Community Queen Diana Sieger: Tough beneath that tiara
BY TERRI FINCH HAMILTON
PHOTOS BY T.J. HAMILTON
Diana Sieger keeps a jeweled crown under her desk, a stockpile of Progresso soup in her cabinet and a talking “Yes Man” figure handy who says stuff like “What more can I say? When you’re right, you’re right!”
She has a red voo doo doll equipped with pins and labeled with assorted curses and blessings. Tick her off, and she could jab you with back pain, an IRS audit or impotence. Or, if she likes you, a new car, a lottery win, or kittens. (Although, the kittens could go either way.)
She’s a woman ready for anything.
Sieger, 61, is president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, one of the most successful community foundations in the country.
The 91-year-old institution works on a pretty basic idea: they accept donations of various types, invest them wisely then distribute the earnings to projects and organizations that make Grand Rapids better.
She’s been the head of it for more than 24 years, overseeing projects in race and diversity, child abuse prevention, AIDS prevention and care, access for people with disabilities and affordable housing.
As her co-worker Marilyn Zack points out: “Every time she takes a drive in her car she sees something the community foundation had a hand in.”
Sieger owns two tiaras. She tap dances, once performing in New York City’s Herald Square with her group of middle-aged pals, “The Type-A Tappers.”
But she knows how to bang her fist on the table. And she sits at a lot of tables, often invited to help resolve complex community issues.
“She’s not a shrinking violet,” says Zack, vice president of development at the Foundation. She’s known Sieger for 12 years.
“On one hand, she’s extremely compassionate and has a very soft heart,” Zack says. “Then there’s the hard-charging business leader who doesn’t let anything get in the way of what needs to be done in the community.
“She’s a complex person,” Zack says. “She has many sides.”
The Grand Rapids Business Journal keeps naming Sieger one of the “50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan” and she just added another honor to her long list of awards. On Wednesday she’ll receive the Michigan Women’s Foundation Women of Achievement and Courage Award.
She’s come a long way from that nervous little girl who was so shy she couldn’t order her own ice cream cone. Her mom always had to order it for her.
Then, one day, “I got bored with being shy,” Sieger says. She walked up to the ice cream stand window and ordered a medium chocolate. “My Mom was shocked.”
It was the beginning of Diana Taking Charge.
She grew up during the 1960s in Grosse Pointe Park, going to school with affluent white kids but living just 10 miles from the border of the tumultuous city of Detroit. She could hear the Detroit riot gun shots from her house.
Swirling all around her: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation.
“I was a kid that absorbed a lot,” she says.
When pivotal events happened, young Diana filed them away. They would come in handy later, as she developed into a woman of compassion and action.
When she was 4, her grandmother brought her to Ann Arbor for the day and they stopped at a playground.
Diana ran for the swings and happily started swinging away, soon joined by another little girl. The girls giggled as they soared higher and higher together. Then Sieger’s grandmother abruptly stopped the fun.
“My grandmother grabbed me off the swing and said, ‘You will not be playing with that little girl,’ Sieger recalls. “’You will not be playing with those Negroes.’”
Suddenly, it’s as if Sieger were back on the playground.
“I was so mad,” she recalls. “I was shocked and confused and stunned, and the other little girl was, too. My little hands were in fists.
“I knew, deep inside me, that this was wrong,” she says. “This was just another little girl. What difference did it make?
“From that point forward, I took notice,” she says. “There’s something still in me from that time.”
Sieger’s passion for diversity and inclusion has made the community foundation a leader in that area, Zack says: “It’s her biggest issue.”
She went to Western Michigan University and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with dreams of being a social worker. She married her college sweetheart, a marriage that ended in divorce nine years later.
Soon after moving to Grand Rapids, at the age of 22, Sieger was shaken to the core by a vicious attack.
She was carrying groceries up to her third floor apartment when a man with a knife attacked her from behind, stabbing her repeatedly with a four-inch, serrated blade. She spent two months recovering from her injuries.
“What that awful thing proved to me was that I am strong and resilient,” she says. “I’m pretty proud of that young woman – me at 22 years old – who was strong enough to keep going and not have it define me for the rest of my life.”
She still gets easily spooked when anyone comes up behind her.
“It still shocks me down to my very toes,” she says. “That’s the lingering visceral reaction. Other than that, it taught me that I can overcome anything — I can trust my reactions and move forward.”
She did. Sieger got a job as a caseworker at the American Red Cross in Grand Rapids, helping veterans resettle and aiding families who lost their homes to fire.
She went back to Western Michigan University and earned a master’s degree in social work with a focus in policy, planning and administration. She worked at United Way for nine years as head of planning and allocations.
All her experiences, from the playground incident at age 4 to allocating funds at the United Way, led her to this place.
Sieger talks passionately about one of the Foundation’s latest endeavors: Challenge Scholars, an initiative with Grand Rapids Public Schools that provides students in three West Side schools the support they need to be socially and academically prepared for college.
The program offers academic support, health and human services in the schools and college scholarships after graduation from Union High School.
“It’s an equity piece for me — bringing students up to an even playing field with kids from other districts,” she says.
Last spring Sieger was at Harrison Park School, one of the Challenge Scholar sites, handing out awards to students. She likes to be at the heart of things.
She loves driving around Grand Rapids neighborhoods. After exploring the curvy streets off Grandville Avenue in the Black Hills area, Sieger excitedly told her friends, “I just discovered this great neighborhood.”
Their response: “Are you crazy?” They worried about her safety.
“I still find myself diverting off the normal path,” she says.
Sieger is a lover of art and beautiful things. She loves Art of the Table and Wealthy at Charles and gushes about the new Home Goods store.
She has so many paintings by local artist Michael Pfleghaar, she jokes he must think she’s stalking him.
An enthusiastic foodie, she’s known for her butternut squash lasagna, loves mussels and calls the Food Network chefs “rock stars.” She follows them all on Twitter and gets all excited when they respond to her tweets.
She’s addicted to NCIS — Naval Criminal Investigative Service — on TV.
“Did you know they have NCIS marathons on the USA channel on Sundays?” she asks.
She plans to check out “Downton Abbey” on PBS, but for now watches vampire drama “True Blood” on HBO.
But that’s not what wakes her from sleep in the middle of the night.
“When I wake up at 3 in the morning I’m thinking about one of our programs, thinking, ‘What do we want to come out of this?’” she says. “I always want to make sure the Foundation is relevant. You can’t live in history. You have to keep moving forward.
“I don’t want to just keep up with the times,” she says. “I want to lead the times.”