Battle Creek's Neighborhood Planning Councils are back with a focus on greater diversity, inclusion

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

The city’s Neighborhood Planning Councils are gearing up for in-person meetings that were paused during the pandemic and among their priorities is ensuring that their representation reflects the residents in their neighborhoods, says Chris Lussier, Community Development Manager for the City of Battle Creek.
 
Now the challenge is making sure the makeup of the Neighborhood Planning Councils better reflects communities they represent.

“The age piece is a big challenge. In some NPCs there’s a lack of broad representation. It might look like they have a lot of people from one side of a neighborhood and not others,” Lussier says. “It can differ by NPC, but it’s fair to say about all of them that they really want to strive for good representation from all parts of the neighborhood and that doesn’t always happen.”
 
For all kinds of reasons, Lussier says getting young people involved is a challenge, though many are homeowners in these neighborhoods.
 
Do young people have other ways of relaying concerns? Are they sharing information online or on social media, instead? And are the formal processes used by NPCs something that they’re comfortable with? These are questions that Lussier is asking.
 
Finding the most effective ways to have public engagement is key to ensuring that the work of NPCs continues to be meaningful and representative of their stakeholders, he says.
 
Pastor Joe Hooper stands inside Faith Temple Church of God in Christ on North Washingon Avenue.“Some of the NPCs still rely on mailings and some of them have moved to try email and some are using social media better than others,” he says. “Some have found ways to loop people in without them being on an NPC. NPCs have experimented with that. I’ve been pretty closely connected with NPCs because of my role with the city. I was involved with lots of other NPCs evolving and over time things have changed.”
 
Michelle Salazar has a professional and personal stake in the NPCs. She and her fiancé recently purchased a home in the city and she will be providing support to the NPCs as part of her job as a Community Development Specialist with the city. She says the re-start of the NPCs meetings and their work will be the first time she’s seen them in action.
 
Salazar says she thinks the ideas and needs of younger people are going to differ from those who have been members of NPCs for many years.
 
Like Lussier, she asks, “What is going to attract younger generations to be part of NPCs?”

A view inside the sanctuary of the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ.Leaders and members of NPC 2 say they were able to get young people from their neighborhoods involved with the creation of a Splash Pad at Claude Evans Park that opened in July 2021.
 
Pastor Joe Hooper, Chair of NPC 2 and leader of Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, says they were very intentional about bringing young people into the conversations.
 
“We centered in on the young people immediately and went to them in the neighborhood and asked if that was something they’d like to see in the park,” Hooper says. “They told us they would use it and thought it was a pretty good idea.”
 
However, he says it continues to be a challenge and an effort to get younger voices into his NPC. And those times when younger people have participated it has required compromise between them and older members.
 
“We’ve had a few projects and some of the literature created by our young people kind of shook up the older members. I said, ‘Hey young people want to do it their way,’” Hooper says. “We came to a happy medium and that gave them a place in the council where they expressed themselves. They know that we will consider any desires they have as being valued.” 
 
Then again, it’s not just about getting younger people involved, for Lussier, Salazar and NPC leaders, it’s also about engaging the BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) communities.
 
Pastor Joe Hooper stands in front of Faith Temple Church of God in Christ on North Washingon Avenue.What’s going to create a welcoming environment for people of different backgrounds? Salazar asks.
 
“We see an increase in Black and Latinx home ownership,” she says. “We need a diversity in the NPCs because the city is heavily reliant on these people to bring issues to the table and we need to support them. 

“I would like to encourage people to check out their NPCs and encourage current members to be open to other ideas. It can be difficult to have conversations with people in neighborhoods. I would like to see how we can as a collective get more diversity in the NPCs.”

In the eight years that Kathy Antaya has been involved with NPC 5, focused on Urbandale, she says there has been little diversity in representation from residents.
 
Faith Temple Church of God in Christ uses parts of nearby Claude Evans Park for some of its ministries.“The NPCs overall demographic skews older, white, and conservative,” says Antaya who was elected Chairperson of NPC 5 just before the pandemic. “It’s a lot of old Battle Creek people and we need to figure out why what the NPCs do is not getting to a different demographic. If we always do what we’ve always done we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten, which is lovely, white folks doing good stuff. We’re not intending to leave an audience out. I want to work with others to ensure everyone has a voice, especially my BIPOC neighbors.”
 
A history of successes
 
As leaders of NPCs and city staff who support their work come up with ways to ensure diversity and broader representation, they also are focused on continuing to address residents' concerns and finding solutions.
 
The City of Battle Creek is divided into eight residential neighborhood council areas:

NPC #1 - Post/Franklin

NPC #2 - North Central

NPC #3 - Central

NPC #4 – Northeast

NPC #5 – Urbandale

NPC #9 – Rural Southwest

NPC #10 – Westlake/Prairieview

NPC #11 – Minges Brook/Riverside
 
NPCs 1-5 all have meetings scheduled for this month, with the remaining three expected to begin again in 2023, Lussier says.
 
Since Neighborhood Planning Councils began 50 years ago, their work has resulted in changes to city policies, blight remediation, beautification projects, and the addition of amenities in neighborhoods, among other initiatives.
 
In NPC 2, bounded by Limit Street to the west, Coolidge Street to the north, Lafayette Street to the south, and North Avenue to the east, this work has included cleanup projects to get rid of yard waste and debris; the installation of outdoor lighting at residential properties; porch beautification involving the installation of new doors and steps; and neighborhood beautification that included planting shrubs and flowers and laying down wood chips.
 
The most recent NPC 2 project was the installation of the Splash Pad. Hooper says the $143,000 cost to build the Splash Pad was covered by contributions from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, the city, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
 
Hooper, who became involved with NPC 2 in 2010, says the work done by NPCs has teeth to it and is respected by the city.
 
“These neighborhood planning councils are advisors to the city and city commissioners do take the NPCs seriously,” Lussier says. “If someone puts forward a project idea with them, they’ll ask if that individual has taken the idea to their NPC to get feedback and input.”
 
During John Godfrey’s tenure as Mayor, Lussier says he remembers Godfrey requesting that residents with ideas about projects start their conversations with their NPCs before bringing it to him and the commission.
 
Lussier says many city commissioners wanted to get the NPCs started again. “Commissioners really wanted to have this in place,” he says. “NPCs are seen as a place where residents’ concerns and sentiments are important.”
 
Sometimes, he says, that work doesn’t always go well. It can be messy because people are talking about things that they’re passionate about, he says.
 
But, the majority of outcomes have led to positive change in the city, including the support of legislation that resulted in the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority, the city’s Rental Registration Ordinance, and its Vacant Building Ordinance.
 
“We’ve had city officials right there with us. If we run into a snag they’re there for support and to help guide us through,” Hooper says.  “The city sends us resources to help us gain a little more knowledge about what elements of projects we needed to know more about and that was invaluable when it comes to running a program.”
 
The NPCs exist by City Charter and were set up by the city as advisory groups to the City Commission. Their meetings are public and led by elected chairs and vice-chairs. The agendas and minutes from meetings are taken and posted on the city’s website.
 
Their meetings are less formal than city commission meetings with residents having opportunities to talk and provide feedback throughout, Lussier says.
 
City staff, officers with the Battle Creek Police Department who routinely patrol each of the NPCs and the City Commissioner representing areas of the city that are part of an NPC in addition to NPC leadership and residents all attend, Lussier says. Law enforcement officials bring a public safety report and discuss trends that are surfacing, officials with the city’s fire department may attend to talk about a new program they may be offering, and representatives with the Public Works Department may talk about seasonal work like snowplowing.
 
Antaya says it’s rare when her NPC meetings don’t include at least one city commissioner. She says City Commissioner Kristen Blood, who represents NPC 5, came up through the NPC ranks as a resident member before running for a seat on the City Commission and being elected.
 
“You can get a great first experience with city government through the NPCs,” Antaya says.
 
“I think for city government, anytime we can be working with representatives from a neighborhood to understand what their priorities are and what’s important to them, it allows us to direct our resources,” Lussier says. “City staff can benefit. When we need to connect with the public, understand priorities, or communicate with folks, NPCs give us a place to go. It’s an easy way to get feedback from people who care. They represent a great partnership with local governments and neighborhoods.”
 
If you were to ask someone why they got involved with an NPC, Lussier says the overwhelming reason is that they want to make a difference and have opportunities to partner with other groups and organizations and the city.
 
“I want to help make Battle Creek a place where everybody is welcome who wants to live, play and work here,” Antaya says. “I’m grateful that the city came up with the idea for the NPCs. The city works hard at promoting the NPCs, but somehow they need to figure out how to reach that broader audience that seems to be missing from the conversation.”
 
Hooper says he often hears people complaining about how things don’t change.
 
“One of the reasons things don’t change is people don’t get involved. We must become the change we want to see and that has helped keep me on track,” Hooper says. “We must be willing to get involved to bring about that change. When someone tells me nothing happens, I tell them, ‘Well, you’ve got to get involved.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.