‘Just not The Diatribe’
How partisan politics intentionally left out a Grand Rapids Black and LGBTQ+-run nonprofit from receiving COVID-19 relief funding
Marcel “Fable” Price, the executive director of The Diatribe, presenting plans for their new headquarters in June 2022 | Luis Fernandez
Marcel “Fable” Price, the executive director of The Diatribe, presenting plans for their new headquarters in June 2022 | Luis Fernandez
Updated, 9:00 a.m., 1/27/23
When Marcel “Fable” Price, the executive director of The Diatribe, a Grand Rapids Black and LGBTQ+-run art and creative center for youth, saw their proposal to receive federal COVID-19 relief funding through Kent County ranked in the top 12 of more than 300 proposals countywide, he felt hopeful that they would be able to put their dreams of expanding into action.
Local governments, like Kent County, were distributing American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to assist communities out of hardships brought on by the pandemic, with an emphasis on supporting most-impacted and marginalized communities.
But The Diatribe’s highly rated proposal would become a casualty of partisan politics. Instead of endorsing a project seemingly in alignment with the intention of the funding, the Republican-majority Kent County commissioners, fearful of public backlash in future elections, sought to disqualify the organization that serves 5,000 students a year by connecting it to the national social justice movement, often pegged as a threat by conservatives.
According to text messages and emails from commissioners obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request, several Republican commissioners searched for links between the youth center, Black Lives Matter and the defund the police movement in order to justify their decision.
“They created a process to make this as unbiased as possible. And they didn’t even follow their own process,” said Price, the 2017-20 poet laureate of Grand Rapids and the chief inspiration architect of The Diatribe.
Instead, the board, which is made up of 11 Republicans and eight Democrats, cast aside The Diatribe proposal and voted to fund another Black-run organization, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, despite garnering a less favorable rating than The Diatribe.
“The Republicans are indicating they would support investing an additional $2.0m with an organization with proven competency to produce measurable outcomes from the investment in the African American urban community. Just not in the Diatribe,” GOP Board Chair Stan Stek texted to Minority Vice Chair Steve Wooden, a Democrat, the day before the board voted publicly on the proposals.
The Advance requested, through the Freedom of Information Act, texts and emails sent from Sept. 1 to Dec. 19 between Stek, Wooden and Republican Commissioners Ben Greene and Emily Brieve regarding American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
The Diatribe, which was founded in 2016, is a nonprofit organization located in a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood in Grand Rapids, that offers after-school programs focused on performing arts, writing and community advocacy. The group works with about 5,000 students a year across 20 to 30 schools in West Michigan.
Nearly 82% of Kent County residents are white, while Black and Hispanic residents each make up about 11% of the county’s population. However, the Grand Rapids neighborhood where Price wants to expand his program is 45% more Black and 18% more Hispanic than the rest of the county, according to census data.
The Diatribe’s proposal asked for $2 million to create a mixed-use arts and cultural center. The funding would be used to purchase a building to create the Emory Arts and Culture Hub. Price’s plans include offices for The Diatribe, a venue in the basement for local and national poets and other artists to perform, two retail storefronts for entrepreneurs of color and eight apartment units.
Price said the rental model would put the apartment units at close to 40% below the market rate.
“Truly affordable housing isn’t a political issue. Getting people to own more of their homes and getting people on a pathway to homeownership isn’t a political issue. Creating better lives for our kids and creating platforms for our kids so that they can talk about what they’re going through isn’t a political issue,” said Price.
Kent County received nearly $128 million in ARPA funds to aid equitable public health and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2022, the Board of Commissioners launched their community engagement process, which included six public listening sessions and 33 meetings with leaders from disproportionately impacted communities across the county, to gauge community needs and gather community priorities.
The board received 319 community proposals and 14 internal county department proposals, totaling more than $2 billion in requests.
To narrow down the projects, Kent County went through a three-step process. First, an external consultation firm, Guidehouse Inc., reviewed proposals based on eligibility, feasibility, sustainability and impact; then commissioners rated proposals on a scale of one to five based on what they felt should be the level of priority; and lastly, county administrators recommended a funding package of highly rated proposals that they felt matched requests heard in community feedback sessions.
Guidehouse, which cost the county nearly $200,000, rated projects using a red to green scale and rated each project one to five for impact. The Diatribe received all green ratings and a four for community impact.
From there, eight commissioners rated The Diatribe high priority; two commissioners rated the project important priority; one commissioner rated the proposal moderate priority and seven commissioners rated it low priority. The commissioners’ ratings were kept anonymous, but at least four Republicans rated The Diatribe a moderate priority or higher. Democrat Commissioner Dave Bulkowski was absent from the Oct. 14 vote.
County administrative staff recommended the board fund The Diatribe the full $2 million requested.
The Diatribe was rated more favorably than 93% of all proposed projects, but did not end up making the final list of 30 projects to receive in total $108 million in ARPA funding. The Diatribe was even rated more positively than 70% of the funded proposals.
‘I don’t think I can support the Diatribe. It’s rough’
Despite the community engagement and external reviews throughout the process, some board members say behind-the-scenes partisan politics got in the way of a fair negotiation process and intentionally left The Diatribe out.
On Nov. 15, Brieve texted Greene saying she would “like to see Diatribe funding go to 4 star instead.” Brieve was referring to the Four Star Theatre in Grand Rapids that is owned by Marcus Ringnalda, a former classmate of Brieve at South Christian High School in Grand Rapids.
“I don’t think I can support the Diatribe. It’s rough,” Greene responded.
When asked about these texts, Brieve told the Advance through email the board “had limited funds available and a large volume of requests. Unfortunately we had to make difficult decisions since we could not fund every request.”
State Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids), who was serving on the Kent County Board of Commissioners at the time, said “the inclusion of the Four Star Theater demonstrates a total lack of ethics and integrity from Republican leadership on the commission.”
The restoration of the Four Star Theater, which Skaggs called a “long-shot effort,” was ultimately chosen to receive $500,000 in ARPA funding, despite not earning the recommendation of staff and scoring all yellow ratings during the review process.
Ringnalda took issue with the characterization of the process.
“It’s a beautiful and fascinating historic property hosting amazing events already that will only get better with the ARPA funding,” Ringnalda told the Advance Friday after the story was published.
On Nov. 17, Republican commissioners started looking for connections between The Diatribe and the Black Lives Matter organization or the defund the police movement, according to texts.
The defund the police movement aims to reallocate or redirect funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality, like mental health services. It is often misinterpreted by conservatives as an effort to abolish police departments.
In April, Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr, who is white, fatally shot 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya, a Black man, during a traffic stop. For months, residents protested in the streets of downtown Grand Rapids, calling for the police department to change their policies and reform their policing of Black residents. In June, Schurr was charged with one count of second degree murder.
Brieve texted Greene and asked if he found “any defund the police stuff on the Diatribe site/social.”
That same day, Stek texted Greene: “Did you download the offensive posting from the Diatribe? I would like to review before I meet with staff in the morning.”
Greene responded with a screenshot from a page on The Diatribe website that reads in part: “By partnering with schools and prominent organizations in West Michigan, we empower students to tackle large societal issues such as fair housing practices, toxic masculinity and racism, while also providing them the space to have conversations surrounding mental health awareness, identity, grief and loss.”
The screenshot Greene sent had the phrase “toxic masculinity” highlighted. Greene did not return a request for comment and clarification on these texts.
Brieve said “commissioners expressed concerns about some of the organizations and their proposals. There was no information related to defunding the police on the Diatribe’s website or social media.”
According to the communications obtained by the Advance, The Diatribe is the only organization that received this kind of scrutiny.
“Do they understand that when we’re talking to kids, and we’re talking about toxic masculinity, a lot of times they’re talking about bullying. They’re talking about things that they experienced in the locker room. They’re talking about things a male role model has done to them at home or a stepfather has done to them at home,’’ Price said.
Republicans on the board, who largely live in the rural areas of Kent County, were pushing for their “pork projects” during negotiations, said Skaggs.
According to text messages, those projects included renovations to the Four Star Theatre, funding for Kent County roads and funding to the West Michigan Sports Commission to expand the Meijer Sports Complex.
“I was dismayed to hear that Republican commissioners refused to fund The Diatribe’s highly rated project because they feared political backlash in future primaries if they supported an organization led by young African-Americans who believe that Black lives matter,” Skaggs said.
Stek, who did not respond to a request for comment until after the story was published, said his “colleagues who represent the urban communities were clearly advocating for more allocations to more organizations in their areas. My colleagues representing more rural districts were advocating for greater allocations in other areas.”
‘Pitting two Black organizations against each other’
After hearing from the public, staff and the consultation firm, Wooden and Stek began negotiations to decide on the final group of projects to receive funding.
Democrats initially were steadfast in their position that The Diatribe needed to get full funding in order for them to support the Republican members’ preferred projects.
“We just cannot get behind a deal that removes a highly ranked project that is in the core-six [urban cities] and was in the staff proposal, while individual Republican priorities that either ranked lower or weren’t in the staff proposal are included or increased,” Wooden texted Stek on the afternoon of Nov. 29, two days before voting publicly on the proposals. “As I shared, the newer inclusions don’t need to be scrapped. We just need to see Diatribe funded at the staff recommended amount.”
When Democrats tried to negotiate with Republicans to get funding for The Diatribe, Stek offered a two-vote plan that included a first vote on a resolution that would be an omnibus package for all other ARPA-funded projects and included an initial $2 million for the Urban League to establish a Black-run Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). The CDFI was not in the Urban League’s initial proposal.
Following passage of the omnibus package, commissioners were to vote “yes or no” on a standalone resolution to give $2 million to The Diatribe, Wooden said.
“While I and others assumed the second resolution would likely fail, given the known Republican opposition, Dems still saw it as the best option and appreciated the funds would go to a POC-run organization no matter what,” Wooden said.
After conferring with the other Democrats on the board and talking with Price, Wooden told Stek on Nov. 30 they would accept that offer. However, by the time the resolutions were drafted, it was not what Wooden had originally agreed to.
Rather, the drafted second resolution was an explicit vote between granting The Diatribe $2 million or adding another $2 million to the Urban League’s allocation.
“I expressed to Stek that an explicit ‘Diatribe or Urban League’ vote would be problematic, and provided suggested language on how to change things to a ‘yes or no’ vote,” Wooden said. “I recall Stek shared the ‘either/or’ vote structure was how he was able to convince Republican colleagues to proceed with the two resolutions.”
Price also felt that “pitting two Black organizations against each other is especially gross,” he said.
“Because we’re the Black, Brown and queer folks that they don’t feel comfortable with,” Price said. “They’re like, ‘Man, we got to find somebody else Black to give money to otherwise we’re going to look racist.’ But you know what, you don’t look any less racist for saying, ‘We need to find some Black people to give money to.’ There were other proposals in there that had all green ratings — Black and Brown and queer proposals.”
After further negotiating to avoid an “either/or” vote, the full Board of Commissioners agreed to discard the second resolution that included the Diatribe vote, bringing the Urban League up to $4 million and adding another $1 million to go to the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute.
The next day, in front of a room full of community members, including Price and other members and supporters of The Diatribe, the board voted unanimously to approve funding for 30 projects.
The Diatribe was not one of them.2022-11-30-From-Wooden,Stephen-10
‘This process wasn’t supposed to be a discriminatory process’
“Nearly two months later, I still believe the compromise that was ultimately struck was the best we could have achieved,” Wooden said.
“I remain proud of what we were able to accomplish and believe several key investments will make a transformational impact on our county. I still think The Diatribe deserved to be funded and very disappointed they were not. While there were many parts of this process I would change now having gone through it, I am thankful to Chair Stek for the more open process than the commission has had in the past and willingness to find a meaningful, bipartisan compromise.”
Stek said Friday that “many of [the unfunded programs] were and are great programs we will continue to find ways to encourage and support.”
“Commissioner Wooden and I, and all of my colleagues regardless of party affiliation, worked very hard through this process to stay focused on the big picture of getting this unique grant of funding out into our very diverse community in Kent County promptly, and in a way that our rural, suburban and urban neighborhoods all felt they were able to equitably benefit in some way,” Stek said. “And in a way that brought us together and not driving us further apart.”
Throughout the negotiation process, it was unclear whether Skaggs would join the rest of the caucus in supporting the newly drafted resolution.
“I struggled with the decision to vote for or against the ARPA spending bill more than any other decision during my time as a county commissioner,” Skaggs said. “Several projects in the final proposal fit our goal of funding transformative projects, especially those that supported communities most impacted by the pandemic and subsequent recession. At the same time, other items were clearly pork projects designed to win over votes or help undeserving friends of powerful commissioners. Those with a point of view the Republican majority found uncomfortable were dismissed from the process altogether.”
Skaggs said his “ultimate ‘yes’ vote indicated my support for the very worthy recipients who were included, but the process executed by Republican leadership entirely failed to demonstrate fiscal responsibility or integrity.”
“This process wasn’t supposed to be a discriminatory process,” Price said. “They had federal dollars that were supposed to go to communities disproportionately impacted by COVID. They made a process and then they individually targeted our organization to not receive funds.”
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