March 8, 2019
From the mayor’s office to the helm of some of our best-known nonprofits, women are stepping into leadership roles in West Michigan. For International Women’s Day, Heart of West Michigan United Way asked local leaders including Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and our own president and CEO, Michelle Van Dyke, to reflect on the progress women have made in leadership, what makes them hopeful for the future, and the challenges that remain.
Tell us about one of the female role models who inspired you in your own career.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, City of Grand Rapids: My oldest sister Renee is my greatest female role model and personal mentor. She has been an inspiration to me since I was a child and has been the ever-present voice of support, encouragement, and comfort throughout my life. She herself is a strong, smart and independent woman who has deep compassion for those she serves in her role at Covenant Hospital. She is courageous and has shown me that out of painful experiences and tremendous obstacles there are opportunities for personal growth. She also taught me the importance of family and the power of love and acceptance. She is remarkable, and I am fortunate to have her as my role model, mentor, friend, and sister.
Charisse Mitchell, CEO, YWCA West Central Michigan: Kathryn Newcomer was my graduate school advisor and chair of the Public Administration department. I marveled at her ability to manage such a full life. She was teaching, writing books, consulting all over the world, and had a big, loving family. She’s a great leader and was so respected in the academic world that I often asked why she never stepped up to be dean of the school. I thought that would be one step closer to having it all. She said she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. That no one else was going to define what having it all meant for her. I saw how empowered Kathy was to live her best life, joyfully and unapologetically, and I loved that.
Emma Garcia, Co-Executive Director, Access of West Michigan: My mentor, Marsha DeHollander, served as executive director of Access when I joined the team as program staff. 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 shown me that leaders posture themselves with authenticity and understanding and then roll up their sleeves to get things done.
Michelle Van Dyke, President and CEO, Heart of West Michigan United Way: I did not have female role models or mentors when I was starting out. When I was first promoted into leadership and executive roles in banking, I was paving the way for other women. I was the first female affiliate bank president at Fifth Third Bank and one of only a few female CEOs in West Michigan at the time. I challenged myself to become a role model for others – both women and men – and have mentored many people over the past 33 years.
What are the clearest signs of progress for women in West Michigan that you’ve witnessed in the last decade?
Mayor Bliss: One clear sign of progress is the number of women we now see in executive and leadership positions. This includes the number of women serving on the County Commission, which has a woman as the Chair, and the number of women serving at the state level as well as here at the City level. We have also seen women move into the top leadership positions in the private sector, in positions that historically have been held by men.
Emma Garcia: 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.
Charisse Mitchell: Young women all over West Michigan are speaking up at school board and city council meetings, advocating for changes in law and policy, challenging the way they are portrayed in the media, volunteering to support organizations and causes they believe in, and using their voices to promote social justice. These young women aren’t “emerging leaders.” These people are leading today and I for one am ready to follow them.
What are the biggest challenges women face in West Michigan as they pursue their careers and personal development?
Michelle Van Dyke: I advise women to focus on five things in managing their careers: build a strong support system, find a mentor, drive your own career, be willing to take risks, and stick to your personal values. Women, at times, are still timid about asking for help and advocating for themselves.
Charisse Mitchell: There are still relics of societal and organizational norms that suggest when men are assertive, they are ambitious. But when women are assertive, they are aggressive, difficult, or bossy. I think women today still have to work hard to cast off negative labels like these and have to continually demonstrate that ambitious, confident women are positive forces in the community.
Anytime you challenge the status quo, there are forces that resist change. This is one reason why solidarity and having strong allies are so important. When my sister is weary from pushing her boulder uphill, I can push with her, lighten her load from time to time and I know she will do the same for me. None of us have to do this alone.
Emma Garcia: 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?
Michelle Van Dyke: I have had and still have the pleasure to work alongside some of the strongest leaders in the community. We are creative! We have great ideas! We lead with compassion! We think differently and bring a diverse set of skills and ideas to the table.
Emma Garcia: I believe that women in all forms of leadership – mothers, teachers, CEOs – 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.
Charisse Mitchell: Our community is rich because more and more women – people – are showing up as their authentic selves. They are bringing their experiences, perspectives, ambitions, hopes to their work and their community. Women are leaders in all parts of the community – corporate boardrooms and classrooms, politics and pulpits, arts and academia, families and factories. We’re inspired by mentors and leaders that have taught us. Our community grows stronger and more vibrant when we collaborate with and celebrate each other and nurture the untapped leadership found in women throughout West Michigan.