Years ago, if you had asked Poppy Sias-Hernandez where she would be today, she would not have said here. Here being Muskegon. And Lansing. And Grand Rapids. And throughout West Michigan. Here being a regional director of community affairs for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Even just one year ago, as she prepared to launch her bid for the 34th state Senate District, she would not have said that.
But, after years of work in public education, public health and community development, there could not have been a more perfect, albeit somewhat unexpected, place, for Sias-Hernandez to land, she told the Muskegon Times in a recent interview.
“My role as the community affairs person is much more in my wheelhouse than being a candidate,” said Sias-Hernandez, a longtime community leader who grew up in downtown Muskegon and Muskegon Heights and now lives in the city’s Lakeside neighborhood, just up the street from the old Sappi paper mill. “I’m about the community relationships; I’m about connecting the grassroots to the top. For me, it feels like a perfect fit.”
Beginning in January, Sias-Hernandez began her new job as one of several regional directors of community affairs for the Whitmer administration. Under the jurisdiction of the governor’s public affairs department, the positions aim to establish and strengthen relationships between local communities and the governor’s office.
Sias-Hernandez covers a wide swath of land in her new position, including Muskegon, Kent, Ottawa, Oceana, and Newaygo counties. She’ll be working both at her office in Lansing, as well as traveling throughout the region she serves. As for the specific work she’s doing and will be doing, it’s a vast landscape filled with everything from supporting local businesses to partnering with area organizations pushing for greater racial equity—and much, much more. Essentially, Sias-Hernandez will be a direct link for West Michigan communities to the governor’s office; if a resident or community leaders wants a local issue (think everything from education to housing, the environment, health, and more) on Whitmer’s radar, Sias-Hernandez is one of the individuals who has the ears of the governor and her administration.
“By establishing the west side of the state as a region with a community affairs director is a strong statement of how this governor wants to support the local assets and be responsive to the local challenges happening on the west side of the state,” Sias-Hernandez said. “By having someone like me in this role, there’s a stronger link to what’s happening in Muskegon.”
And, to Sias-Hernandez, her new gig seems like a better fit for her than elected office. In November, now state Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo) won a tight race for the 34th state Senate District, landing 50.7 percent of the vote in November’s general election; 50,267 people cast their ballots for him. Sias-Hernandez, the Democratic candidate, received 45,993 votes.
“I feel like there’s a really strong alignment with why I was running for office,” she said, referring to her new position. “I had no lifelong aspirations to run for office. I actually don’t feel strongly about having that visibility and feel really excited about being a part of this administration.”
From Muskegon to California and back: A story of growing roots and finding home
Sias-Hernandez’s story in the community begins long before this position—or running for office.
With deep roots in the region’s public health and public education spheres, she’s worked for Planned Parenthood of Michigan in Grand Rapids and the Muskegon County Health Department—as well as served as the assistant to the superintendent and the director of special projects for Muskegon Public Schools. As a “master trainer” in the national Adverse Childhood Experiences study, she has fought to improve public health outcomes here—and across the country. She’s led a nonprofit (Good for YOUth), overseen a Muskegon County farm-to-school initiative, advocated for state policy, and more. And, on a more personal level, Sias-Hernandez and her husband of 18 years—Alfredo Hernandez, currently the Michigan Department of Civil Rights’ first Racial Equity Officer—have raised their two sons here.
But even before all of that—she was born here. She grew up here. And she knows first-hand the kind of challenges underserved and marginalized communities face.
Sias-Hernandez and her two brothers were raised by their mother in downtown Muskegon and Muskegon Heights; the first nine years of her life were spent living close to the old farmers market on Yuba Street.
“I grew up in really severe poverty; I can remember walking down to that farmers market with food stamps, buying fresh produce and taking it back to my house as a small child, before the age of nine,” Sias-Hernandez said. “I understand accessibility in ways others don’t.”
“When they were talking about moving the farmers market, I was thinking of the little girls who could no longer walk there and buy produce with food stamps,” she continued. “But I also understand the new location being an economic driver, the other opportunities that it would create, and the possibility of making the downtown area more walkable.”
It’s these childhood experiences that not only propelled her into careers advocating for equity and social justice, but which are informing her current position. She understands the importance of amplifying community voices—instead of those in power taking it upon themselves to speak for individuals they’ve never taken the time to meet. And she understands the nuances of debates over change and development, of the role race and class (and gender, for that matter) play in whose voices are heeded.
Sias-Hernandez’s time in middle and high school too helped to shape much of her worldview.
“I went to public school up until middle school, and then, in middle school, my mother went to Sacred Heart, a K-8 building in the Heights, and negotiated the tuition: she did custodial work in exchange for us going there,” Sias-Hernandez said. “Then, I went to Catholic Central, where I graduated from. For me, that really shaped my worldview around education because my educational experience at Catholic I would not describe as superior to my experience in public school…When I graduated from Catholic, I don’t think I was college ready.”
Sias-Hernandez did end up going to college: she bought herself a one-way ticket to California (“I thought I was never going to come back; I hate winter,” she said) and ended up graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. But she knew others who were swept away by different lives.
“Most of us live in these communities where there’s a momentum, a current that carries us in a specific direction,” she said. “Most of us don’t think about that current; we just step into it. Young people are stepping into those currents, and sometimes they’re carrying them to universities and meaningful work; sometimes they’re carrying them to prisons. I think it’s important for policy and elected officials to create currents that bring young people into healthy, thriving places.”
“I had to swim against the current,” she continued. “We shouldn’t be creating currents that young people have to swim against. I see this administration being mindful of those currents.”
After packing up her bags and setting her sights on the west coast, Sias-Hernandez did not expect to return to Michigan—ever.
“When you grow up in poverty, you have no context for prosperity,” she said. “I associated Michigan with poverty. It wasn’t until I was able to step out of it that I was able to see there’s a lot of prosperity in Michigan; I just wasn’t exposed to it.”
However, when she became pregnant with her first son, she felt the pull of her home state.
“In California, I don’t really remember interacting with a lot of families, and I missed that about Michigan,” she said. “I decided to come back home.”
So, after being gone for 10 years, Sias-Hernandez returned to Muskegon in 1997.
“When I came back, there was a lot of restarting, a lot of the relationships I had in high school, I didn’t have those when I came back,” she said. “I created whole new communities for myself.”
Over the past two decades, those communities have grown—to the point where Sias-Hernandez seems to easily navigate, and connect, worlds that don’t always overlap in West Michigan. During the 2018 election, for example, she landed 46.4 percent of the vote in a district that’s home to some 275,000 people living in both dense urban areas and sparsely populated rural regions and has long been a Republican stronghold. Kurt Troutman, a political science and history professor at Muskegon Community College, previously emphasized Sias-Hernandez’s ability to appeal to a wide range of people and said she was emerging as a major political contender in the area.
“We’ve got an incredible populist candidate who’s getting a tremendous groundswell of support,” Troutman said of Sias-Hernandez in a Muskegon Times article focusing on the Second Congressional District race between U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and Rob Davidson.
All of that translates to someone who can speak the numerous languages of community, who can navigate the worlds of grassroots activists and government officials, of education and healthcare and nonprofits and business.
“I have those grassroots relationships; those are going to be driving a lot of the work here,” Sias-Hernandez said.
Because of this ability to navigate sometimes radically different spaces, she’s able to both amplify voices that haven’t been incorporated into conversations about, for example, downtown development and convey ideas that can be difficult and complex. One such idea is racial equity.
Racial equity in Muskegon—and throughout West Michigan
“One of the really distinct differences between the [former Gov. Rick Snyder and Whitmer administrations] is now there’s a wider lens for inclusion and diversity,” Sias-Hernandez said, highlighting the diverse racial and gender makeup of the new administration, Whitmer’s focus on addressing systemic biases in the business landscape, and the governor’s executive order aimed at tackling the gender pay gap for state workers.
The administration’s conversations centered around racial and gender equity, diversity, and inclusion will translate to both dialogue and action across the state, including in Muskegon, Sias-Hernandez said.
“By having someone like me in the role I’m in, I can be someone who carries those conversations forward locally,” she said.
“We know there’s room at the table for everyone, and we can navigate that respectfully and inclusively,” she continued.
One of the first steps in addressing racial equity, racism and segregation in areas like Muskegon and West Michigan is to first identify that there is a problem, Sias-Hernandez said.
“West Michigan is one of the most segregated areas in the country,” she said. “Who are we seeing when we go to church? Who do you see when you go to parent teacher conferences? If you want the change to be rooted in more integrative and inclusive spaces, how do you create those spaces?”
What does creating those spaces mean in Muskegon?
“I do think in a community like Muskegon, which is highly segregated—I would argue more segregated than Grand Rapids—you have a collection of stakeholders who want to do right by the people in Muskegon,” Sias-Hernandez said. “They want to serve and have great intentions, but they don’t always understand how to create more inclusive environments.”
To create those inclusive environments, there needs to be a multi-tiered approach to equity and inclusion in the community, from conversation surrounding topics of race and racism to action when it comes to hiring discrimination and more, Sias-Hernandez emphasized.
“It’s about expanding our lens and walking alongside each other, even when we don’t like each other,” she said. “I think running for office really taught me that we’re not always going to agree on issues and priorities, but what we have to agree on is that we want growth and we want health and we have to keep showing up. We’re at the start of that in Muskegon.”
That start includes the Community Gathering Initiatives, a series of public community discussions held in venues throughout the area that center around race, racism and building a more equitable region. [The next Community Gathering Initiative will be held Thursday, Feb. 21 from 6-8pm at Reeths-Puffer Intermediate School. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please click here.]
“These community gatherings create space for difficult conversations,” Sias-Hernandez said. “We can’t ignore where the power sits; conversations have to be intentional around that. It’s hard to acknowledge that power dynamic exists; no one wants to acknowledge that. It doesn’t feel good on either side of it for different reasons.”
“But the more we have these difficult conversations, the more resilient we are as a community,” she continued.
One of those difficult conversations includes “creating tables that have more diverse representation so you have varied voices offering input,” Sias-Hernandez said.
“For downtown development, I can see the construction of new businesses and buildings being put up, but there needs to be the intentionality of making sure people aren’t being priced out of the neighborhood,” she said.
In her new position, Sias-Hernandez is having conversations across the region about gentrification and increasing accessibility to affordable housing. [Gentrification is “the process by which central urban neighborhoods that have undergone disinvestments and economic decline experience a reversal reinvestment, and the in-migration of a relatively well-off, middle- and upper middle-class population,” as Columbia University Urban Planning Professor Lance Freeman noted in a talk he gave at Grand Valley State University. As part of the gentrification process, rents can rise for both shop owners and residents, translating to what can be the exodus of longtime community members who can no longer afford to live there. There are numerous examples of gentrification across the United States, including in cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit.]
“Gentrification happens when people aren’t noticing,” she said. “In Grand Rapids, it was like, ‘Whoa, wait, we can’t afford to live here anymore.’ Because of where Muskegon is on that continuum, there’s an opportunity to learn from these other communities and help mitigate that. I’m participating in those conversations in Grand Rapids, and I can help inform those conversations in Muskegon.”
Sias-Hernandez too emphasized that there “pillars of the community” who are tuned into maintaining affordable housing, particularly in a quickly growing downtown.
“The Community Foundation, this is on their radar,” she said. “They want an inclusive neighborhood in the downtown district, and they’re at the table. They’re carrying that message forward. The downtown clergy are having that conversation.”
As she moves ahead with difficult conversations throughout West Michigan, Sias-Hernandez said she’s looking forward to input from community members. If you have an issue you’d like to discuss with Sias-Hernandez, you can contact her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Photos courtesy of Poppy Sias-Hernandez, unless otherwise noted. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.