Slowly but surely BC Vision is bringing about change

In May of 2014, the Kellogg Co. and W.K. Kellogg Foundation launched BC Vision. It's a long-term effort to improve Battle Creek in the areas of jobs and workforce talent, and to grow a culture of vitality.

After nearly two years of countless meetings, studies, and surveys, the formation of many committees, subcommittees, task forces and action teams -- is it fair to ask if there are any actual signs that the process is improving Battle Creek? Have they included everyone in the discussions? From corporate, small business, nonprofit and governmental leaders, to the parents whose child needs a better future? Will the Vision's results benefit all? 

To some, it may seem to be a slow process that's all about the meetings, but the meetings are leading to discussions among Battle Creek residents of many perspectives, and all the talk is starting to turn into actions.

At the BC Vision steering committee meeting of March 24, reports ranged from tantalizing to upbeat and fun. 

Battle Creek Unlimited, heading the business steering committee, reported it is on track to reach the goal of 1,000 jobs -- jobs with companies it couldn't yet name. President and CEO of BCU Marie Briganti later confirmed that the economic development organization helped with 259 jobs last year, and is "currently aligning support to create 125 more by the end of our fiscal year, June 30."

At the meeting, youth leader and Culture of Vitality co-chair David Kemp told about a youth event he hosted that featured teen entrepreneur Jaylen Bledsoe and a dance battle between BCPD officers and BC students. Hearing of cops doing the whip and nae nae was a welcome break from the meeting's dry process details, talk of metrics and vendors and teams looking for volunteers.

The long process is causing some impatience. Bill Schroer, head of the social marketing group WJ Schroer Company, took the mic during the public question and comments period.

He spoke with frustration. "A number of us have initiatives that we believe would legitimately accomplish some of the goals that exist, and yet we are being told wait until the process is done." 

Schroer mentioned the city's low high school graduation rate, and how employers are having trouble hiring because potential employees can't pass a drug test. 

"I know everyone wants to be positive, and I'm positive too, but I'm not sure we're facing the reality of some of the challenges," he said.

Steering committee member and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation Brenda Hunt responded. Schroer is under contract with BCCF, she told the audience, working on recycling and waste issues. 

"I kind of agree with you on all of these things, let's just be ruthlessly honest," she told Schroer. Efforts like BC Vision "have done really well in the past, but we haven't done for the whole population," she said.  

La June Montgomery Tabron, steering committee co-chair, and president and CEO of the WKKF, added that they have to face the truth of the city's position and what to do about it, or "we are destined to repeat the past."

"This has been a long two years," she continued. Frustrations from the pace of the process are understandable, but in the past, "we've jumped quickly to solutions, and they have been maybe a partial fix, but not a permanent fix.... We can't be so quick to say we have the answer because we don't."

Buds on the trees

Battle Creek has "some unique assets here," John Bryant, Kellogg Co. CEO, and the other steering committee co-chair pointed out at the meeting. It's been the home of a major food company since 1906, a company that's been in the upper levels of the Fortune 500 list. It has a large National Guard base, an airport, and a major highway intersection. 

And that Fortune 500 company is "very interested in making sure that Battle Creek is a place of attraction for talent, and a successful place for people who live and work here," Ali Webb, WKKF director of programs for Michigan, said outside of the meeting. 

What or who sparked BC Vision "is a chicken-or-the-egg question," Webb said. But the spark lit after the WKKF got a new CEO, Tabron. She'd been a part of the foundation for 27 years, has very deep roots in Battle Creek, and wanted to make lasting improvements to the city. 

Signs of improvements are appearing, Webb said. A few small businesses are opening downtown, local developers have purchased three vacant buildings, and there has been movement on the 19-story Heritage Tower, empty for nearly a decade, now under development by Grand Rapids' 616 Development, Webb pointed out.

"It reminds me of the early days of spring when the trees are still kind of bare, but you can see the green popping out," Webb said. "The tree hasn't leafed out yet, but you can see if you look, some really clear signs that things are changing."

The results of some areas, like kindergarten readiness, won't be seen until students are graduating high school and entering college about 18 years from now, she points out. 

But other BC Vision focus areas, "the economic development, the job creation and the downtown revitalization, those are things we're going to start seeing some serious action on within the next year," Webb said.

All involved: Open skate

The BCCF's Hunt lists more examples of change, such as a reborn ice rink.

The Rink, as it's known, is nearly 30 years old and shows signs of aging. Last year its ice-making system broke down. Without ice, The Rink was in danger of becoming just another empty, unused building in Battle Creek.

Hunt said that the BC Vision model sees everything as "a potential asset that has a positive role. When you look at an old rink with a floor going out, you could say, it's old, let it go. Or you can say, what can we do to help?"

The BCCF got involved and brought in the Greater Battle Creek Ice Hockey Association, who helped raise funds. "The next thing I know, they're down there volunteering, people are there skating, and you've got community engaged in an asset that was on its last legs." 

To some, the BC Vision process sometimes seems to be a meetings-generator, but Hunt sees the meetings leading to active discussions among newly energized citizens. 

There have been discussions that she's been a part of, such as one at a meeting she'd just been in, on "What if we were a zero-waste community? What if we found a way to use all of our garbage and all of our waste?" 

Discussions used to be "more about how can we help this or stop this. More of it now is about the futuristics," more about planning for the future than trying to find short-term fixes for problems.

Hunt realized that she's meeting with people she's never met, people from other organizations, as well as individual citizens. What may have been an echo chamber of community leaders is turning into energized discussions including many perspectives.

For 2016, the steering committee has put an emphasis on bringing in all Battle Creek voices. Before, some public participation and -- as the Battle Creek Enquirer noted -- media coverage of some of the meetings were limited.

"Not everybody is comfortable walking into 80 people, and doing business with cameras and microphones and all those things there," Hunt said. "But I think we need to get more comfortable, because what the community is telling us is 'let us hear.' Don't go making decisions, the do-it-to-us mentality," behind closed doors. 

The March 24 meeting was recorded by cable access channel AccessVision, and the public was encouraged to comment. When everyone is commenting, positive or negative, "it's messy, but let's do it together," she said. 

It took the leadership of both the Kellogg Company and Foundation to start the process, but, "you cannot change a community and make it thriving without all the people," Hunt said. 

"The company and the foundation cannot make the change.... This has to come off from people being, A, allowed access in many instances, and B, motivated and becoming believers though opportunities where they can access to make that change, because it's about all of us."

Corporate, nonprofit, educational and governmental institutions are all involved, and all needed, "but we also need people who are out there working, who get ideas, who see things from a different perspective, who sometimes don't get allowed to access things the way that maybe they should in today's society."

Equity and inequity

The WKKF launched a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation effort  in January, a process that is inspired by truth and reconciliation commissions in countries such as South Africa.

Tabron brought it up to open the March 24 meeting. "In truth telling, you also build relationships, you build connections, you build shared understanding." Racial healing, as well as Battle Creek's potential transformation, need outcomes where "all of us are thriving in this community."

Aside from the social injustice that results from inequity, there's also an economic cost, "a cost of not preparing every member of society in the workforce, and making them contributors to this state as well as this community." Because of unemployment in Michigan, a WKKF study has found "we are leaving almost $32 billion on the table for this state. That's real money. Those are the types of resources we could use in this state to improve education, to improve health outcomes, to improve all of our communities." 

Lakeview Schools Superintendent and BC Vision steering committee member David Peterson said, "I hope with our focus on inequity that we will no longer refuse to see it." 

He brought up surveys showing vast economic differences between neighborhoods. "For this work to work, our leaders have to have a very, very developed lens for equity.... It can't be a one size fits all for all of our neighborhoods." 

"You hear the word 'equity' a lot," Culture of Vitality co-chair Kemp said after the meeting. He sees equity and inequity as the illustration where a toddler, a child, and an adult are trying to look over a fence. If you give them three boxes of equal height to stand on, they're still not all going to see the ball game. 

You have to make the boxes the right heights for individuals, he said. New jobs may come to Battle Creek, but has everyone been trained to be ready for them? Does everyone know about the new jobs? 

"We're trying to find where those gaps are," Kemp said. "We want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity on an equal playing field."

Kemp attended Wilson, Franklin, Northwestern, and Central. He worked for the WKKF and in church-lead efforts, and graduated from Western Michigan University in 2012 having studied finance and non-profit leadership.

As a youth leader for BC Vision, and program director for Southwest Michigan Community Development Corporation, Kemp is ready to help his old neighborhoods.

"I wanted to tackle problems that people I know have faced, and people I see in our community are facing," he said. 

"I love this city, I love to help people, I love to impact people."

It takes time to find and tackle specific problems, he said, to study individual neighborhoods, find out their climate, economic status, demographics, and the barriers for the individual residents.

Studies show crime exists partially because of a lack of opportunity and engagement, Kemp points out. "Sometimes people don't feel empowered, they don't know how to get engaged, they don't have the support that they'd like to have." 

Culture of Vitality might bring to mind more downtown festivals or parks, but it's also about having neighborhoods where kids are safe to play, where residents feel connected to their city, he said. "You can't just have a good job, you can't just be a good worker. You want to be somewhere where you can enjoy where you live." 

His area and others under BC Vision have still got a lot of work to do, much of which still seems more process than action. "But we can see change coming out of that. It's a process where we learn and we learn, and we may not be going as fast as we'd like it to go, but it definitely is going.”

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in Southwest Michigan since 1992. He can be reached through http://www.markswedel.com.

Photos by Susan Andress



 
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