Oakland Forward works to uplift, inform and advocate for communities of colorThe Nonprofit Journal

Oakland Forward is a social justice nonprofit that works to remove barriers to power for Black and brown people in Oakland County, focusing on the family institution as a way to do that. We started as the Pontiac Policy Council (P2C) nearly seven years ago. I was a community organizer, and my co-founders, Autumn Butler and Tameka Ramsey, were in social work. While passing out food boxes at a local elementary school, we realized we’d always be feeding families if we didn't get to the root causes of the problems in our community. We wanted to focus on policies that really disenfranchise the people of Pontiac.

As Oakland Forward, we’ve expanded to serve the greater county, and are mainly focused on civic engagement and election work. We also do free social justice training for leaders across Oakland County to help prepare the next group of community organizers. After we started, it became clear that some of our nearby communities face similar challenges to Pontiac. Today, we're also working to build out organizing and canvassing in Royal Oak Township, Southfield including Lathrup Village, Oak Park, Ferndale, and the Black community of Auburn Hills. Through year-round surveys, we learn about the needs in each community, and then work to train and empower that community to organize around issues residents raise.

During the pandemic, we realized that we couldn't talk to anybody about civic engagement or anything else until their needs were met. We worked with groups like Black Voters Matter, Michigan Voices and others to distribute over 10,000 masks, and were part of efforts to supply our local families and seniors with food boxes. We went door-to-door to pass out laundry detergent and toilet paper. We also worked with the Pontiac Community Foundation to shift one of our organizers to full-time case management to ensure residents were getting triage. People need to know that you care about them before they can even begin to consider deeper issues. 

Recently, our county has been greatly affected by the Oxford school shooting. In response, we worked to create a healing space at The Crofoot Ballroom, donated by owner Blair McGowan, where we gathered therapists, yoga teachers, grief counselors and local pastors. We wanted to create a space where people struggling with any kind of trauma could receive care. It was also a good opportunity to talk with caregivers responding to trauma. We see a growing need in our communities to focus on healing the healers. In a tragedy like Oxford, people jump into action, which is great because that community came together. But it's also important that we make sure those who are providing treatment also receive self care.

We work in partnership with many organizations in Oakland County who are meeting the direct service needs of our community. In our canvassing, we share with people about resources that can be found at organizations like OLHSA and others. So even though we're passing out something about a local election, we’re also passing out information about vaccinations, rental assistance, water resources and more. 

We are unapologetic about making sure we help Black and brown families in Oakland County and allies too. The pandemic has really emphasized the disparity between communities for getting help and resources. During COVID-19, I’m most proud of our organization’s efforts toward getting 10,000 people in Oakland County vaccinated. The African American community in general, is very vaccine-hesitant. We worked with Honor Community Health to set up clinics in local churches and other neighborhood places, and went door-to-door sharing health information and the importance of vaccinations, reaching over 20,000 homes. 

As a co-director, I’ve learned that we have to care so much about our employees in this season. Canvassing is one of the main things our staff does to make sure our communities are heard and informed. Our employees aren’t widely considered essential workers, but they’ve been willing to risk their lives to really engage and help other people. We're vaccinated, but every day we step out the door, as a leader, I'm hoping the ends justify the means.

We're still learning how to shift our day-to-day operations into this digital space. With this year's civic engagement and election work, we don’t know what to expect. We’re prepared to knock on doors, but with Omicron happening, it may not be safe. Knowing that, we’ve had to do a lot more phone engagement and Zoom which highlights the digital divide. We have seniors and low-income communities that aren't really plugged in or have the opportunity to connect. 

In terms of funding, we've been very strategic, but we’ve also expended a whole lot of money that was never budgeted in order to make sure we have extra laptop and that our organizers have internet, etc. We always need more funding. Many nonprofits that do social justice and election work downsize during the off-election. But we made a commitment to all of our employees to keep them year-round. Making sure our staff gets paid is our top priority because we believe this work is not about any one election, it's about making sure we're building power for the people consistently in the communities. 

We're currently working toward raising conversation and pressure around issues of paid leave and the ongoing assault on voter rights. We hope you'll join our efforts by reaching out to your congressperson or senator with your concerns, and by championing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Once we realize we have our own personal power to fight for what we believe in, this world will be a better place. 

Kermit Williams is the co-director of Oakland Forward based in Pontiac. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.