Washington Heights

How VOCES represents many voices and one community in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Latinx residents have been a part of the fabric of the community in Battle Creek for more than 30 years and in 2010 a nonprofit named Voces began to address the needs of this growing segment of the city’s population.

There are about 5,000 Latinx who call Battle Creek home. This equates to about eight percent of the city’s total population of just over 51,000 residents.

“We are many voices and one community,” says Josh Dunn, executive director for Voces. “There are 38 Hispanic countries with multiple languages and voices, but we can all work together for the betterment of everyone. We’re not trying to amalgamate them all into one.”

So it's not surprising that Voces is not an acronym, but rather the Spanish word for voices.

Latinx were drawn to the Battle Creek area because of the opportunities to get good-paying jobs in various industries, particularly those located at Fort Custer Industrial Park, says Dunn.

“In the '80s and '90s immigration was up and industries here were running very strongly,” Dunn said. “There continues to be a large migrant population, many of whom follow family members here. As the family and their children grow, many of them go off of the migrant chain.

“When you talk about the Latinx population, people think of immigrants,” though that is not how the population trend is going, Dunn says.

says Josh Dunn, executive director for VOCES.The reality is that Latinx are staying and becoming citizens because their children, the majority of whom were born in the United States, are going on to college and achieving the type of success that their parents wanted for them. 

Recognizing those parents' desires, Voces offers a number of programs for parents and youth focused on education to better prepare young people for success in all areas of their lives after high school.

A program offered at Post Franklin and Prairieview elementary schools focuses on comprehensive literacy which teaches students how to read a science experiment and replicate what they are being asked to do. It also highlights the importance of cultural understanding. Books by Latinx authors are made available to give students cultural references they can relate to.

At the middle school level, Dunn says, there is a group called Creative Leaders United which at its core focuses on issues of identity and works on areas such as building confidence and dealing with difficult emotions. This year, the program received a grant from Unidos U.S. to expand its focus to include civic engagement, which led to a service project that the middle school participants will be presenting at a conference in Texas.

High school students can participate in a Voces-sponsored Youth Council,  which gives them opportunities to develop leadership skills as they prepare for college or for a productive life after high school. 

And Voces Family Leadership Institute is designed to get parents talking about the same things their kids do in the programs in which they participate. The goal of the program is to teach parents the art and skill of family leadership by supporting academic achievement and lifelong success for their children. Through conversations and activities, parents talk about different modules and have the opportunity to participate in a university trip. 
 
“From a broad perspective we focus on three main areas, language access, education, and the third is community advocacy,” Dunn says. “Interpreters provide in-person assistance, assistance over the phone, and document language translation. We provide English classes and we’re also at medical appointments, school conferences, and court-related matters.”

A study funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation titled the “Business Case for Racial Equity,” said that by 2050, 40 percent of Michigan’s working-age population will be people of color and 45 percent of children will be children of color. As the number of people of color and English as a Second Language in the workforce continues to grow, Voces began offering resources to area organizations and employers to help them create more supportive and welcoming environments for people of color facing language barriers. 

“We don’t want to send people over to a job that they don’t feel supported in,” Dunn says. “We work with about 60 organizations in Battle Creek to provide language access.” This includes hospitals and the school districts. II Stanley and Stewart Industries have purchased ESL classes through Voces which are hosted at the city’s YMCA.

Ani Turner, co-director, Sustainable Health Spending Strategies with Altarum which co-authored the WKKF study, said the biggest story is that the state’s population isn’t growing and is getting older while also becoming more diverse. She said a couple of decades ago, the non-Hispanic white population accounted for between 85 and 90 percent of the population.

The birthrates for Hispanic and Black residents are higher than that those of the White population, Turner said, adding that this is not unique to Michigan. 

“This is something that’s really happening around the country,” Turner says. “The younger population is more people of color."

This growth has also happened with the state’s Asian and Hispanic populations due to immigration. Turner says immigrants were drawn to Michigan by the employment opportunities in sectors such as higher education, healthcare, and technology.

Dunn’s organization devotes a lot of time to getting organizations to understand the importance of being more responsive to and supportive of their non-white, ESL employees. As part of Voces’s community advocacy work, he says he hopes to build the capacity of area employers to effectively support all of their employees regardless of language preference or national origin, by offering resources such as language access and English classes to make that support a reality.

“The population is changing and we still need to serve ESL and the immigrant population, but not everybody who’s Hispanic needs these services,” Dunn says.

For example, many times someone who is bilingual will be asked to provide interpretive services. Dunn says Voces began a bilingual employee training program that recognizes the extra effort it takes to be a bilingual employee. He says some of the first participants were community members interested in serving as interpreters.

“The goal is to make this a professionally recognized skill rather than something employers take for granted,” he says.

“In previous sessions, we trained 10 Battle Creek Public School employees whose job is to serve English language learning students, but we’ve also been asked to interpret for families,” Dunn says. “We believe the program has helped clients to be better prepared.”
 
Underlying much of Voces’ work is the issue of immigration and how it impacts various segments of the Latinx community in Battle Creek. He and his staff have been kept busy answering questions about whether parents can apply for benefits for their U.S.-born children who are citizens. Dunn says Voces is trying to be proactive in convincing immigrants with permanent residency status to become U.S. citizens. 

“After the 2016 presidential election, we had a meeting in our office with the police chiefs from Battle Creek and Emmett Township and the Calhoun County sheriff and undersheriff to come in and talk to us. People weren’t sure what they could do because they didn’t know what would happen with immigration laws,” Dunn says. “We had a run on people trying to get Mexican passports for their children in case they had to leave the country.  We also had a lot of people asking for Powers of Attorney so that someone could watch their children if they had to go.”

The recent forced separation of parents from their children at the border has been an emotional toll on our community, Dunn says. “People can see themselves in those shoes.”

Adding to the anxiety is a contract that the Calhoun County Jail has had with ICE to provide beds for detainees. Although this contract has been in place for more than 20 years, it has become more of a hot button issue as potential changes to immigration laws have moved to the political forefront.

Dunn says having a jail that holds ICE detainees has had a chilling effect on the city’s immigrant population. “Even though the sheriff says his officers don’t arrest people based on immigration that is a difficult line to handle for a community that knows there are immigrants being held in that jail,” he says.  “ICE may request to hold onto people.”

Calhoun County Sheriff Matt Saxton says that less than 1 percent of ICE detainees housed at the County Jail are from Calhoun County. “Typically, we have 30 to 40 nationalities in here at any given time and the Mexican jail population is under 20 percent,” Saxton says. “Right now we have a lot of ICE detainees from Iraq.”

In addition to its ICE contract, the jail also has contracts with municipalities including the cities of Dearborn and Livonia which rent beds for their overflow inmate population. Chippewa, Monroe and St. Clair counties also have contracts with ICE and Saxton says most other jails, including his, also rent space to Federal Marshal programs.

The new jail, which was opened in 1994, was initially proposed to be built in Marshall, the Calhoun County seat, but elected officials pushed to have it built in Battle Creek to be part of a new Justice Center complex. It was intentionally built with additional space in anticipation of renting beds to other municipalities and the Federal government.

These long-standing contracts are worth about $6 million which is used to offset the $12 million budget for the jail. Saxton says that without the additional revenue from these contracts, he would be forced to lay off most of the department’s enforcement division and some of the jail staff.  A total of 196 people are employed by the Sheriff’s department and work in various divisions, including emergency management, and as school liaisons.

Saxton says he knows that there are people in the community who don’t like the idea that the jail houses ICE detainees, but he says in the 20-plus years that the ICE contract has been in place, no one has ever been picked up for an immigration violation while visiting a detainee and his agency is not responsible for making decisions to detain people.

“We do run across from time to time someone who’s been deported on a traffic stop,” he says. “If they’re arrested for an offense like drunk driving and come in and get fingerprinted, if there’s a deportation order it comes from ICE.”

The ICE-imposed guidelines that the jail must follow are much more stringent than those governing privately-run, for-profit detention facilities that are starting to crop up. Saxton says, for this reason, it is better that ICE detainees are housed in a facility such as his.

But, the unintended consequences of the jail’s housing of ICE detainees are many and varied. Eusebio Solis, a local attorney and former Calhoun County Commissioner, says he has been contacted by members of the Latinx community seeking assistance with criminal and non-criminal matters.

“I had a woman contact me who paid for a car and the woman she bought it from wouldn’t give it to her,” he says. “I told her that if we litigate we’ll have to go to court.  She told me that she was undocumented. Things like this,  and when people get stopped and get a traffic ticket, make them fearful about going to court.”

During a local “Families Belong Together” rally in June which was part of a national call to action, Dunn says Latinx residents were surprised to see white Americans protesting alongside them. “A number of families remarked that they couldn’t believe that a bunch of white people cared about what would happen to them,” he says.

“It’s very clear who our allies are. We have strong relationships with the Mexican Consulate and we’re accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice to provide legal services without an attorney. There’s a huge demand for legal immigration work. We’ve done DACA renewals, family processing when someone tries to sponsor someone, and Visas.”

Students work togther in the VOCES classroom.The $495 legal fees for a recent DACA renewal were more than covered after donations were made within a 24-hour period by more than five individuals in the community. But, he says convincing people to do these DACA renewals can be difficult.

Although Voces and its partners in a group called “Project Dignity” are in support of ending the jail’s ICE contract and fully support people who are detained, they have decided that they don’t need to take on ICE as a whole preferring instead to focus on the positive impact the Latinx community makes in Battle Creek.

“We want the community to be welcoming and accepting of all people,” Dunn says.  “Our community is very entrepreneurial-minded. We want to give back and we want to create. Our community wants to be able to participate fully. There is an economic invigoration of Battle Creek and our community is so ready to be a part of that.”
 
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Battle Creek” series amplifies the voices of Battle Creek residents. In coming months, Second Wave journalists will be in Battle Creek neighborhoods to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Jane Simons, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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