Raising her voice

City Commissioner Milinda Ysasi was sworn in on Dec. 17.
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Milinda Ysasi Photo by Kelly Sweet

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Milinda Ysasi has called Grand Rapids’ second ward home for 10 years, and she was recently elected to be its city commissioner. With an unmatched work ethic inherited from her father and a spirit of compassion, her to-do list includes ensuring employment and business opportunities, a safe and accessible public safety system, and infrastructure and community investment.

What inspired you to run for city commission? For the last four years, I’ve been working at The SOURCE, we’re a nonprofit; I used to work in the private sector. In this role, I was able to see the deeper realities of people, what they’re facing here in Grand Rapids while they’re working. So many people working 40 to 50 to 60 hours a week and still unable to meet their basic needs.

And then I saw what was happening at the city level, investments to become a more equitable city, a lot of private partnership, and so I felt like this was a good way to bring my background into that policymaking body.

What was your favorite part of your education? I went to (Grand Valley State University) for undergrad and finished my MBA at MSU. Grand Valley is where I met my husband. It’s where my experience and leadership flourished. I was the president of the Latino Student Union. We got to know more about funding for student activities at GVSU, then we created the coalition of people of color groups to receive more funding into our organizations called the Cultural Board. We had the chance to go to national conferences and learn about leading at that collegiate level.

How do you spend your free time? I have been told that I don’t know how to relax. It’s probably true. I feel like I should never be wasting time, especially now. I’m looking forward to reading the about 20 books I bought during the campaign that I had no business buying. And I love spending time with my niece, Luna; she was born during the election in May. I just love her. She has the cutest little face.

What is one of your favorite restaurants in GR? The place that is a go-to spot is Terra. I’ve never met a pizza that I didn’t like. The servers there really seem to know people and people from the neighborhood. It’s in the second ward, it’s a place of celebration.

What genre of book do you read? I like a lot of history books of the Latino experience. It’s important to me in understanding our culture. I grew up in West Michigan so I lived a pretty isolated life until I went to college. Most of the other Latino people I knew were my family. I want to reread Michelle Obama’s book. I got the opportunity to go see her in Detroit last year, but I feel like I can understand a little bit more. Nowhere on the same level as them, but just some of the things that I think she dealt with as a woman of color.

Where would you love to travel? My sister and I have this 50 by 50, where we want to go to the 50 states by the time we’re 50. I’m 39, so I think we can do it.

What is the best piece of advice you have received? The best piece of advice is ‘not everyone’s going to like you,’ and then I would add, ‘you can still build relationships.’
As women involved in public service, there’s a lot of criticism about what we say, wear and look like. Just because you’re not best friends with people or don’t hang out with them socially, or maybe you don’t even care to talk to them other than business, there still can be relationships. I want people to like me, and that has been a challenge. I’m working on it every day.

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