The Rapidian

Panel discussion around women supporting women in Grand Rapids shows leadership growing stronger

On March 31st, a conversation and luncheon by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. at LINC Up Gallery on Madison brought a diverse group of women together to discuss city building with a “we can do it” attitude.

Female influences in American cities

Many inspirational and influential women stand at the forefront of America's city building movement, and that theme was consistent throughout the DGRI event. DGRI’s President Kris Larson quoted Jane Jacobs, a female writer who critiqued experts in the male-dominated field of urban planning during the 20th century. Many of Jacob’s ideas are now supported by mainstream city planners. Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities points out that policies that were popular in the 1950’s would, she claimed, destroy communities and innovative economies by creating isolated, unnatural urban spaces.

Stephanie Scott-Sims

Stephanie Scott-Sims /

Tami VandenBerg/Well House Executive Director

Tami VandenBerg/Well House Executive Director /

There were a lot of women-centered events in our city during the month of March, not only because March is Women’s History Month, but also because getting women together for lunch and discussion is just a really good idea. This past Tuesday’s Women + City Building event at LINC Community Center was a great example of a good idea that was well-planned, intentionally inclusive and therefore very successful. 

The conversation/luncheon, held at the LINC Up Gallery on Madison Avenue SE was a great opportunity to hear what leading Grand Rapids women think is important for a city to be great, and why women supporting women is vitally important to individuals as well as women-led businesses and organizations.  Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., a community-powered initiative focused on place-management in the urban core, sponsored the event. It was designed as a conversation about moving Grand Rapids forward from the perspectives of some powerful local female leaders. The sociable crowd of about 130 was at least 90 percent female, with a broad representation of different races, ages and lifestyles.

Moderator La Tarro Traylor is the Community Relations Coordinator for DGRI. She is also known for her work with Kent County Friend of the Court and the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks.  She kicked off Tuesday’s  discussion and introduced the 5-member panel which included Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who is a social worker and Grand Rapids' first female Mayor, Stephanie Scott-Sims, an Urban Planning & Community Development Consultant, for LSL Consultants, Rachel Skylis of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, Tami VandenBerg, Executive Director of Well House and local business owner and Floriza Genautis, the founder and CEO of Management Business Solutions in Grand Rapids.

When asked what they think is the most important aspect of a city, the number one answer from the panel was “the people”. Mayor Bliss said that while there are many things that are important for a city to be great, for her "It's all of you, with all your differences.”

Panelists also expressed opinions about the importance of a city having its own recognizable personality, the need for accessibility for everyone and for affordable housing for all levels of income. A vibrant city, with lots of activity was also mentioned, as were the need for welcoming public spaces that are actually used.  Strong community relations, a good infrastructure, and a representational government were also proposed as important aspects of a thriving city.

Moderator Traylor added humor and levity to the event, lending a conversational feel to the gathering and inviting the audience to ask questions. She encouraged the panelists to respond to questions, and directed the panel through various topics. With a diverse representation of people and a lively exchange of opinions,  the gathering allowed people to open up about their passions, and led inevitably to the voicing for the need for women to support women, especially in business. Ms. Traylor got a wide variety of answers when she asked the panel where they get their support from. The panel members named their friends, family, and work peers, and also stressed that it's important for women to be strongly supportive of each other, and avoid being competitive with other successful women. Traylor summed it up, "We need to help each other to be successful so that we can succeed together."

In talking about women in politics, Rachel Skylis referenced an organization in Washington D.C. called She Should Run.  She said that the organizaton found that you have to ask a woman six times to run for office before she’ll decide to do it. "Is that right, Rosalynn?” To which Mayor Bliss replied. “It’s seven, but let’s just ask ten times to be sure.” A study published in 2013 called Girls Just Wanna Not Run by The American University's School of Public Affairs supports that fact, among others, and also concludes that “Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office – from anyone.”  All the more reason for women to support women, here in Grand Rapids and everywhere.

Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of two local establishments, The Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme, shared her perspective on the importance of a diverse work force, and doing things the right way, not always the way things are expected to be done.

"We have to change the way we approach problems. If we keep doing things the same way, we're going to keep getting the same results," adding that "It's not easy. Be prepared for people to get angry! That's what happens when you shake things up." VandenBerg also talked about being intentional when diversifying a workforce.

"If you are intentional in the way you organize and participate within the community, then you don't have to worry as much about inclusion and diversity. It happens naturally." She said that once their clientele at The Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme began seeing a diverse mix of people hanging out at their businesses, both their employee ranks and customer base grew in diversity.

Like any good gathering, the food was an important element of this event. Attendees received a healthy delicious buffet catered by local restauranteurs Mercedes Lopez-Duran and Paola R. Mendivil of El Granjero Mexican Grill.  Many other woman-led organizations were represented at the City Building event, including Proponents LLC, led by Matteah Spencer Reppart, East Hills Council of Neighbors led by Rachel Lee, and Dianne Carroll Burdick, a local free-lance photographer/artist/writer.

Attendee Claire Breen, Underwriting Sales Representative for the Community Media Center, said her takeaway thought from the conversation was that "We rely on our peers, our bosses, and partners -- but most importantly we need to be able to rely on the support of other women in the community we're in." Sandra Gaddy, VP of Advancement at Inner City Christian Federation also attended the event.  She said “Women everywhere really need to support one another. The Wall Street Journal is even doing a series on the topic."

To learn more about events by DGRI go to For information about LINC Up go to

Disclosure: Carol Shirey is Development Director at Community Media Center and works with Claire Breen, Underwriting Sales Representative for Community Media Center, an organization which includes The Rapidian.

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