Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson says he’s tired of seeing people’s faces as little boxes.
Speaking of online meeting platforms that have been the primary means of connecting colleagues, clients, and community members as everyone works to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, he chuckles as he says, “It’s just going to feel so much better to NOT see each others’ faces as little boxes on a screen.”
Asked what he most hopes to see during 2022, he says, “It may be a dream but hopefully the diminishing affects of COVID. I’m really looking forward to that. It has really hurt our engagement efforts.”
Any slow down in the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus would allow people to gather without fear and, he says, “I really believe it’s going to unleash some optimism that we haven’t felt much for a couple of years.”
Anderson was among several community leaders we asked to consider the greatest challenges they or their organizations face as we head into this new year, as well as what they most look forward to. Here is what some of them had to say.
Dr. Rita Raichoudhuri
Dr Raichoudhuri, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools, says the main challenge for her and the school district continues to be trying to find ways to meet the demands presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As the community struggles with its own divided feelings about issues such as masking, vaccinating, remote learning versus in-person learning,” Raichoudhuri says, “KPS is working with health officials to constantly monitor the recommendations of health officials to try to provide the safest learning environment for our students.
“Layering that work on top of our primary job of educating children and caring for their social and emotional needs, as well as responding to the very real fears and concerns of parents, has added immense stress and responsibility on the shoulders of staff, who, I think, have done a tremendous job over the past two years.”
Despite the challenges, she says children continue to amaze her with their resilience.
“What I look forward to the most this year — and every year — is seeing how much our children grow and how much they learn as our amazing staff nurtures their abilities and cares for their needs throughout the school year. The challenges of this unique time in history have made for stories of innovation, perseverance, and adaptability in our schools and our community. We should never forget how much all of us have accomplished over the last two years in the face of tremendous trials. I am grateful for and inspired by the resilience of our students, staff, and families.”
Stephen Walsh, executive director of the Vine Neighborhood Association, says, “As always, the primary challenge (for him) will be in making sure that the Vine residents with the highest amount of needs are able to procure the resources they need to survive. This past year has been a Herculean effort on VNA staff to make sure that residents and our tenants too are aware of rent relief, COVID rapid-testing availability, and other pandemic-related issues. It has been challenging to get information to many of our residents.”
He says a second challenge for 2022 will be to work with various city departments to help the neighborhood as the norms change.
“We've had a large influx of new residents within the last two years and with them came a strong desire to raise the bar in terms of what the neighborhood CAN be,” Walsh says. “As the neighborhood changed into a more family-friendly environment, the hierarchy of need has changed as well. For many years the neighborhood norms have been set by the large property management companies. This will be a challenge in that more will be asked of many departments and my office as well, and it is always an issue of capacity.”
What is he looking forward to?
“A more exciting challenge will be to continue to host and support art and music in the Vine neighborhood through Art Hops and musical events,” Walsh says. “We have heard from numerous residents that our outdoor events last year were a real panacea in the pandemic. We were able to safely bring music, art, and food to the community and the response was phenomenal.”
He said the neighborhood association has worked very hard to locate and work with up-and-coming artists, musicians, and vendors from Vine, and it has been very rewarding to help host their events.
“I am looking forward to doing more of the same in 2022,” he says.
Chief Vernon Coakley
Chief Vernon Coakley, of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, says that as
chief of KDPS, his top priority is to keep the City of Kalamazoo safe. But he says nationally there’s been an increase in gun violence in recent years, and the same is true in our city.
“Gun violence remains the top issue facing our community,” he says. “In this new year, we must come together as a community and solve our problems. No group or organization can solve this problem alone -- believe me, we (law enforcement) spent years trying.”
The second issue of concern is addressing trauma in our community, he says.
“The increase in violence has been traumatic for many people in our community, and we must all talk to our family and friends to address these issues so our community can begin to heal,” he says.
Despite operating in the COVID-19 landscape, with reduced ability to connect directly with residents, KDPS spent a lot of 2021 working to establish and restore relationships with our community, he says.
“We are looking forward to building on those successes and expanding our community outreach efforts,” Coakley says. “We are also excited to continue working with our Group Violence Intervention initiative and increasing our investments and programming for our community’s most vulnerable – the youth and elderly.”
Denise Crawford, president and chief executive director of the Family Health Center of Kalamazoo, says COVID is still a dark cloud over our community and so many others.
“The biggest struggle is keeping people engaged and very much involved in the process,” she says. But it’s daunting to have the community continue to experience such a high level of sickness for so long, and to have people – for whatever reasons – be resistant to becoming vaccinated to protect themselves.
“The science and the research remains strong,” she says in support of people getting vaccinated. “I think we have a government committed to addressing this. And America, as a whole, is resilient. This is not the biggest challenge that we’ve faced and overcome in America.”
She mentioned the advent of influenza in the 1960s and ‘70s, and various other potentially deadly sicknesses that the nation has overcome without many of the resources and scientific expertise that we now have. In the meantime, she says, “Michigan is beautiful and she is looking forward to a beautiful summer and people being able to head outdoors and reconnect with one another safely.
Chris Sargent, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, says the impact of COVID continues to be his organization’s biggest challenge.
“COVID continues to challenge children and families especially in regards to basic needs,” Sargent says. “We continue to see a greater demand for food, housing, and other critical safety net supports.”
He says, “The second challenge affects the ability to raise money to support the nonprofit sector. We live in a very generous community and yet it is harder to raise resources when so much is remote and not in person. Our dozens of nonprofit partners are struggling to raise enough resources to meet the demand for programs and services.”
What is he most looking forward to this year?
“We are looking forward to being able to raise resources to support our communities’ biggest challenges,” Sargent says. “Over the last couple of years, we have been able to leverage millions of dollars through federal, state, local, and private resources. It has led to increased funding in basic needs, equity, small business and housing supports. I’m also looking forward to seeing our communities’ ability to care for each other through volunteerism, advocacy on critical issues, and philanthropy. In our region we come together to ensure that ALICE families have the support they need and to address economic and racial disparities.”
ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, referring to people who earn above the poverty level but not enough to make ends meet.
Asked what he thinks is the city’s greatest challenge in 2022, Mayor Anderson says he expects that will be working to turn around the rash of gun violence in the city.
In 2020, there were 75 non-fatal shootings and 13 gunshot fatalities, says Kalamazoo Public Safety spokesman Ryan Bridges. In 2019, there were 31 non-fatal shootings and seven fatal shootings. Bridges says KDPS attributes the increase in gun violence to there being more guns on the street and there being easier access to them.
Although gun violence has been directly experienced in only a few Kalamazoo neighborhoods, it has a profound affect on everyone in the city, says Anderson, who was re-elected last November to a second two-year term as Kalamazoo’s mayor.
Even though many neighborhoods haven’t had first-hand experience with gun violence, he says, “We all experience together the second, third and fourth impacts of it -- how it makes people feel about what the future holds for them and it’s diminishment of the idea that there is stability and opportunity and that sort of thing. We desperately need people across our entire population – and that includes our lower-income neighborhoods – to feel like they’ve got a good quality of life and they’ve got an opportunity to do positive things.”
Another big challenge will be the possibility of increased water rates this year. “People are going to have trouble with that because we’ve been used to very, very low rates – toward the bottom end of rates in Michigan. And we are now making investments that are kind of catch-up for all this work we have to do.”
He referred to doing lead-pipe replacement or replacing 100-year-old water and sewer lines. “We’re borrowing money for all that and we’re going to have to pay it back,” Anderson says. “So that’s going to be another challenge, the fact that we’re going to have a pretty decent increase in our sewer and water rates.”
He says he anticipates talking about more economic development and trying to create more good jobs in Kalamazoo and how those things should be balanced against the desire for a clean environment and open spaces.
He also expects to see more work done to address the city’s housing crisis, which he described as an inadequate supply of housing coupled with the ever-increasing cost of construction. He says the housing crisis is manifested in two areas in particular – the unavailability of homes that sell for $200,000 or less, and the lack of decent, safe, affordable rental properties.
“On the social justice side, I think we’re going to really need to take some big steps improving community relations for public safety so that it is universally believed that the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety is an entity that enforces the law equitably. And that’s going to take a real push on actually doing it … but also to build relationships.
And he says the city is going to have to learn to play a role in helping young people prosper here.
“We are going to need to do whatever we can to help young people take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them in Kalamazoo in terms of training and schooling and setting the stage for a better future,” he says.
Revisiting the idea of what the community may look forward to, Anderson says, “I feel like there’s a desire for people to work together across institutions. I’ve had conversations on the business side. I’ve had conversations on the education side. We talk about it. It’s hard to do but I feel like there’s a pent-up desire to get out and make this be a big year and a good year for Kalamazoo.”