by Kate Branum | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
These are the words Christina Arnold, founding director of The Bob and Aleicia Woodrick Center for Equity and Inclusion, has centered her personal and professional life around. She chooses to look at the world through an equity and inclusion lens, seizing every opportunity she can to connect and engage with people from all communities. Though her mind churns constantly, there is always one question that surfaces: “How can I continue to make a broader impact?”
When Arnold speaks, her audience can’t help but listen closely. Her kind eyes illuminate wisdom while she patiently paints a verbal picture of her aspirations. As she reflects on the past 38 years of her life, she feels a surge of unparalleled gratitude and pride – it’s been a long road, but she is more than hopeful for the future.
“A sense of community, social justice and strong work ethic was instilled in me at a very young age.”
Arnold’s social justice journey began as a child as she, her six siblings and her mother learned to navigate the city as one of the only Mexican-American families in the area. Though she was born and raised in Grand Rapids, her grandparents came to the United States as migrant workers from Mexico in the 1940s to work on the railroad.
“My grandfather was a very strong advocate for migrant workers and social justice,” Arnold shared. “Back then, there weren’t many Latinos in the community; he was seen as a very strong leader and advocate.”
Daniel Vargas, Arnold’s grandfather, was the go-to person for many Latinos in the area; he provided free translation services to those who didn’t speak English, interpreted their important documents and accompanied them to the Secretary of State to receive their drivers’ licenses.
“One of the things I remember very clearly when I was little is that he and my grandmother always had a steady stream of people coming into the house,” Arnold said. “Whoever came in was always welcome to their table.”
She recalls taking regular trips with Vargas to nearby migrant camps where he would provide clothing, goods and daily necessities, as well as teach catechism when the priests were not available. He was recognized for his advocacy in 1985 by Pope John Paul II and the Kalamazoo diocese and received a plaque honoring his many years of service work.
Vargas also became the first individual to represent the Hispanic community on the City of Grand Rapids’ Community Relations Commission, where Arnold would later serve for eight years.
“A sense of community, social justice and strong work ethic was instilled in me at a very young age,” Arnold said. “I’ve always had that passion, certainly by how I was brought up, but also by the injustices that continue to happen to many communities.”
After graduating from Ottawa Hills High School in 1979, Arnold hit the ground running. At just 17 years old, she began her first career at Grand Rapids Community College as a secretary in the Student Services department.
“It was important for me to get a full-time job right away to help my family, so I took college classes part-time and progressed throughout my career,” she said.
Her colleagues and supervisors at GRCC recognized Arnold’s dedication and drive, and she received several promotions. In 1985, she accepted a position as the coordinator of the Diversity Learning Center, in 2000, she became the Administrative Assistant to the Dean of Student Services and in 2003, the coordinator of the Alumni and Diversity department as well as the director of the Diversity Learning Center.
Arnold has served on 24 boards and committees throughout Grand Rapids, including the City of Grand Rapids’ Community Relations Commission, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Diversity Advisory Board, the Grand Rapids Bar Association Diversity Roundtable, the Human Relations Council the Kent-Intermediate School District (KISD) Diversity Leadership Team, the Michigan Women’s Foundation, the Women’s Resource Center and many more.
“I was fortunate enough to have some great mentors throughout my career at GRCC that have encouraged me to work hard and maintain a good work ethic,” Arnold said. “It’s all about having passion for the work. When you love what you do, it shows; people have always been important to me – hearing them and listening to their stories and valuing them for who they are is so core to the work.”
Her role at the Diversity Learning Center allowed Arnold to define exactly what diversity is for many students.
“It’s much broader than just race,” she explained. “It’s gender, socio-economics, it’s about culture, sexual orientation, learning styles, disabilities – it’s everything. That was always important, that those who came into the center would see themselves reflected and know that they are part of it and part of the vision that we had.”
The center offered insightful workshops for students, such as preventing unintentional bias, generational concerns and maintaining cultural awareness. Students also brought new ideas to add to the curriculum; Arnold would help them flesh out their visions and draft a presentation to deliver to various student organizations around campus.
She notes that some students sought a mentor and would often stop by with concerns that they needed advice on. To this day, Arnold carries around the stories of all of the students she mentored, but one in particular still stands out in her mind.
“One student that I [often] think of struggled [in college] because she was undocumented, and her parents were experiencing financial difficulties. She had to rely on public transportation and she didn’t have her own computer or access to the Internet, so she would take the bus each morning to campus as early as she could and stay late to do her homework; I think a lot of times we just assume that everyone has access to these resources. I really admired her determination and her strength to complete her education. She would come to me a lot to talk about things that were happening in her personal life – the struggles that she and her family were having as undocumented residents.”
The center facilitated several programs, including the Latino Youth Conference, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration, Salute to Women and the Diversity Lecture Series, which invites speakers from around the country to discuss relevant topics with the community. Past speakers include Berry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, Michele Norris, NPR host and founder of the Race Card Project and Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation.
Sophia Brewer, faculty member at GRCC and member of the Diversity Learning Center, worked alongside Arnold to facilitate and promote these programs. She remembers the profound impact Arnold had on the center and its members.
“[Arnold] has the heart for this work,” Brewer said. “She would speak for different classrooms and events, always promoting and advocating for [various] issues.”
While she loved the work she was doing at GRCC, Arnold had big dreams of breaking all of the successful and enlightening programs out of the confines of the college and into the surrounding community. In 2006, her dreams became a reality; she worked alongside renowned community activists Bob and Aleicia Woodrick to launch the Equity and Inclusion Center.
“I think the most significant highlight in my career was founding the center and building it to what it is today – everything from picking out the furniture to picking the colors on the walls to sustaining and growing the programs,” she said with a smile.
Having a physical space was incredibly important to Arnold because it gave the entire community access to the resources and programs once reserved for students; the new center houses a handful of programs, including Building Cultural Agility, Facilitating Difficult Conversations, Generational Diversity in the Workplace, Inclusive Leadership, Institute for Healing Racism and Misrepresentation of Women in the Media.
“Education and learning is the key – just being able to provide the knowledge and dialogues, which are important so you have a chance to listen to people and their options and respect them for who they are,” Arnold explained.
There’s always an end to any chapter; but with its conclusion, comes the introduction of a new one. The Center for Equity and Inclusion gave Arnold some the best years of her life, and though she had happily immersed herself in all aspects of the center, she knew it wasn’t where she’d like her journey to end.
“I love what I’m doing and I think I can have a broader impact working with multiple organizations.”
She wanted to make a broader impact – one that reached the entire West Michigan community. In 2016, Arnold decided to retire from GRCC and pass the role of director into another set of capable hands.
“Having been in higher ED my whole career, one of the things that I love about it is the students and student interaction – having them come to me for different ideas and just really watching them grow throughout those few years that they are at GRCC. I knew that that would be one of the things I missed the most,” Arnold divulged.
When she retired completely in August 2017, Arnold had no doubts about the future of the center – she knew it would thrive.
“It’s scary to leave a job that you love and that you’ve literally grown up both personally and professionally at. I mean, 38 years of my life — that’s pretty significant,” Arnold expressed. “I knew at some point that I would have to leave, at some point we all have to leave, but as I was getting older and thinking about what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to do something else beyond what I’ve done.”
This year, Arnold has adopted a new title: business owner. Currently, she works as a personal consultant for project management, equity and inclusion and community engagement. She often works in conjunction with The City of Grand Rapids and collaborates with organizations and businesses around West Michigan to help brainstorm ways to diversify audiences and customer bases.
She has worked with First Steps of Kent County to conjure up with a new equity and inclusion plan for the organization and fresh ways to keep people engaged and knowledgeable about the work that is done there. In addition, she has recently partnered with Opera Grand Rapids, Urban Core Collective and the City of Grand Rapids’ Community Relations Commission.
“I love what I’m doing, and I think I can have a broader impact working with multiple organizations,” Arnold said. “I feel like I am in a really good place right now – a place to be able to help and engage organizations and people. Often this work doesn’t really seem like work because it’s just who I am.”
As she looks around and admires the changes that have transpired since she was a young girl, she glows with pride.
“There are a lot of wonderful things happening in our community – look at all the building happening around us,” she said “Look at the breweries! Yes, it’s good to be known for these things, but we should also strive to be known for being an inclusive, representative community for all people, and we do have some work to do in that area. Demographics will continue to change – they aren’t going to reverse, and we have to be ready and proactive about that.”
The generations that came before her have shaped the way Arnold views the the world and continues to drive her actions; as a mother, she has made it her mission to keep the cycle going. She believes change lies in the youth, and has worked hard to instill the same arsenal of values that have kept her grounded in her 22-year-old daughter Allison.
“I am very proud that I’ve been able to bring up my daughter in a very inclusive way by sharing other communities with her and other people with her, whether it was a festival celebration or a book; we’ve even taken her to different churches so she can appreciate the way other people worship. We’ve never instilled a fear of other people in her, only an appreciation for others and their stories.”
Arnold is ready to take on the challenges that wait for her, armed with a strong voice, a wealth of knowledge, determination, ample patience and most importantly, hope.