Serving an Aquinas-formed Mission in the Grand Rapids Community

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By: Kailie West '17

Aquinas Professor of Communication, Dr. Dave Weinandy, chose this powerful affirmation when describing Elissa Hillary: “As a student, Elissa earned A’s in her courses. As a human being, Elissa earned A’s in living.” Now, as an alumni of Aquinas College, Elissa continues to earn A’s in the work that she is doing in the community. 

Elissa currently serves as the president of Local First, a nonprofit that has a mission of building up Grand Rapids and supporting the people in it through intentional economic and social development.

Before discovering her calling at Aquinas, Elissa grew up in Schoolcraft, MI, a small town south of Kalamazoo. She was drawn to Aquinas’ beautiful campus, the spirit of service, and the opportunity to connect to the surrounding Grand Rapids community. Embracing all of the characteristics that drew her, Elissa quickly became involved in leadership roles. She was heavily involved in Community Action Volunteers of Aquinas (CAVA), as well as Student Senate, earning the roles of CAVA Coordinator and Student Senate chairperson. She still credits these two opportunities as having a major influence on where she is today and what she believes in. CAVA broadened her perspective on the community while Student Senate taught her the significance of creating a balanced life of work and play.

Elissa graduated from Aquinas in 2005 with a B.A. in Political Science and Community Leadership. The mentors that she found in each program were incredibly formative in her journey. Dr. Roger Durham, professor of Political Science, taught her that capitalism is about supporting all people so that they have a voice in society. In Community Leadership, Dr. Michael Williams taught her the values of relationship-building and collaboration. 

Since graduating, Elissa has used the passions she discovered at Aquinas to help start, expand, and now lead Local First, in Grand Rapids. 
“Local First leads the development of economic, local wealth and social capital,” said Elissa. “We are about building our place (community) and supporting the people in it.” 
This tangible mission is carried out through two main campaigns: the Local First Campaign which is all about supporting local businesses and the new Good for Grand Rapids Campaign which is about measuring the impact of local support on the local economy.

Looking ahead with AQ’s influence in mind, Elissa feels called to continue broadening the conversation on economic community engagement on the local, state, and national level. She also wants to play a part in helping to make this happen in other communities beyond West Michigan. 
No matter what comes next on her journey, she feels that she can always go back to Aquinas.
“AQ provides a solid and unchanging network of support,” said Elissa. “The people at AQ have supported the trajectory of my life. They’ve shown me how to operate and be an influence to and in a community that strives for systemic change, social justice, values-based capitalism and so much more.”
Learn more about Local First at