Milinda Ysasi is the first Hispanic to be elected as Ward Commissioner for the city of Grand Rapids (GR).
She was elected in November 2019 as Second Ward Commissioner after a yearlong campaign that brought a fresh vision to transform the district into a welcoming place for immigrants, people of color, and those seeking economic and business opportunities.
Milinda Ysasi is a lifelong Grand Rapidian. Not only she, but her parents and grandparents called Grand Rapids their home. “Both my parents were born here to Mexican American parents who were born here as well. My great grandparents came to Grand Rapids from Texas in the late 1940s.”
When she got done with school, she went to Grand Valley State University to study business. “My goal was to either run a business or learn more about business. There I got very involved in things like our student government,” but it was also the place where she met her husband, Rafael Castanon. They have been married for over ten years.
Just after graduating, she became an intern at Cascade Engineering, where she felt she grew up both personally and professionally. “I was there from age 19, all the way to age 31. I learned a lot of things about myself, business and the organization.” At Cascade, she kicked off her career in human resources (HR), and 13 years later, she landed a position in Herman Miller. “That was a good opportunity because I managed to take my HR experience and learn to work for a more global company.”
She later had the opportunity to work at Spectrum Health, the largest health system in West Michigan, where she also did HR work. “For me, this was the opportunity to work with large organizations, to help them improve and build better and cohesive teams, and to support employees.”
While working in the corporate world, she actively volunteered with many nonprofits in the field of education, housing and Hispanic issues. She co-founded the Latina Network of West Michigan, an organic collective focused on changing the region’s Latina narrative.
“In 2014, alongside three of my closest friends from Grand Rapids, we launched this idea to create a practical networking group to support one another in the community, either for job opportunities or for giving back to our community, and to celebrate accomplishments of our network members. Today, we have about 400 different people who connect with us on our network.”
Volunteering helped her get involved with a number of boards in Grand Rapids at the city level and commission, including the civil service board, the civilian appeals board and the economic development and mobile GR steering committee. “I served on a board for the city of Grand Rapids dealing with HR issues, and also collaborated with the police department to make sure policing was fair and safe for our residents.”
Getting in touch and being around the community empowered people to consider her for a local government position. “The incumbent Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly asked me to consider running and gave me total support, so I decided to run in 2018 and then in 2019, I announced my campaign.”
For Milinda, campaigning was the most challenging but most satisfying thing she has done in her life. “We started in March 2019, and we were campaigning every week and every weekend from the end of March to the last day in November. It was very time consuming.” Her husband Rafael was her campaign manager, and with the support of many friends and volunteers, they managed to raise $50,000.
In November, she got elected and became the first Latina to be Ward Commissioner of GR. She based her campaign and value proposition on her understanding of broad city issues and by portraying herself as a reliable and responsive voice for everyone in the Second Ward.
“I wanted to make sure that all of the success, the growth and the prosperity here in Grand Rapids wasn’t just for some people, but for as many people in the community as possible. We can’t have a great community unless everyone has access to employment and housing.”
Parallel to her public office position, she will continue working as the executive director of The Source, a members-only nonprofit business collaborative that addresses concerns like childcare, housing and overall basic needs.
For the next four years—her term finishes in 2024—she wants to look for opportunities to continue to support our local businesses while putting particular emphasis on the economic investments for the Grand River Revitalization and Restoration work, as there is going to be a lot of economic development surrounding this cause especially over the next five years.
“We’re going to make sure that there are opportunities for our Latino and African American community, so they get to have access to some of that economic development happening in Grand Rapids now.”
By Andrés Ospina | Photos by Isabel Media Studios
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