Community and education for the sake of change are two threads found consistently in Senita Lenear’s (B.A. ’05) life.
Citing a favorite quote from Nelson Mandela—”Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”—Lenear says a driving force for her has always been answering the question: “In what ways can everyone be educated so they can make an impact beyond themselves?”
She sees how clearly this question has informed her life and career, including as president of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education (2009-13) and as Grand Rapids’ Third Ward City Commissioner (2013-present).
“It seems simple, but while at GRPS, I always asked, ‘What’s best for the children?’ because I knew if we could keep this at the forefront, the children and the people connected to them would always be okay,” says Lenear.
By going back to this single message in her talks with community members, she emphasized the importance of parents continuing an active role in their child’s education as their first teacher and allowing schools to come alongside to participate in the process to ensure the best outcomes.
Recently, Lenear has embarked on a very different educational journey with local community members, focused on learning about and bringing awareness to the issue of human trafficking in Grand Rapids.
“What angers you or makes you cry is where your passion lies,” says Lenear. She described how after a friend’s daughter was caught up in sex trafficking, she posted on social media asking if anyone wanted to journey with her to learn more about the issue. The response was huge, and two years later, the group continues to meet and educate the community through the media, panel discussions, an ArtPrize booth, various awareness campaigns and an upcoming PSA.
“We want to help others become more aware of sex trafficking, be able to define what it is, and know the signs and what to do if you’re exposed to it,” says Lenear. “The community needs to know it’s not only an issue faced by larger cities in our nation, but it is also one in our own backyard, and it’s unacceptable.”
Senita Lenear (B.S. ’05) was elected Grand Rapids’ Third Ward City Commissioner in 2013, making history as the first African American woman elected to the office. She was elected to a second term in 2017. She’s also a mother, community volunteer and active member of the faith community alongside her husband, Reverend Dallas Lenear (M.Div. ’02). She’s received several awards, including CU’s 2014 Alumna of the Year, GRCC’s Giants Award, GRBJ 50 Most Influential Women, YWCA Tribute Award, Zeta Phi Beta Woman of the Year and NAACP Presidential and Legacy awards.