The intersection of community, place, and culture has always been at the forefront of Dr. Jessica Cruz’s work and is in large part what drew her to the Center for Social Solutions. Dr. Cruz serves as managing director of the Center’s Just Futures Initiative, “Crafting Democratic Futures.” Her passion for community and place-based work has been central to her career, stemming in many ways from her own multicultural experiences and identities.

“All of my first memories are in Puerto Rico. It's a very special place to me that has definitely formed my identity,” she reflected. “We moved to grand Rapids, Michigan when I was very, very young. I think I was six years old at the time, so I didn't speak English.

“It was an experience - learning English and adjusting to an entirely new community, not only, in terms of being in the U.S. and not in Puerto Rico, but even within the Latino community itself, as I grew up in a predominantly Mexican community. And so right from the very beginning, I had these deep, meaningful experiences that related to diversity and equity.”

Dr. Cruz’s interest in educational equity and access grew as she experienced different school systems throughout her childhood. Starting off at Cesar Chavez Elementary School (formerly known as Hall School), Dr. Cruz and a classmate became the school’s first students to be admitted into City Middle High School, which was esteemed as the best school in Grand Rapids and one of the best in the state.

“It was an awesome opportunity academically speaking. We had access to a more accelerated curriculum; but, it was also my first time being in a predominantly white environment and profoundly white classrooms. And so that was a tough adjustment for me. I really appreciated the access to the academic curriculum, I think it set me up for future success. But I was struggling with the other piece of this.”

Dr. Cruz had an easier time adjusting when her family moved and she began attending East Kentwood High School in a nearby suburb, which had both a diverse and international population and a rigorous academic curriculum. The strong sense of community and identity she felt there allowed Cruz to perform better academically and left a lasting impact on her as she completed her schooling, this time at Central High School. Here, Cruz experienced first-hand the disparities in access to rigorous education for predominantly minoritized students. Situated next door to the reputable City Middle High School, Central High School, a school with a predominantly Black and brown population, offered a less advanced curriculum. The adjacency of the schools allowed her to attend both and experience the best of each, with the differences in educational opportunities leaving a strong impression.

“For me to be a part of these different types of systems, all public schools, but all with different access to educational curriculum and all with different demographic makeup really sparked my interest in comparative education and also in just equity and access overall, because again, these were all public schools, but the access to advanced coursework was not the same.”

Cruz decided to pursue her passion in diversity and equity related issues by receiving a B.S. in Public and Nonprofit Administration and a B.A. in French from Grand Valley State University. As a first-generation student, Cruz kept access to college and access to higher education at the forefront of her interests. In high school, she had been part of the TRIO Upward Bound program which helps first generation and low income students prepare for college. Invigorated by her own experiences, Dr. Cruz wanted to create similar opportunities for others.

Dr. Cruz (center) at the Michigan-wide graduation celebration thrown by the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan for Latinx students.


After receiving a MA, M.Ed., and Ed.D. in International Educational Development from Teachers College at Columbia University, Dr. Cruz thus came back to her hometown of Grand Rapids where she created the Latino/Latina Success Conference. Encouraged by the success of the program which garnered the support of multiple high schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofits for increasing higher education opportunities for high schoolers in the area, Dr. Cruz decided to begin a career dedicated to educational access and representation.

“I started it because I was really passionate about it and it began through community work. And that's kind of what launched my career I believe was doing this work, advocating for increasing access to higher education in my community and loving it.”

Community and equity have remained a common thread throughout Dr. Cruz’s career in higher education. When serving as the executive director and co-founder of the Ferris State University Center for Latin@ Studies, Cruz helped co-found Promesa Summer Success, a program designed to increase access, retention, and graduation rates for Latinx and other historically underrepresented college students. Most recently, Dr. Cruz served as the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Northern Michigan University as well where she founded Aim North, a place-based program designed to increase access and retention rates among historically underrepresented students in higher education.

“Every place has its own experiences, its own history, its own goals, achievements. You just have to connect with that. I remember going into some communities and they said, ‘so you want to do something? What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘well, what do you want to do?’ I could come in with a list of ideas, but it's really about what the community needs and wants and you start there.”

Dr. Cruz is excited to continue using these community and place-based approaches to address issues of systemic inequity through her work at CSS.  As managing director of the Center’s “Crafting Democratic Futures” grant, she is seeking to develop reparations solutions through community-based partnerships.

“One of the things I love about the Just Futures Initiative is that it's grounded in local histories. I think it's important to know that history so that you can more accurately get at the root issue and so that it's not a band-aid approach, but rather much more systemic in nature. So if you can address the root cause of an issue within a system, then I think you're more productive long-term; but that usually requires longer term strategizing and solutions and projects.”

Dr. Cruz has also been extending this approach beyond the realm of education through her work on the Hispanic Latino Commission of Michigan, which she was appointed to by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. During COVID-19, Cruz used community based approaches to advocate for more accessible dissemination of health information. While the commission had made an attempt at accessibility by translating materials into Spanish, Cruz knew from her prior connections that a significant percentage of the greater Grand Rapids area specifically was Guatemalan and spoke Mam. Acknowledging the barriers that Mam speakers might face, Dr. Cruz advocated that written, audio, and visual community health materials also be produced in Mam to prevent such language barriers, a tactic that has since been widely acknowledged across Michigan and neighboring states as well.

“Something that seems simple can also turn out to be very meaningful. It's just a matter of knowing your community and what's needed,” Cruz explains.

Going forward in her career, Dr. Cruz hopes to continue expanding from the field of higher education to other sectors of the community and dive further into research components of her work. Regardless of the type of work Cruz undertakes, the core values that have informed her lifelong career will always remain the same.

“The community piece is so front and center, so I want to keep that community aspect of my work. I want it to be the core of what I do, and I want to continue working on equity.”