A Northside Icon: They call him Mr. Everything

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

For over 50 years, Charlie Parker has been a man with a mission. The Kalamazoo Gazette even dubbed him "Mr. Everything."

If there was a sports league--football, basketball, track, judo or wrestling--he was likely coaching or running the program. Even now, it's common to see a whistle around his neck or a child at his side. And when Parker isn’t in his white gi--his judo uniform--he can often be found in red, his signature color, talking to players, coaches or the crowd. 

"What I’ve been doing over the last 50 years is developing young folks to take over," says Parker, who recognizes the value of a legacy of mentorship. "Without the people who believed in me, I wouldn’t be where I am." He reels off a string of names: Mr. Perkins, Mr. Burnett, Mr. Clark, to name a few.

As former Program Director for the Greater Kalamazoo YMCA, Parker established the Lincoln YMCA Program on the Northside to offer more recreational opportunities for residents. An avid supporter of black arts and culture, he brought Double Dutch, a jump rope game played with two ropes that cross, to Kalamazoo in 1982 by organizing training workshops and events through the Boys and Girls Club.

A founder of the Kalamazoo Black Achievers Program and of the Northside Neighborhood Watch, Parker has been a leader and community advocate for half a century, and it’s a passion he’s passed on to his six children whose careers include architectural engineer, business consultant, cosmetologist, graphic designer, lawyer, and finance officer.

Five years ago, encouraged by his children and motivated by the sudden loss of a brother, he founded Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., an organization whose mission is to facilitate community transformation by providing opportunities for personal development and community engagement through athletics, social events and leadership development.

Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E. is Born

During the 50 years Parker ran programs in the area, whether he was working for the YMCA, the City Recreation Department, the Boys and Girls Club, or Communities in Schools, the various programs which he ran would eventually phase out and he would move on to the next project.

In 2013, his children and a niece came to him and said: Why don’t you start something of your own? The idea had long been brewing, but with the sudden death in 2013 of Parker’s brother, Steve Dunning, a beloved Northside resident and well-respected area basketball coach, the time was ripe.

"In the midst of tragedy, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E. was birthed," says Alisa Parker, Parker’s daughter and a local attorney.  "It’s been hard. It’s been exhilarating. But it’s been a really good thing."

His children suggested he call it Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E. (Pursue Leadership and Community Engagement) and so, with a board in place comprised of his children, Alisa, Nicole, Teleshia and Tiffany Parker, Calvin Harley and Jamar Johnson, and his niece, TaKarra Dunning, along with community members, Aaryn Wilson and Tanya Wilson, the organization was born.

Heading into its fifth year, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E. has become a highly successful community-building organization on the Northside through its programming and events. It continues to add to its initial programming, which included the Youth Basketball League (YBL), 3 on 3 Basketball Tournament, a Memorial Day Parade co-organized with Sunrise Rotary Club and the Greater Kalamazoo Judo Association. 

They’ve since added a Northside Trunk or Treat, which last year drew more than 1,500 participants, a Double Dutch Competition, Bow Ties and Ballroom, which is a fundraiser featuring Urban Ballroom dance, and a Mother Son Dance. In the future, plans are to add Track and Field and Golf programs, as well.

All of Parker’s kids are successful, but each in his or her own way. And each of their individual gifts, which they bring to the board of Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., have contributed to helping to further the organization’s mission.

"My kids wanted to bring back those programs they grew up on because they meant so much to them.

"They’re better programmers than I am," Parker says, laughing. "I will put some things down, Nicole will make her adjustment, Alisa will make her adjustment, then it comes back to me. 'Did I say this?' They make me sound like a professor."

The three gates of basketball: Learning, competition, recreation

Charlie Parker has thought a lot about athletics and leadership. Photo by Dontae TravierParker is a thinker. He’s thought a lot about athletics and a lot about leadership. He sees sports, like basketball, as a lifelong vocation that helps develop a person’s character and sense of community.

He divides these areas into learning, competition, and recreation. The learning involves developing both individual skills and teamwork. The competition helps improve those skills and foster cooperation. And the recreation is the fun. "Basketball is something you can always do," Parker says. "As you get older, you can go in the backyard and shoot for the heart and lungs."

The Youth Basketball League started with 10 teams and has grown to 37, including 4th through 9th-grade leagues, growth Parker credits to his daughter Tiffany, who is the YBL Commissioner.

"We have so many kids, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts who come to the games," says Parker, smiling fondly. "We have people in wheelchairs, people on crutches, that come out to watch their nieces and nephews and grandchildren play ball. The YBL has brought together that family. 

"I want parents and kids to have a talking piece," Parker says.

Parker’s involvement doesn’t stop with the organizing. He believes in modeling respect and support so he can often be found policing the gym for trash talk and negativity.

"I walk around the gym and say, ‘I don’t want to hear any negative things,'" he says. "I want positive things. Positive things. If you have nothing positive to say, you keep your mouth shut. We’re not going to discourage kids right now. I don’t care how many times they miss the ball."

Without the roots, no fruit

The Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E. logo is a large shade tree with roots that stretch beneath, and which are as broad as significant as the canopy. 

"These are the roots we are trying to seed," Parker says, referring to the organization’s programming and mission. "You have to have strong, strong roots in order to have the fruit."

A third-degree black belt in Judo, and a skilled Urban Ballroom dancer, Parker brought along his six children to all the activities and programs he helped facilitate when they were young. They went everywhere from Y Ball practices to the Northside Neighborhood Watch Meetings.

"We practically lived at the Y," says Alisa, who laughs when she admits she was named Miss Activity by her Kalamazoo Central graduating class. "It’s hard for me to really sit still. But I’m grateful for all we were exposed to. At the Neighborhood Watch meetings, I could see people in our neighborhood who love it and are working hard for the community and that became the counter-narrative."

Each of Parker’s children was required to take judo until they were 12 when they were encouraged to continue or to participate in school sports. Consequently, they all earned black belts, as well. 

"Now they want to go back to Judo," says Parker, who still practices and teaches the art which he credits for guiding him in to recognize harmony and balance, principles that he applied to raising his kids and to all he’s undertaken. 

When his children were growing up (and even now), Parker is asked a recurring question: Why are your kids so popular?

He says he and his now ex-wife, Crystal Cunningham, focused on four areas for their children: academics, athletics, art, and spirituality. 

"I think my balance came from martial arts," says Parker. "You need that harmony. When you’re off, you know it. If you have a bad day, you can feel it. So I tried to make sure my kids were always in balance.

"When they got tired of my mouth, they could pray, they could run, they could read, they could act."

Sisters in Business

Parker’s daughters, inspired by his model of community engagement and leadership, have branched off to their own areas of nonprofit innovation. Last year, the four Parker sisters launched Sisters in Business, a nonprofit networking and resource hub for business ventures by women of color. For their first brunch, they hoped to have 20 attend; instead, they gathered 55. At a similar brunch in April, the event drew over 100 women from across Southwestern Michigan.

In addition to their nonprofit work, each Parker sister has her own business, a practice encouraged by their father who advised his children to diversify the way they make money: Above and Beyond Designs (Tiffany); Teleshia's House of Styles, and ANP Consulting (Alisa and Nicole).

Sisters in Business was inspired by a need for mutual support and business networking among women of color in the area. Nicole, who earned a Masters from George Mason University in Virginia, spent time studying "the missing piece in the narrative regarding women of color in social innovation," says Alisa.

The State of Women-Owned Businesses Report identified black women as the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in 2015, leading the way in number and revenue growth, according to Forbes Magazine. "Even though you have the number of black women growing in these areas at these high rates, they are still getting the least amount of resources from venture capitalists," says Alisa. 

"It’s been an incredible experience," says Alisa about starting Sisters in Business with her sisters. "We do not always get along. We argue, we fight. It happens," she says. "But I’m also not going to throw my sister away because we don’t see eye to eye. I’m going to show up and ask, How can we support each other?"

"I’m pretty proud of them," Parker says of what his daughters have accomplished. "They’ve pulled together. They’ve helped other businesses. And I’m looking forward to seeing where it will go."

A place for Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E.

It's common to hear among the parents and youth of the Northside that young people need a place to gather for recreation in the neighborhood. The Douglass Community Center has a gym and large meeting room, which is often used, but residents say they want more opportunities for recreation.

Presently, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E. activities, such as the Youth Basketball League and Basketball Camp, take place at the gyms of Hillside Middle School or Linden Grove Middle School, Parker’s former place of employment where he was an Achievement and Behavior Support Specialist. The dances sponsored by the organization have taken place at the Radisson and the Western Michigan University Bernhard Center Ballroom. 

Parker and his board have exciting plans to build their own facility, a home for Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., located on the Northside, to provide space for their programming and serve as a recreational and event-related hub for the community.

Calvin Harley, Charlie’s son and a certified architect, has designed a building that has three gyms, two for practices and league games, and one larger one for tournaments; two large gathering rooms, one for less than 100 people and one for over 100 people; as well as individual classrooms for leadership training and other courses. 

In addition to the current programming, Parker would also like to see the facility become home to academic support, pre-college access, nonprofit and business planning, mentorship, life skills and leadership classes.

Plans are to have the facility operational within the next four years, says Parker. The board is currently looking at some possible locations. "We don’t want to be in the middle of the community, we want to be on the outskirts," he says. "We don’t want to bring traffic through the neighborhood, either vehicles or walking. That’s something I’m very sensitive to because I respect the neighborhood."

While the organization hopes to be awarded some grants and funds to launch construction, Parker and his board envision Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E. as a self-sustaining recreational, event and learning facility.

Currently, the cost for participating in the Youth Basketball League is $35, which is very low for participation compared to other athletic leagues. But Parker hopes to maintain the facility through rental, programming, and membership fees. 

"It’s hard to do what you need to do when you’re chasing money," he says. "I’m also a firm believer that if you pay, you appreciate. We’re not going to ask an arm and a leg."

A place for Charlie

When Parker was growing up as the oldest of 12 children, he fell in love with a house on Krom Street across from where he first lived with his aunt after his family moved from Mississippi when he was five. Part of the appeal was the house stood on a large lot.

For 10 years, the Krom Street house stood vacant. In 1982, married and with a family of his own, Parker inquired and found that the house was available. One day before it was condemned, he signed the purchase agreement and then began rehabilitating it.

"Our yard was the yard where everybody came to play," says Alisa. "Eventually we had a yard big enough that our whole childhood imagination could be fulfilled."

As he has done for his own children, the children of the Northside, and all the children he comes in contact with throughout the programs that he leads, Charles Parker has held a high bar and encouraged others to reach and surpass it.

As a Northside resident for over 60 years, Parker remembers when LaCrone Park had a swimming pool and clubhouse and when gas stations and mom and pop stores were on practically every corner. 

The Northside, he says, is often misrepresented and misunderstood. He says his street is a place of mixed races, white, Hispanic, black and interracial.  In addition, he says, "You have a lot of blacks living here that are doing great things. That story doesn’t get told.

"I love the Northside. I choose to live on the Northside," says Parker. "I grew up here and my kids grew up here and I have successful kids.

"I always tell people, North is up. We don’t go down to the North side," he says. "You go down South, but North is up."

And that’s always been the direction Charlie Parker looks.

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Northside” series amplifies the voices of Northside Neighborhood residents. Over four months, Second Wave journalists will be in the Northside Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.

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Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.