Kyama Kitavi ’06 recently purchased his first home and is undertaking some home improvement projects to make it more welcoming and hospitable to visiting family and friends. He is doing similar work on a much larger scale for the city of Grand Rapids.
As the economic development manager for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., Kitavi works with designers and city planners to improve neighborhoods in downtown Grand Rapids. He also works with downtown businesses to determine how they can best support business downtown. “Where are the economic development gaps and gaps in support for small business in downtown Grand Rapids? How can we work to overcome those? How do you attract businesses to come downtown to make it an attractive place?” His work gives him the perfect blend of social, political, and economic problem-solving.
Having parents who worked on Calvin’s campus, Kitavi felt like he grew up at Calvin. However, he didn’t always picture himself as a Knight until he entered Calvin’s Entrada program, designed to offer racial ethnic minority high school students an opportunity to experience college. It was there that he took his first political science class, and things began to click for him. When he started applying to colleges, he had several Entrada friends attending Calvin, so he applied as well. When he moved onto campus, it was somewhat of a culture shock, as the student body as a whole was less diverse than his Entrada cohort.
While some social aspects were challenging for Kitavi, academically Calvin trained him well and he majored in political science with a concentration in international relations. His professors pushed him and taught him how to study, how to write well, and how to learn.
Between his junior and senior year, he spent the summer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in Ann Arbor attending a program similar to Calvin’s Entrada program. And again, everything clicked. “I was pre-law but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer. I liked poli sci but I didn’t want to go into politics,” he said. “What I was learning at Michigan was really econ heavy.” He realized he wanted to blend social, political, and economic aspects in his day-to-day work.
Between graduating from Calvin and before heading to graduate school, Kitavi also knew he wanted to spend time outside of Grand Rapids. Since he was born in Kenya and still had family there, he spent almost a year there and taught for nine months at the Kathiani Valley Secondary School.
After his time in Kenya, he pursued his master’s in public policy at the University of Michigan. The challenging classes he took at Calvin set him up for success at U-M. While others were struggling with papers, he said, “I’d receive the assignments and think, ‘That’s it? I can handle that.’”
Upon receiving his master’s, Kitavi worked in Chicago for Accion, a micro lender to small businesses, then returned to Michigan to work for the city of Grand Rapids before transitioning to his current position at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. “When working in the city’s economic development office, I really enjoyed working with the Corridor Improvement District boards to set their budget priorities,” he said. “It was always a good feeling to see a project or event that the boards worked on months before come to fruition.”
Finding satisfaction in seeing things come together reminds Kitavi of one of the best things he learned while at Calvin: It comes from Frederick Buechner’s quote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In his work with the city of Grand Rapids and Downtown GR Inc., Kitavi has found that intersection. “I know a lot of people who don’t get to work in a field they are passionate about, and I feel fortunate enough that I can work in an area that is impactful for me.”