GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Latino community’s contributions to West Michigan run long and deep, but there’s one area those contributions haven’t been fully realized: the commission chambers at Grand Rapids City Hall.
That ended last year with the election of Milinda Ysasi, the city’s first Latina commissioner.
“I still believe that your local government, getting involved, understanding what’s happening is so important,” Ysasi said.
A second-generation Grand Rapidian, Milinda Ysasi’s grandparents and great-grandparents came to Michigan in 1940s, working the farm fields to the north. Her parents were both educators for Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Ysasi’s heart has always remained with the city.
“Born and raised here in the city, lived on the Southeast side. I went to Catholic Central, went to Grand Valley. Never really ventured far from Grand Rapids,” Ysasi said.
Recognized by several organizations for her work in the community, Ysasi currently leads The Source, a workforce development nonprofits that provides workers with resources they need to not only keep their jobs but also move up the ladder in their companies. She is also co-founder of the Latina Network of West Michigan, a group working to change the Latina narrative in West Michigan.
The decision to run for city commission in 2019 seemed natural.
But it wasn’t an easy campaign. Ysasi faced off against Wendy Falb, a former Grand Rapids school board president with a well-organized campaign. Ysasi beat Falb by just under 1,500 votes.
“It’s the honor of a lifetime. So I am just so grateful and really proud to be part of that American dream and to show what my American Dream has been here,” Ysasi said. “In Latino culture, pride and your identity and your family and who you’re representing is just so important.”
Little did she know that less than six months into her term, the city would be faced with a pandemic, a riot and ongoing protests and debates over the way minorities are treated by Grand Rapids police.
Still, Ysasi has no regrets.
“If anything, I still wake up very glad that I ran for office. I’m very glad I’m at that commission table,” Ysasi said.
While she realizes she’s a role model for the Latino community, the 2nd Ward is predominantly white with just under 7% of its residents Hispanic or Latino.
“I’m always proud of who I am. And also, I don’t want to solely be the Latino commissioner, and so it’s always that mixture,” Ysasi said.
“I think Latino issues are just the same as others,” she continued. “Latinos want good jobs, they want opportunities. They want good schools for their children to go to. They want clean drinking water. They want to purchase a home. “
But she’s also aware of the role she can have in deciding the future through city commission policy decisions that impact the Latino community and because she can inspire young Latinos looking to find their place.
“If you can see somebody who looks like you doing elected office, it does make a difference,” Ysasi said.