GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For four generations, Milinda Ysasi’s family has left its mark on Grand Rapids.
“My great-grandparents were some of the first Mexican-American families that were here in Grand Rapids,” Ysasi said. “My parents worked in the school system. … My dad was one of the first principals of color in (Grand Rapids Public Schools).”
Now it’s her turn. On Tuesday, she was elected Grand Rapids’ first Latina city commissioner.
“That one thing doesn’t define me, but we did make history,” Ysasi, who will represent the 2nd Ward, said.
She credits 3rd Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear, the city’s first black, female commissioner, as the person who helped make her election possible.
“She essentially took the hinges off the door to make sure people like me, like her, like others could be represented, and we know representation matters,” Ysasi said.
While her election marked a personal milestone for Ysasi, it was also an example of the growing influence the Latino community has on Grand Rapids.
“This was a huge win not just for our Hispanic community but for the community at large,” Guillermo Cisneros, the executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said.
Researchers at Grand Valley State University put Grand Rapids’ Hispanic-Latino population at just over 18%. Yet Latino community leaders say their representation on important policy-making bodies has been lacking.
“If these individuals don’t know our culture, don’t know our struggles, don’t know what we are going through, the policy being made doesn’t improve the life of the Latino community,” Cisneros said. “We have millions of dollars flowing through our economy in West Michigan that haven’t gotten to our community.”
Ysasi hopes to not only to provide a voice but also an example for young Latinos to build a strong pipeline of candidates for leadership.
“Volunteering on boards and commissions, that’s how I learned a lot about the city and understanding the rules of the city and the charter and the finances and all these types of things,” Ysasi said.
The example she’s setting can be a powerful thing.
“Now, people like us see her and say, you know, if she did it now, there’s an opportunity for us,” said Ana Jose, program manager and business consultant with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Ysasi will be sworn in to office Dec. 17.