Muskegon native presents documentary at Summit on Racism and Inclusion

A Muskegon-native documentary producer was among the nationally recognized leaders who shared strategies and best practices for advancing equity at the 2023 Summit on Race and Inclusion, held June 7 at Hope College in Holland.

The event, titled “The Power of Belonging!,” was hosted by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. 

Jon Covington is the producer of “Black Man,” in which 32 Black men in Muskegon County ages 21 to 91 share their thoughts and experiences on their life, love, losses, and America. He took part in a short discussion after the screening of the documentary.

Covington currently is a senior business development consultant, assisting minority businesses in scaling business. He also is an acting coach and branding strategist, and has worn many hats during his years in the entertainment industry. 

Reaching for his dream 

He knew at an early age that he wanted to work in entertainment, but this was hardly heard of growing up in his community.

“It just wasn’t a common thing for a Black kid growing up in Muskegon to say,” he says, and he did everything he could to hide his aspirations.

After graduating a year early from high school, Covington immediately left home for Los Angeles at age 17.

 “I went out there with the notion I was going to college – for family approval – but really, the entertainment sector is what I was most interested in,” he says. He admits that he was not quite clear on what he needed to do to get in the industry, but he learned some life lessons that helped him along the way.

Covington developed some great relationships, but he returned home to Michigan after flunking out of school. Shortly after, in 1986, he was hired as a flight attendant, which was beneficial because of the flight credits, travel, and personal connections he made. This freedom to travel changed the trajectory of his life, Covington says, as he met people in the industry on his flights and was able to travel where needed for business.

‘Muskegon was the foundation’

Even with what he accomplished living in bigger cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, Covington proudly states that Muskegon made him. 

“Muskegon was the foundation for me to learn the base stuff I needed,” he says. He learned about acting, voiceover work, production, news copy, radio, and more through his experiences in Muskegon. 

From participating in local theater and anchoring cable news to hosting his own show in the late 1990s (“The Jon Show,” which was syndicated in 60 markets across the country), Muskegon was instrumental in developing the many areas of Covington’s expertise, as well as what has become his biggest project to date – “Black Man.”

Covington had talked with friends about doing something like this documentary years back, but the project came together after he was asked to assist with “SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male,” an exhibit at the Muskegon Museum of Art in 2018-19. As he interviewed Black men of the community for footage for the exhibit, he realized these interviews could turn into something bigger. That is when the approach for the project switched gears and Covington began working on the documentary.

Film resonates with viewers

The initial showing of “Black Man” was in 2019, but Covington updated and finished the documentary in October 2022, keeping the same essence as the earlier version, which presented a view of Black men that was different from what many see in the news and media.

“It humanizes the Black man,” he says, pointing out that in Muskegon county, black men represent only about 7% of the population, meaning people of other races can live their lives without ever having any in-depth conversations with Black men in their own county.

The documentary is in demand in bigger cities, and Covington says that he is having conversations with industry and community members who want to create the same type of documentary experience for their communities, possibly even turn it into a series. 

Covington says the response is beyond anything that he imagined. 

“I’ve seen my life, and what I thought would happen in life, but my biggest project thus far is something that was created in my hometown. A film made walking distance from where I grew up on Allen Avenue and Spring Street in downtown Muskegon and the art museum.”

Power of history

Tracee Bruce, a native of Muskegon Heights, also presented at the summit, sharing her passion for Black history. Bruce is the author of “Systems That Shape(d) Black America: 40 Mini Lessons Outlining Defining Moments from Slavery to Modern Day.”

“I’m hopeful that learning and understanding this history will lead to increased empathy, contributing to the ‘Power of Belonging,’ which is the theme of this year’s LEDA Summit,” says Bruce, an alumni fellow of the CEO Action for Racial Equity Fellowship and senior program manager of health care sales at MillerKnoll.

“Black Man” will be screened for the community June 24 at the Smith Ryerson Center, honoring one of the participants, Sim Ray, who is Bruce’s grandfather. The center will be renamed the Sim Ray Center in honor of his many years of work and contributions to the center and community.

The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance Summit on Race and Inclusion advocates understanding around issues related to race and ethnicity within the region. Since 2001, more than 7,000 individuals statewide have attended the Summit. The annual event explores what individuals and institutions can do to create inclusive, diverse, thriving communities.

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Read more articles by Shanika P. Carter.