The Rapidian

Meet civic investor Erica VanEe: Investing in a place at the table

Erica VanEe says it wasn't until she was living, working and playing in the same community that she truly found a sense of place and purpose. VanEe brings her history of inclusive strategy and work in education to her new appointment on the City of Grand Rapids Planning Commission.
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Erica Curry VanEe spent her early childhood moving from home to home, and it wasn’t until more recently that she developed a true sense of “place.” 

“I was adopted so I moved around 10 times before I was even 10 years old, all around the country. So I didn’t really have that sense of place," she says. "[But now] I live here, I work here, I play here, and I want to make sure this community is the very best place not only for my peers but also for generations to follow.”

Along the way, VanEe has worked in multiple levels in improving education, from working with children in practice to writing programs to working with funders, all the way to systems and policies.

Now, she consults with nonprofits on their strategy, facilitation, evaluation and program design; she volunteers in a number of capacities- noticably her help with making the WestSide Community Clean Up a reality. VanEe also teaches at Grand Valley State University in the College of Community and Public Service.

“Right now, I teach Strategic Management and Planning, so I have students embedded in community-based learning,” says VanEe. “I created a bit of a microcosm of taking a place and having a common shared vision around that place. The place we chose was the WestSide, and the common vision we’re trying to create is how to uplift and increase educational attainment levels among all populations. So what is that whole educational pipeline?”

As part of her curriculum, she has had students get involved with in six different organizations in the neighborhood. VanEe says she wants her students to understand the importance of what they can give to their community.

“How do we really bring to life community engagement," she says, "that leverages the assets and the resources of Grand Valley into our local community?”

That broader connection between all-too-often disconnected factions of community is something VanEe works on in her neighborhood life as well as her professional one.

“In my community organizing work over the last few years, I’ve been really focused on the residents- and business and nonprofit and philanthropy, and trying to bring these different groups together," she says. "I think we’re meant to do life in community, and work out the questions of our hearts and the questions of our communities together with each other. That may sound a little idealistic but I think that there’s been such a misrepresentation or under-representation of the whole, the collective whole, and I want to see us do things more holistically."

"In order to have vibrant neighborhoods, we need representation at every table by every demographic. Or at least we need to aim for that," she says. "People can often be left out not by intent as much as lack of intention. It's an important distinction, and I hope the outcome of my public service will bring about change through increased practices of intentional inclusion."

This pursuit of holistic revitalization, and of making sure everyone "has been invited to the table," as she says, is what brought her to apply to be on the City's Planning Commission. VanEe will be one of two women serving on the Planning Commission.

"It’s important that we as women model stepping into positions of leadership and service. And that’s important both to model that for one another as well as to pave the way for the next generation that follows," she explains. 

Over the years, VanEe has also been a Rapidian reporter, and last fall she joined our challenge to add "This Place Matters" flags around her community.

"I had such an awesome day writing love notes to all these different places that matter- and taking pictures and sharing that. It’s about pride of place," she says. "The Rapidian’s got a huge place in citizen journalism and giving a voice to the people, especially people that aren’t always represented in positions of power and authority.”

VanEe believes that civic investment doesn't have to be huge life changes, but can be as simple as meeting your neighbors for a couple hours to pick up trash and hang out together. Planners, she says, are able to make valuable civic investment when they aim for inclusion.

"The things that I’ve done that have been successful are when I’ve honored the process, even when that has meant it has slowed down a timeline or we had a pre-determined outcome that we didn’t necessarily arrive at that outcome. When you honor the process and you are radically intentional about inclusion and asking who’s not at the table, you always get a better end product that’s more representative of the people, and for the people," says VanEe. "What I love about The Rapidian is that everybody can engage. It’s so incredibly valuable as a resource in our community.”

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