark a desire to want to change something.”

Added Miguel: “People need to acknowledge the fact that it’s affecting them, whether they know it or not.”

The students already have in mind athletes, an architect, local politicians and musicians for the sessions, which combine conversations with students and lunch. 

Miguel Hererra is a student leader who helped launch the Lunch and Learn series

A Blending High School/College

The Learning Center, a seven-year-old partnership between Grand Rapids Public Schools and GRCC, is the only high school located on a college campus in West Michigan, Brown said. It currently enrolls about 80 students seeking to catch up on credits through online classes, earn college credits and learn about careers to transition into college and workforce training. The school is at GRCC’s DeVos Campus, 415 E. Fulton St.

Students attend for four hours in the morning or afternoon Monday through Thursday to take courses online. They attend regular GRCC classes. To enroll, students must have sophomore-level high school credits. 

“We have a variety of students from all kinds of academic backgrounds,” said Lamont Vines, Learning Center Transition specialist.

The program also exposes students to a college campus, Vines said. “It gives them that experience to blend in with college students and get that feel.”

Jalen, Elijah and Miguel are all ahead in their classes and said they started the series to enrich their own knowledge and that of others.

“As of right now, we are just three students in a unique position that want to think outside of the box,” Elijah said.

Grand Rapids Third Ward City Commissioner Senita Lenear takes part in the event with students, from left, Elijah Mikel and Jalen Finn
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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