Before holding annual conference in Ypsi, national organization invests in community

A national organization based in Maryland is going the extra mile – or 500 miles, to be exact – by getting involved in the Ypsilanti community both before and after its upcoming annual conference here.


The National Association of African Americans in Human Resources (NAAAHR) will host its 20th anniversary conference Sept. 27 to 30 at the Ann Arbor Marriott Ypsilanti at Eagle Crest, 1275 S. Huron St. in Ypsi Township. The conference will offer nine general sessions, 24 workshops, entertainment by rapper Kool Moe Dee, an awards ceremony, and a "Wakanda Forever" celebration party. About 500 people from 12 different countries are expected to attend.


But what's even more exciting is what's been happening behind the scenes. NAAAHR is trying to replicate successful initiatives that have benefited its home base of Howard County, Md., in Ypsi. NAAAHR co-founder and chairman Nathaniel "Nat" Alston has been visiting Ypsi on a monthly basis to implement some of the best practices the organization has identified, including a Speakers Bureau, a Black Student Achievement Program, and a Council of Elders. He and other NAAAHR leaders have also found other ways to help the community through the relationships that they've established with residents.
Nat Alston.


Alston credits Destination Ann Arbor convention sales manager Leo Cartier Jr. with initiating the relationship between NAAAHR and Ypsi through a cold call that Cartier made almost two years ago. Cartier learned about NAAAHR when he was researching diverse organizations that the convention and visitors bureau could attract for future conferences.


"I think they realized the value that we would bring as an organization ... being able to connect them to people in the community and the universities and different HR groups and organizations on campus," Cartier says of NAAAHR.
Leo Cartier Jr.
When NAAAHR leadership came into town for their initial visits, Cartier and his colleagues at Destination Ann Arbor didn't just take them to the area's hot spots. They also set up meetings for them with members of the community. Alston's conversation with former Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) superintendent Ben Edmondson particularly resonated with him because they have similar goals for public education. That connection led to Alston signing a five-year memorandum of understanding between NAAAHR and YCS that was announced at an event in November.


The NAAAHR usually hosts its annual conference in larger cities, like Detroit or Chicago. But the organization decided to try a smaller city because of Destination Ann Arbor's concerted efforts and the enthusiastic response of Ypsi residents who NAAAHR staff met. Alston says this was the first time a convention and visitors bureau had ever reached out to the NAAAHR. He says NAAAHR's relationship with Destination Ann Arbor has caused NAAAHR to reevaluate its business model for conventions and consider continuing to host them in smaller cities.


"We’re not a big convention," Alston says, noting that NAAAHR's attendance is much smaller than some conventions that attract 20,000 to 30,000 attendees. "But ... we felt that this is an organization that wants us here. We met some great people, and then the other icing on the cake ... was giving back to the community, particularly the schools."


Alston has been working with Kharena Keith, coordinator of wellness and community partnerships for YCS, to set up a Speakers Bureau at Ypsilanti Community High School. Business owners, representatives of community organizations, and other individuals are invited into the classroom to share their experience and expertise with students. Those who are interested in volunteering to speak to high schoolers can sign up using an online registration form so they can be entered into a database that teachers can access to find a speaker.


Keith thinks Alston has "a wealth of knowledge of programming that’s really effective for African-American youth" and that he's followed through on his commitment to Ypsi. She has enjoyed working with him because they've been able to split the work and utilize both of their networks to recruit volunteers for the Speakers Bureau.


"We have partners who are local who might not be able to find that type of time, and I think that is really admirable for him to be able to come and put that type of work into a community that he’s not from and he doesn’t live in," Keith says.
Kharena Keith.
Keith has appreciated NAAAHR's flexibility in dealing with changes and turnover at YCS. Alston plans to meet with YCS interim superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross when he returns to town for the conference.


"We’re here to be an advocate. We’re here to be a supporter," Alston says. "Whatever we need to do to help this transition to the new administration, we’re going to do that."


Alston and his NAAAHR colleagues are trying to establish a Black Student Achievement Program at YCS that's modeled after a 32-year-old program at the Howard County Public School System. In Ypsi, the program would likely involve a cohort of 25 male students who are transitioning from middle school to high school. YCS hopes to get the program up and running as soon as it can identify a staff member who can serve as its coordinator.


NAAAHR has already created a local Council of Elders to serve as advisors to the Black Student Achievement Program. Seven residents helped found the council in Ypsi. But the council is still seeking additional members who have a vested interest in the community and who share a mission of empowering local youth.


The Council of Elders will work with the coordinator of the Black Student Achievement Program to increase students' performance in school. Council member Leah Mills says the council plans to participate in the Speakers Bureau and work with YCS to develop incentives for academic performance.


Several other initiatives are underway as a result of NAAAHR's presence in the community, including an effort to fix up the baseball field in West Willow, career readiness workshops with student athletes at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), and establishing a student chapter of NAAAHR at EMU.


"We’re so spread around," Alston says. "Once we start something, another idea pops up. We’re almost to a point where we’re like the Energizer bunnies around there."


Since the beginning of this year, every time Alston has visited the Ypsi area, he has hosted a screening of Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer, a film about overcoming tensions between communities of color and police officers. Screenings have been held at Parkridge Community Center and New Testament Baptist Church. NAAAHR signed a licensing agreement with the film's director, A.J. Ali, to show the film at least once a month in Ypsi for a year.


Ypsi police chief Tony DeGiusti has attended almost every screening so he can answer residents' questions during the discussions that take place after the screenings. Alston, who has 10 years of law enforcement experience including five years' experience with the Maryland State Police, hopes the dialogue can lead to clear objectives in improving police-community relations in Ypsi.

Leah Mills, Erin Mills, Nat Alston, and Tony DeGiusti pose for a photo after the Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer screening on July 26 at New Testament Baptist Church in Ypsi.The next screening of Walking While Black will take place on Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. at Mount Olive Church of God in Christ, 436 Hawkins St. in Ypsi. Alston plans to continue the screenings when he's in town for his monthly visits.


Through NAAAHR, Ali has offered the city of Ypsi the opportunity to purchase a lifetime licensing agreement for Walking While Black for $500. Alston would like to see the film used by the Ypsilanti Police Department as part of in-service training for officers and by the Police Advisory Commission to facilitate discussions.


Alston invited Mills to join the Council of Elders after the first Walking While Black screening because of her knowledge of the community as a lifelong resident and her professional knowledge from working as a mental health therapist with Washtenaw County Community Mental Health. She says she's attended every screening because she takes something different away each time she sees the film. She also goes to support Alston, the NAAAHR, and the film's director.

Leah Mills.

"I think for anything to gain momentum you have to have those who are willing to go the mile with it," Mills says. "So I feel that if (Alston) is giving of his time to come here all the way from Maryland, I can give him my time. I’m just down the street. And I think it's necessary for him to know that his time is well-spent because there are those here that have the same sort of mission."


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.


Photos by Brianna Kelly.

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