In 2021, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. approached ACT in hopes our team could create a mural representing the many people with disabilities we serve and who are part of our community. Through collaborative efforts, hard work, and a few challenges along the way, we finished the mural at Canal Street Park in the spring of 2022. The collaborative mural, titled We Belong, celebrates the abilities and creativity of community members with disabilities who call West Michigan home.
The mural aims to bring perspectives from a diverse range of disabilities and abilities. There are four sections, each depicting a variety of art forms and experiences to represent important themes. This includes the enjoyment of water recreation at the beach, the feeling of harmony and joy through performing music together, the tactile exploration of art, and the importance of collaboration in the process of art-making.
We Belong was designed by local artist and ACT instructor Derrick Hollowell, then painted by a crew of talented individuals from the ACT network. Derrick used inspiration from his experience working with our constituents for the past decade to design the mural.
Not only were our participants featured in the mural, they were contributors as well – with some participant artwork integrated and others having a direct hand in painting. "The mural was a special process for all the students involved,” shared Brooke Simtob, ACT’s Program Outreach Assistant, “I helped one of the students, Joe, with painting. He was so excited to be part of such a large-scale community project...
...Having our students be an integral part of the creation process highlights the importance of valuing the strengths of people with disabilities.”
As Brooke mentioned, she worked with Joe DeJong. Joe is enthusiastic and passionate, which comes through in his podcast, “The Joe Show: Connecting All Abilities”. Joe has a visual impairment, so Brooke worked alongside him during painting sessions to provide support throughout the process. Joe shared his own reflection on the experience: “When I got the phone call, I knew you guys missed me. I had fun working with you guys. I know you did too. I was able to see some old friends, like Leanne. I caught up with Caitlin. I did some painting. They described a guy playing a piano and so I painted that. I was honored to be asked to participate.”
The public downtown location, provided by the City of Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation Department, gives the mural a prominent home and encourages foot traffic in the Monroe North neighborhood. It is viewable from multiple vantage points with paved and accessible surfaces for anyone to view and enjoy. During the installation process, we immediately had a passerby stop to tell us how excited he was to see people like his daughter, who has a disability, shown in a public mural – something he had not experienced before.
This project would not be possible without financial support from Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI). Established in 2013, DGRI is the organization responsible for city building and place-management in the urban core of the City of Grand Rapids. Their commitment to the arts, placemaking, and inclusion is what made this large mural a reality. Kim VanDriel, Director of Public Space Management at DGRI, shared, “We joined this project because we know the importance of celebrating our community through public art… As Grand Rapids continues to grow in size, art, and diversity we know it’s important to keep investing in spaces that show the city is a space where all are welcome.”
She also spoke about the mural’s message. “I love seeing actual people from our community incorporated into a public mural. Intentionally involving ourselves in spaces like this is part of our work to ensure that we continue to create a welcoming space for all.” We are so grateful for both the financial support and support of our message from Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.!
We encourage you to see the mural for yourself – to look up directions, use the address:
1045 Monroe NW, Grand Rapids 49503.
Learn more about the We Belong Mural on our website: