Religion & Liberty Online

Acton alumni spotlight: Justin Beene – Developing community and seeking justice

Justin Beene is the director of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation and long-time faculty member of Acton University. He has spoken on community development and poverty several times at Acton events. You can hear his AU talk, “Community and Economic Development,” by clicking the button at the bottom of this interview.

I’ve long admired Justin and the work he’s engaged in. Recently, I had the chance to ask Justin several questions about Acton, his work, and the current cultural upheaval we have experienced here in the United States. Our exchange is below.

Andrew Vanderput: What was your first introduction to the Acton Institute? How did it impact your thinking? 

Justin Beene: I was first introduced to Acton by Rudy Carrasco, a faculty [member] at AU. I was in my second graduate program — the first was in Management of Human Services/Social Work, and I was dissatisfied with the lack of conversation on economics and faith when it came to community development. I decided to attend Grand Rapids Theological Seminary to learn how to better engage my faith with the dire economic situation I was seeing in many communities around the world. Rudy was a guest professor who asked me after the class, “Where are you learning about free market economics, faith, and urban communities?” I didn’t have a great answer, and I probably cited Social Stanford Innovation Review or something, but he told me to come check Acton University. Within two years [of 2014], I was asked to teach a course on Community and Economic Development and have been doing so ever since.

​AV: What led you to establish the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT)? 

JB: In 2014 after getting back from Guatemala City, where I spent 7 months studying Transformational Leadership with a Focus in Entrepreneurship for the Global City, a report came out from Forbes that said Grand Rapids was the second-worst city in the U.S. for African Americans to live in terms of economics (entrepreneurship, median income, and home ownership).

Unfortunately, for me this provided some validation from my lived experience as a man of color and the opportunities I saw for people who looked like me. However, my frustration went beyond this single study — Forbes had also often ranked Grand Rapids as one of the best places to retire, invest in real estate, and one of the top most philanthropic communities in the country. How did we have so many great things about this city juxtaposed with it being one of the worst places to live for African Americans? I began asking myself what it would look like if I took my faith, passion for business, and heart for urban communities and created a collaborative in which churches, nonprofits, and for profits might be co-located and work together under a single vision and mission.

In 2015, the GR Center for Community Transformation was birthed and ultimately now holds Bethany Christian Services Youth and Community Programs, NAACP-GR, GR Nehemiah Project and two social enterprises, Rising Grinds Café and Building Bridges Professional Services. Collectively, we are “creating opportunities for transformation.”

AV: There are many nonprofits in the community you are seeking to serve. How would you say GRCCT is different? 

JB: Well, first off, GRCCT isn’t a nonprofit; its simply the name of our building and the movement the individual nonprofits and for-profits have committed to. That’s unique in and of itself, in that we intentionally sought to not create another nonprofit, that’s the last thing I think the Grand Rapids needs, and instead we are co-creating a platform of transformation.

Additionally, the whole idea behind the GR Center for Community Transformation was to bring people together in a radically inclusive way. The Harvard Business Review stated the idea this way, “If the goal is big enough, ambitious, and transformational, people will put aside their differences and work together … the challenge is to build a positive coalition that is more powerful than the negative coalition” (Martin & Osberg, 2015, p. 3). That’s what we are trying to do — to create a physical space in which all who come here enter into a transformative process that draws them back again — to work here, volunteer, invest, participate, ultimately being part of the change we desire to see in the city.

Further, we actually try not to use the language of “service” anymore. Unfortunately, it can become a patronizing word — those “with” helping those “without.” The reality is that we all are in need and we all have strengths. Lila Watson said it this way: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come here because you believe that your liberation is tied to mine, then let us begin.” We are about the growth and transformation of everyone — employees, investors, board members, youth, and residents. And we increasingly finding out how valuable this approach is during a time such as now.

At GRCCT we believe that real transformation happens at the pace of deep relationships. It’s when the real me meets the real you, over and over again. So, I think our innovation is that we are creating a place that moves beyond “business as usual” or “programs” to one of “presence.” A place that naturally invites each person to be fully themselves and do so in an economically viable way.

Even more, the transformative process we engage in is one of Action, Reflection, and then Discernment. It’s a cycle in which one informs the other. Most organizations and enterprises are very busy doing stuff — stuck in the Action phase. We have created regular rhythms into our work life that allow for reflecting on our work, and discerning together what it means for us in the future.

I think because we have been absorbing such a vast array of reflections, innovations, relationships, and entrepreneurial idea from a variety of people engaged in this movement — we have a unique ability to speak authentically and passionately to many different people.

AV: In your experience, what role does work, entrepreneurship, and generosity play in community development? 

JB: Well, I think all play a critical role — most importantly the opportunity to work, and the privilege one might have to be around or exposed to other business leaders and entrepreneurs. These are all things that many of us have taken for granted and in a time like now we are reminded of how much we enjoy our freedoms.

Nonetheless, many communities have never fully been provided the same access, opportunity, and privilege to engage in the same fruitful economic activity. That’s what makes systemic work so difficult: You are trying to undo years of denied access that many urban communities had from engaging in the economic and wealth-generating systems. So, generosity and philanthropy are needed — but they can never be a substitute for justice, access, entrepreneurship and the grit and hard work that must be accompanied by all of these. Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

At GRCCT we are seeking to engage all of these things: leveraged philanthropy for wealth creation, entrepreneurship for increased economic activity, and providing young people with mentors who walk with them as they work hard to overcome obstacles.

AV: Our city of Grand Rapids has a history of racial inequity. We experienced a series of protests and riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death. What would your advice be to someone who wants to thoughtfully pursue racial reconciliation and justice in our country?

JB: So, I think the word “reconciliation” is a bit misleading — it presupposes there was a time in American history where there was racial cohesion, and unfortunately that has never been the case. So, learning history becomes the first and most essential — not African or Asian or Latin or Native American history — but learning “our” history. Until the majority culture identifies with the totality of history being our shared collective, it is hard to move forward together. Some of the deep understanding of history all requires each of us to examine ourselves. We have to be willing to become self-aware; in fact self-awareness is a prerequisite of formation. Otherwise we end up doing more violence to the community we are seeking peace for — or in summarizing Richard Rohr we will transmit the wounds we don’t transform.

I see this transmission of wounds ever-present in my community; despite the wealth of Grand Rapids, many of its communities, like communities all over the world, are being severely eroded by ever-increasing strong institutions and strength of short-term social services and philanthropy (Lupton, 2012; Perkins, 2005). Specifically, West Michigan’s dominant social service, religious giving, and global influence can actually hurt local and global communities more than help them. The resulting oppressive dependency of what Lupton (2005) calls “toxic charity” was also prophetically described in (McKnight, 1995) in the opening of The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits. He asks:

How is it that America has become so dispirited? The sense of social disarray is pervasive: families collapsing, schools failing, violence spreading, medical systems out of control, justice systems overwhelmed, prisons burgeoning, human services degenerating, and surveys and studies everywhere indicating the loss of faith of Americans in their basic institutions. (p. ix)

Decades ago, McKnight (1995) goes on to argue that society’s problems are not that there are ineffective service-producing institutions but rather that the social service producing institutions are too powerful and increasingly create weak or impotent communities. Today, we are seeing the result of years of bad posture, policy, and practice. We must face this reality and make adjustments.

Secondly, its engagement. Relationships are built before you need them, so it’s important to intentionally put yourself around people like you, not like you, and who don’t like you and learn their story, see their humanity. This can be done in all kinds of ways — from listening into Zoom calls or services across faiths and denominations, to showing up at meetings with groups that differ in opinion. Show up and build relationships, listen, don’t try to be at the center, and no need to be the hero.

Finally, as we have to take intentional action. Personally, my chosen area is that of entrepreneurship and economic development — it’s trying to utilize the existing economic systems to create wealth and provide opportunity for those who have historically been left out of its participation. So, strategically I have been encouraging people to look at their businesses, churches, or nonprofits and see if they are buying from local minority-owned businesses. Are they hiring people of color, shopping at local businesses, and purchasing services from historically marginalized and fully capable local companies?

AV: What hope do you have for your community? For our country?

JB: This year sure is an apocalyptic year — meaning a year of revealing. We are learning who is essential and who is not, we are uncovering plots, misinformation, and scandals.  But my hope is that we keep listening and act — not just “hope” that things will get better, but gain a collective sense of hope in our humanity — that together we can, have, and will continue to make a difference. But it does take work!

My hope is to see a transforming community — one in which continued personal growth, financial security, and flourishing is happening for everyone. It’s where there is more transparency and there is a sense of mutuality between people, where we are able to recognize and celebrate our differences and diversity. It’s where those who are the most vulnerable (kids and the elderly) are able to play safely in local parks, have homes that are affordable and are lead free, economic mobility, and relationships that cross traditional boundaries.

Listen to Justin’s AU Talk: “Community and Economic Development”
(Photo credit: Acton Institute.)

Andrew Vanderput

is the Poverty Initiatives Manager at the Acton Institute where he promotes business and enterprise solutions to material poverty. Andrew comes from a diverse background in public policy, nonprofits focused on international poverty, marketing, and consulting.