by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
India Manns eats most of her meals in her car.
“I really do,” she laughed. “I am rolling from one thing to the next, all the time.”
And one can see why: The Detroit native serves on 19 boards and committees community-wide, including Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore, D.A. Blodgett St. John’s Home, Broadway Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW), Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and the American Heart Association (AHA). Her days are filled to the brim with meetings, phone calls and events that culminate in one massive push to further diversity and inclusion efforts toward success.
“The need is so great,” Manns expressed. “I am there [on the boards] for a reason, and I believe that the work is so important.”
Manns is striking in an elegant navy blue pant suit, crisp white blouse, jumbo pearls and her signature wide black glasses that recall a bygone era; walking into a room, one cannot help but be struck by Manns’ regality.
She has not always been the intrepid advocate she is today. In fact, until she came to Grand Rapids, she had little experience in community involvement.
“It was the need of this community that pushed me in this direction,” she said. “Particularly, what happened to my son.”
“For whatever reason, I realize that this was a God-given opportunity because a lot of people are not able to speak out openly.”
Getting to Work
Manns moved to Grand Rapids in 2013 along with her husband Bill, President of Mercy Health St. Mary’s. After spending much of her life in Detroit and California, Manns was stunned to learn that her middle school aged son — the only African American in his class — who had always been outgoing, was being targeted by his peers.
“He was never included in anything, never invited to anything, and had horrible things said to him,” Manns detailed. “A lot of people say that is a difficult age, but this was very clearly racial.”
Manns recognized the emotional and psychological wounds he would bear as a result. She reached out to the school and other parents and was taken aback to find that her son was not the only child of color to report racial bullying by their classmates.
“It went from our son to learning this was happening to a lot of children of color,” she said. “We were prepared to come into a community where Bill, as president of the hospital, is the only African American at his level, but we were not prepared for our child to have that experience.”
As Manns learned more about the community, she found racial equity on all levels to be at a critical low. And so, she got to work.
In 2013, African Americans made up only 5 percent of Mercy Health St. Mary’s employee population. Today, through efforts started by Mercy Health Human Resources before the Manns family arrived in Grand Rapids, that number is 34 percent. So what changed? They automated the front end of the hiring process, allowing qualified candidates to make it further into the system.
“These are all people they hired from Grand Rapids,” Manns said. “They didn’t take a bus to Detroit and load people up – these are people that were already here.”
Grand Rapids’ population is made up of 18.3 percent African Americans — nearly 4 percent higher than the national average. As of this writing the national unemployment level among African Americans is 7.3 percent. While the unemployment rate as a whole in Grand Rapids hovers around 4 percent, for African Americans that rate is in the double digits.
“To say that we don’t have diversity here and a pool of people to pick from is wrong,” Manns stated. “People think they needed to go outside of the community to bring diversity in. What about the people here? There is a whole population of people here with things to offer.”
“She is not afraid to bring up conversations people may find difficult, and she does it in such a gracious and lovely way.” – Carroll Velie, Varnum Diversity and Inclusion Council
Often in tight-knit communities — despite best efforts and intentions — change can only be affected by a fresh perspective.
“Coming from the outside into this community, you have completely different eyes than those who have lived here,” Manns expressed.
Joy Fossel and Carroll Velie sit with Manns on the Varnum Diversity and Inclusion Council and speak to the swiftness with which she rose to the challenge of exacting change where it is urgently needed.
“She became immediately in-tune with this community,” Fossell said. “She is everywhere, so she knows the issues that are bubbling to the surface.”
Manns’ defining trait — transparency — is what many call her strength, a refreshing asset she brings to the boards she sits on.
“She is not afraid to speak up,” Velie commented. “She is direct and diplomatic. She is not afraid to bring up conversations people may find difficult, and she does it in such a gracious and lovely way.”
Manns grew up in Detroit and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science Degree in Marketing from Central State University, a historically black college (HBCU) in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her experience there left her feeling empowered about her identity in a way she had never felt before.
“[At HBCUs], you learn more about what it means to be black,” Manns expressed. “You’re taught that black is beautiful.”
Upon graduating, Manns returned to Detroit, where she caught the eye of her now-husband, Bill. Although she has spent many years as a full-time mom, from working as manager of the Ford Motor Company account at Workplace Integrators in Detroit and later as lead designer at Homestagers, Inc. in San Francisco, she has accumulated more than 20 years of sales and management experience. One gets the distinct impression that it’s this honed professionalism which allows her to meet the challenge of planting new seeds in a deeply rooted community.
“For whatever reason, I realize this was a God-given opportunity because a lot of people are not able to speak out openly,” she reflected.
From having conversations with school administrators about what they can do to ensure children of color feel valued among their peers to meeting with citywide institutions to connect them with communities that may not feel welcome to enjoy the arts, Manns is strategic about bringing the right people to the right boards in order to influence much-needed transformations.
“I know that sometimes people sit on a board because they want their names attached to it,” Manns said.
“Every board I am on, I am there on for a reason, and I have to see an impact. Change has to come from the top.”
When Manns has free time, which isn’t often these days, she enjoys working in her yard and tending to her house in Ada. The walls of her home display a vast array of artwork—prints, watercolors, oil paintings, sketches—of all different colors and sizes. Most of them, Manns says, come from thrift stores. Among the works are peices created by Manns herself — sculptures made of found items that serve as evidence of a latent desire to create and turn the discarded into objects of complex beauty.
“I can look at an old wood pallet and see so many art opportunities with it,” Manns expressed. “I like making art out of things that look like garbage to most people.”
Tucked in the far corner of her basement is a room, one that she thought would serve as her workshop, full of objects—books, dolls, typewriters, old signs, even an antique bicycle—waiting for her touch. She gestures into the room and smiles,“When there is time and space, I’ll get back to this stuff.”
Until then, she will be right where Grand Rapids needs her.
“I have been given the opportunity to speak the truth, and people seem to open up and listen,” she said. “I need to use that to the best of my ability for the good of the community.”
As 2017 comes to a close and new year falls underway, Manns says she would only like two things: “Well, I would like an assistant. For the city? I am OK with serious, meaningful and continuous improvement. You can’t turn a ship this big around in one night.”