Justice For All – Introducing Milinda
And Justice For All – Introducing Milinda Ysasi
Politician! What thoughts come to mind when the word is mentioned? In today’s divisive world, it can be difficult to conjure a positive image of a person that holds a public office. In fact, we often think of them as crooked, immoral, and instigators of dissension. How could we not! The media reports every conflict or perceived misconduct, true or not, a millisecond after an offense has occurred.
So, are there good politicians? Absolutely!
Milinda Ysasi, Grand Rapids City Commissioner, works for the people of the community with integrity and courage. “Justice For All” is not a time-worn pledge for Milinda but an integral part of who she is and what drives her. Milinda is a politician with a servant’s heart.
Milinda is a lifelong resident of Grand Rapids. She is a Mexican American raised by parents that worked for the Grand Rapids public schools. She feels that she was able to experience the city in the very best way. Milinda had access to opportunities including employment, education, and the ability to buy her first home. However, she became aware early that not all people, past or present, had access to the same opportunities. Inequality bore a burden upon her heart and helped shape her desire to create a more just community.
After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in business from Grand Valley State University, Milinda began working for Cascade Engineering in the Human Resources Department. It was at Cascade Engineering that Milinda became keenly aware of the disparities that exist in Grand Rapids and that an employer can become a part of the solution.
The management team at Cascade Engineering believes that it can be a force for good. As a part of their mission, the corporation recognizes that disparities exist and that they have the opportunity and duty to help remove the barriers that keep people from accepting employment. Working closely with potential employees, the folks at Cascade Engineering identify and remove obstacles. Child care, transportation, criminal backgrounds, lack of skills, or even meeting wardrobe requirements are common hurdles employees face. The company considers employment a form of justice.
Milinda’s experience at Cascade Engineering set the tone for her career. Not only did it increase her awareness of the inequity that exists in Grand Rapids, but gave her tools for identifying issues and finding corrective solutions by working side by side with the people closest to the pain. She learned to ask tough questions boldly and then seek resolutions.
Milinda has had a strong presence in the community. Her track record includes numerous non-profits, community organizations, and countless awards for her service. She is the co-founder of the Latina Network of West Michigan, lead The Source a non-profit organization barriers to employment, and is currently the CEO of GROW, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women.
Milinda’s decision to run for City Commissioner, a non-partisan position, felt natural. Buoyed by the knowledge that the Mayor of Grand Rapids and other community leaders were involved in a racial equity journey, she decided the time was right to run for office. Milinda’s campaign focused on economic development, that the resultant growth from jobs and prosperity reach all the neighbors within the community, to reduce housing, education, and food disparities, and to reduce gun violence.
Milinda completed her Executive MBA from Michigan State University late in 2019 and began her new venture as City Commissioner on January 1, 2020. Milinda looked forward to working collaboratively with others to help make Grand Rapids a better place to work and live. However, the events of 2020 quickly changed the scope of what the community needed from her.
The Covid-19 Pandemic began, and instead of bringing new opportunities, businesses closed, people lost their jobs, and Grand Rapids, as well as the rest of the nation, entered an economic recession. Schools closed their doors, and online learning began, causing many parents to choose between their job or their child’s education.
Then, the murder of George Floyd occurred, bringing the disease of systemic racism to the forefront. In response, Black Lives Matter Rallies and other social justice protests formed across the nation. Most of the events were peaceful, but in some instances, violence erupted. Grand Rapids incurred only one night of rioting, though the impact upon the community was devastating.
The George Floyd murder also exposed how people experience the police. While many say the police make me feel safe, another segment of the population, especially our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, say the police do not make me feel safe. Never has the divide been clearer. Milinda is focused on the work of violence prevention in our community. She wants to look at the systemic reasons violence occurs.
There are other ongoing critical matters for the leaders of the City of Grand Rapids to address. Milinda explained that Grand Rapids is two things. Prosperous, and yet some people do not know where they will lay their heads at night. Over the next five years, 9000 housing units, owner-occupied and rental, are needed to reach housing stability. In the meantime, the stark reality is that 1 in 8 Black families in Kent County experience homelessness, while only 1 in 168 White families experience homelessness. Additionally, more Black and Latino families are overburdened by their housing costs, meaning a higher percentage of their income goes into rent than their White counterparts. The statistics demonstrate that racialized outcomes exist within Grand Rapids.
Another disturbing statistic is that Black and Brown people have a higher incidence of traffic stops, citations, and arrests for misdemeanors than White community members. When we understand that majority of the population in Grand Rapids is White, this should cause us concern. Milinda does not place the blame solely upon police officers. She believes there is much work to be done within the police department, community, and public schools. She suggests that education, awareness, and non-violence programs as a part of the solution.
In 2020 there 38 homicides occurred in Grand Rapids, most with guns. The majority of the cases were related to Domestic violence, gang rivalries, and drug-related activities. Milinda considers gun violence a public health issue that has not been effectively addressed. She applauds organizations such as The Safe Taskforce of Grand Rapids for taking an active role in prevention measures. The group targets residents ages 15 to 24 and address gun violence, pro-social opportunities, and mental health issues.
Milinda has a big job and less than three years to create effective change. Yet, she chooses to focus on one issue at a time, one day at a time. Milinda is an inspiration. Her passion for creating a more just Grand Rapids began long before becoming a City Commissioner and will last long beyond the end of her term. Working for social justice is not what she does but who she is.
At the end of my interview with Milinda, I asked; How would you like to be remembered? She responded by sharing the Maya Angelou quote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” And, then she said, I want to be known as the person that did the best she could, and when she knew better, she did better. No doubt, Milinda will only get better.
Thank you, Milinda, for your service to all the people of Grand Rapids.
A Time To Heal is a project that promotes peaceful and constructive conversations related to difficult topics. Topics are related to the events of 2020. They include but are not limited to Covid-19, Essential Workers, Race, Racism, the LGBTQIA community about the recent supreme court ruling, and more.
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