Social Purpose Hyperlocals: Go for Gumption

Grand Rapids, Mich., was decreed to be “dying” in January. The report, by Mainstreet.com, turned out to be greatly exaggerated. But exactly how healthy is the “Office Furniture Capital of the World,” the second largest city in a state that has been reeling economically since before the great recession? To find out, I went to The Rapidian, which bills itself as “a hyperlocal news source powered by the people of Grand Rapids.”

I found some stories that were (mildly) interesting — among them the success of a nonprofit martial arts program in a struggling inner-city neighborhood; the creation of the first phase of a meditation garden, and the return of the downtown outdoor summer series GRAM on the Green. What I didn’t find, though — at least not by browsing recent days or even weeks — were stories or discussions about a city that’s not dying but has a host of big challenges that some residents acknowledge (painfully) and don’t think are always being squarely faced.

Frank Rumsey, an installation artist and self-described “curmudgeon” is one. Rumsey, responding to a sharply-worded Rapidian opinion piece by freelance writer and nonprofit fundraising consultant Ruth Terry detailing problems including how “blacks and Hispanics are conspicuously under-represented in GR’s middle class and professional workforce,” said:

“…the numbers tell a story that most people in GR do not want to hear. Many of the people that are on the GR bandwagon, including myself, often take the default position of trying to figure out the positive spin. It is buried in the belief that we can change the city into something better. Maybe to get to better we need to be more open to honest critique of our city.”

Spirited comments on the Terry piece — pro, con and in-between — continued from Jan. 30 to Feb. 11, but then the discussion was over, and The Rapidian resumed what strikes me as a too leisurely, too general commitment to what needs to be done to “change the city into something better.”

The Rapidian has a 458-word “Statement of Values” that includes: “Content on this site will be from, for and about our Grand Rapids community.”  But nowhere are there specifics for the “about” which would give guidance, not to say inspiration, to the citizen journalists that the site continually seeks to recruit.

What’s missing from The Rapidian is the free spirit exhibited by another Grand Rapids hyperlocal – Rapid Growth.  The site lives up to its name by focusing on promoting local development and other “positive” happenings, and it does so with unabashed enthusiasm.  Take this story about an unusual local company: “Creativity + Entrepreneurship + 1974 VW Beetle = grill rental business.” Who wouldn’t want to read on to find out what that’s all about? For all of Rapid Growth’s commitment to for-profit business success, Publisher Jeff Hill led creation of a new feature, Do Good, to chronicle the organizations and people “making a difference in our community through philanthropy.”

Social purpose sites like nonprofit Rapidian are more likely to succeed – finding and engaging an audience and making a difference in the community – if they put some gumption into their purpose.  That doesn’t mean sites have to go negative about community problems, but they should train a steady data-powered spotlight on big problems until they’re fixed.

It’s true that Grand Rapids’ population is down, but those dips are likely to be reversed before the next census due to the surge in the city’s Hispanic population. While the city’s white and black populations declined from 2000 to 2010, the number of Hispanics increased 13.3% — from 25,818 to 29,261. The increase from 1990 to 2000 was even more remarkable — from 9,394 to 25,818 (175%). The percentage of Hispanics under the age of 18 is twice that of the rest of the population. You don’t have to be a demographics expert to see what could likely happen in the city over the next 10 years.

The biggest question looming over the handsome skyline of Grand Rapids could be framed this way: Will the city succeed in sending substantially more Hispanics from its improving but still faltering public schools to the local and rapidly growing state university and then integrating them into its predominantly white — and way too small — community of young professionals?

The second biggest question: Will The Rapidian help lead the way to the right answer?

Tom Grubisich is the author of The New News column, which appears on Street Fight on Thursdays. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism, and feedback from Local Experts and users of the site.

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