As the co-executive director of Access of West Michigan, one of our partner agencies in food security, Emma Garcia is a leader in the food justice movement here in Kent County. In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked Emma to reflect on the women leaders who have inspired her, the signs of progress she sees in our community, and the systemic change that still needs to take place here in West Michigan.
Tell us about one of the female role models or personal mentors who’s inspired you in your own career.
My mentor, Marsha DeHollander, served as Executive Director of Access when I joined the team as program staff. In the time we overlapped, I learned a ton from her about true leadership. She set an example of leadership through how she served, cared, and saw each and every person she interacted with as possessing innate worth. She treated an intern the same way she treated a CEO – with love, dignity, interest, and care.
She has invested in me over the years as we continue to meet regularly – she is an incredible champion for our mission and she is a champion for me through her prayerful support and encouragement. She has shown me that leaders posture themselves with authenticity and understanding and then roll up their sleeves to get things done. Leaders challenge the status quo and pioneer new paths. Marsha was able to do (and still does) great things with a lot of love. That is her legacy to Grand Rapids.
What are the clearest signs of progress for women in West Michigan that you’ve witnessed in the last decade?
Women in West Michigan are not only stepping into spaces historically held by men but are creating new spaces of power and influence. Our most recent elections demonstrated that women have realized that to be heard, we need to step in and be unafraid of using our voices. I think this is true in West Michigan; we are growing in support of one another to ensure that our local systems and structures are truly representative and inclusive.
What are the biggest challenges women face in West Michigan as they pursue their careers and personal development?
In West Michigan, we often simply accept "the way things are" without dreaming about what could be. Dreams take courage and pain to achieve. It can be difficult to be the first woman to enter and influence a space, but without representation there can never be inspiration. Women must be willing to show up and do hard things – not just to be seen, but to create a pathway for other women, which is true leadership.
West Michigan also loves the typical hierarchical organization structure. Women have the ability to strive for flattened leadership models in which more people have more influence and more responsibility. It is a challenge to sacrifice your own power to make way for others to speak and lead, but it is what is needed to create a more equitable community.
In your view, how have women in leadership made our Grand Rapids community stronger and more vibrant?
I believe that women in all forms of leadership – mothers, teachers, CEOs, etc., have fostered growth in Grand Rapids through nurture. Nurture is not uniquely feminine, but it is a skill that requires patience, persistence, and a belief that things can get better. Many women in Grand Rapids believe the best of those they influence, and we have seen positive outcomes across varying sectors because of it.
Access of West Michigan coordinates the United Way-funded Farm to Pantry program, which brings food grown at local farms into five local food pantries. To support Access, register for the Walk for Good Food, May 5, 2019.