In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Justin and Nathan Beene are transforming conflicts into opportunities for success that give rich and poor alike a common place to belong.
Recognized, Welcomed, and Valued
We met Justin and Nate Beene outside Rising Grinds cafe in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The cafe is a partner in a larger network the brothers helm, the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT). Their mission: “Creating opportunities for transformation.”
Rising Grinds is one such opportunity. It’s a bold start-up in a town historically lacking employment for minorities. The cafe “challenges and breaks social barriers,” says the GRCCT website. It “creates a place where every guest and employee feels recognized, welcomed, and valued.”
Nate models recognition and welcome at once, inviting us in and naming the things he loves on the menu. A supervisor and landscaper, Nate cares deeply about healthy eating and having energy. He orders a salad and explains his new experiment with his diet. He inverts the typical American rhythm of repast, starting big at breakfast and eating smaller meals as the day goes on.
We sit under breeze-blown trees and talk about other rhythms. About the fleeting summer beauty in the North American Midwest. About the harshness of Michigan winters, and what it means for the homeless in Grand Rapids. About the property market’s rhythms, its gentrifying tendencies, and the pressure it puts on people who want to own homes but can’t.
We also talk about rhythms of violence and protest.
A few weeks ago, Patrick Lyoya, a refugee from the Republic of Congo, was killed by police. In 2020, Grand Rapids made headlines with its riots after George Floyd’s murder. Now, black and white signs again cover the city and remind passersby that “Black Lives Matter”. Crowds march downtown chanting “Justice For Patrick,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “You Can’t Stop the Revolution.”
Rising Grinds has a sign up, too. It’s colorful, its lettering soft, its message still powerful. It’s the same call for justice in a different aesthetic. It suggests that revolution is already here, inevitable in the neighborhood, without a need for violence to bring it about. It depends on regular people catching one another’s fire, multiplying their dignity and their desire to make things new.
Justin and Nate believe that the fire of change doesn’t burn hot with destruction, but warm with welcome. It’s a guiding torch passed from person to person until it lights up a community. Its glow can even create a place where “millionaires and urban youth [are] both equally comfortable to relax, be themselves and connect over coffee.”
Life Astride Wealthy Street
Grand Rapids is, in Justin’s words, “an interesting place.” Wealthy Street forms a major thoroughfare through the city, the second largest in Michigan. It’s as wealthy as Atlanta, at 5% of the size. There are a half-dozen billionaire families and another thousand-odd millionaires. Most joke about their heritage: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
Research bears this out. In 2015, Forbes rated Grand Rapids as the most philanthropic city in the country—and also the second worst place for African Americans. “African-Americans in these old industrial towns earn on average $10,000 to $15,000 less than their counterparts in Atlanta,” said the article. “Self-employment rates are half as high as those in our top 10 cities.”
Throughout the 1960s, Civil Rights protests forced change in larger cities, and smaller cities like Grand Rapids took note. Wealthy families donated to minority communities and set up government programs to address poverty.
The problem, Justin says, is that these programs did not engage people of color as people. More accurately, they managed racial rage with philanthropy, and created dependence on the wealthy class.
As it stands African Americans in Grand Rapids still wrestle with less than 50% home ownership, a 50% school failure rate, and negative reputations in their neighborhoods. “Nobody even delivered food to this neighborhood in 2015!” Justin says.
Justin, Nate, and their three siblings grew up astride these different worlds. (Their mother is Dutch, their father African American). While living in a low-income area, they still had influential experiences with wealth: “It’d be government cheese one day, our uncle’s yacht the next.” Both Justin and Nate describe the disparity as “a feeling festering in our guts–and probably the reason we got stomach issues.”
But that nausea was also a question: how do we bring these worlds together?
A City of Joy
Nate and Justin have been engaged in social enterprises like Rising Grinds for the last 14 years. They have their hands in landscaping, construction, home renovation, event planning, food services, and more. In every sector, they’re trying to show some very different people how they can care about similar things. They’re building alignment not around shared values but around shared desires for the community.
“It’s a deep longing to see shalom,” Nate says. “How do we seek justice and equality within a contained context?”
His religious language is appropriate. With Grand Rapids’ Dutch heritage comes a strong Christian Reformed presence. There are more than half a dozen seminaries and centers of Christian thought and publishing in the city.
Again, the adage “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” contains more truth than it lets on. “People ask about your genes, about names and churches,” Justin says. Nate succinctly describes how religion affects relationships in the city: “There’s this attitude that, if you believe like me, then [we can] do something together.”
Justin and Nate want something more complex. “We want it to be a city of joy,” they say, echoing a curriculum they’ve been attending with friends and partners at Street Psalms. Led by peacebuilder Joel Aguilar, they’re learning to see the city as a parish, as an extended community. In a context where religious belief often drives mission, the brothers are thinking from the other end: how does their mission form their theology? How might they think of their city as a foretaste of the kingdom of God? How does Grand Rapids itself embody Jesus?
Such questions are leading them into greater intimacy with systems and people they didn’t recognize before. “I’m learning that God is a lot bigger than what I originally envisioned,” Nate says.
Training For Belonging
Nate’s maturing religious vision is also changing his vision for the city. “How do for-profits and not-for-profits live together unrivalrously?” he asks. “How do people experience divinity doing work? What’s the model for getting us there?”
“Belong, develop, innovate,” Justin says. “That’s the opportunity we put in front of people. Once people belong, they want to develop and contribute, and then to create and own things. We want more people to take part in wealth creation and to organize into diverse faith communities.” In their own words, their work has become “training for belonging.”
They call their model transformational enterprise. They strategically use culture to attract talent. When they onboard people, they provide a vision that dignifies their workers. Nate trains employees and leaders alike by sharing elements of his own story. He models vulnerability and sets a standard for what it means to have friends in a workplace. “People learn a lot about what it means to do something well,” he says.
To these ends, the brothers put goals in front of people who have a hard time finding basic jobs, let alone leadership opportunities. Of the 35 employees at GRCCT proper, Justin tells us that 80% of them have felonies or other barriers to employment. Training for belonging in the city means reaching over these barriers, breaking cycles of dependence and conflict to help people own their lives.
“Government and philanthropic programs are not better than business opportunities,” Justin says. “We need investment. We need co-ownership and equity stakes and networks. We need business; not someone trying to solve our problems. The entrepreneurs are already here.”
Transformational Enterprise, Transforming Conflict
“It can be a harder sell for strapped folks,” Nate says of their model. “It’s hard to find talent that’s ready to scale.” Relational and social capital don’t always attract those needing hard cash.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it harder. Failing supply chains and changing employee demands have disrupted several projects. “Wages have changed overnight,” Nate says. “We’re competitive with our pay, but pricing out the neighborhood to make up for the changes works against our ultimate goals.”
Justin is nudging this narrative by showing workers that their network is part of their net worth. “You become like those you hang around,” he says. The power of legacy is strong in Grand Rapids, and people follow one another’s stories into success, or into failure. Part of GRCCT’s raison d’être is being a network that gravitates others towards success. The power of human imitation ultimately drives its vision for the city.
Justin sums it up with words from their local NAACP president: “You have to build the relationships you need before you need them.”
Those relationships are sorely needed now. After Patrick Lyoya’s death, the gravity of imitation has people choosing sides: Democrat versus Republican, Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter, billionaires versus common people.
“Rivalry limits the ways we imagine we can engage,” Justin says. “Taking shots at somebody else reveals your desire to be like them. It’s better to name your desire for a pathway to where they’re at.” If those pathways are going to be real, the people stoking the rivalries also have to get involved in creating new opportunities. “We have to make a space that everyone feels is theirs, to create a bias towards action amongst people without values alignment.”
Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer found that space in GRCCT. When visiting the city following the shooting, the compound was the non-partisan territory she needed. “We had eight hours of community and civil rights groups sharing their grievances with the police,” Justin remembers. It was the only place anyone felt welcome enough to both talk and listen.
GRCCT embraces these tensions. The organization lays rails between poverty and wealth, for-profit and nonprofit, committed faith and unconditional inclusion. Amidst demands for clear margins and returns on investments, refusing labels might be the most radical thing Justin and Nate are doing. “It makes us better,” Justin says
Justin and Nate understand tensions as opportunities, as chances to responsibly explore which systems are ready to have their rhythms agitated. Driven by justice, and a deep faith in people, they’ve found many ways to disrupt the typical rhythm of the American Dream. As more and more people catch their fire, they’re looking for new ways to measure their success.
“We want a disruptive measurement model,” Justin says. “One that directly asks questions to customers. I want to create connections and incentives towards collaboration, not just convince people that my program is the best.”
The data says it’s working. 96% of those connected with GRCCT report positive changes in their lives. As they grow, Justin and Nate believe other organizations will expand their imaginations about what counts as profit. They’ll understand that knowing your place and knowing your people create genuine returns on investment. They’ll see a city overflowing with opportunities for transformation.
Justin gives us a memorable example of this mindset in action. “We had one guy who did decent work, but never showed up,” he tells us. When they followed up with him, he described several family constraints on his time–as well as a desire to be his own boss.
Most employers wouldn’t dream of handing a business over to someone who didn’t show up for work. But Justin saw a man with an entrepreneurial heart. He asked what the man would do if he could set his own hours.
Today, that man is self-employed. “He’s one of our best guys,” Justin says.
During our visit, one of Justin’s colleagues looks at him and says, “After I moved here, you were the first person who invited me over to break bread with you.” It’s a one-sentence story that tells the entire story of GRCCT. Behind the models and metrics are people like Justin and Nate who see more opportunities than most, because they see people as people and teach others to do the same.
This is where the fire of change starts: in seeing our neighbors for who they are, not who we wish they were. Seeing our communities not over partisan lines, but as places where everyone belongs.
“What are the outcomes of a city that’s been healed?” Nate asks.
The crew at GRCCT seem well on their way to finding out.
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