Battle Creek

Leonard Harris encouraged by the changes he sees in the world and how hearts are changing

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

Leonard Harris is not a visible community activist. His work to change people’s hearts and minds happens quietly – one person at a time.

Harris, who retired 10 years ago from a 34-year career in finance with the Kellogg Company, spends his days volunteering with organizations including the Battle Creek chapter of the NAACP and working part-time with Guardian Finance and Advocacy. He also is a member of one of the city’s oldest book groups, Sacred Conversations, which selects reading material focused on issues of social justice.

Each week, he meets with a group of 13 women and one other man, to engage in honest and far-ranging discussions about the book they happen to be reading. The exchanges are never boring and sometimes involve difficult conversations among a group that includes Black and White members.

“Sometimes, the conversations are difficult, mainly because most of the books we read have to do with social justice,” Harris says. “Not everyone thinks the same and has had the same experiences. We’ve never had a total disagreement. No one has ever stormed off upset. We just don’t have big disagreements.”

Leonard Harris does most of his reading on a tablet.During the five years that he’s been in the book group, he says he has learned that people have had vastly different experiences than he’s had.

“All of my life I’ve been around white people and I’ve talked to many, many people and have experienced a wide range of thoughts about social justice. Nothing we discuss in the book group is new to me. I see it as a way to open the eyes of other people to what goes on in the hearts and minds of Black people and we try to touch people outside of the book group as much as we can,” Harris says. “We don’t touch hundreds of lives but we touch individuals here and there. If I can touch one person and change their heart and mind, that’s an accomplishment.”

Without much fanfare, they also support requests from organizations such as a food pantry that didn’t have paper products as one of the members discovered while dropping off items. After the group learned about this, they “flooded” three food pantries with donations of paper products. 

They've also donated socks and gloves to different community organizations; rolled bandages for use by church missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo; provided financial support to the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama and funded local women who teach female immigrant detainees housed at the Calhoun County Jail.

“We’re not just coming together to read books,” said Martha Brown, a retired Federal Center employee, earlier. “We see a need and we rise to the occasion.”

Leonard Harris is reading Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.”In August 2019, they rose to the occasion to honor the lives of those lost in shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, by holding high big red hearts on the I-94 overpass on Capital Avenue. Every January for the past four years they have been displaying those same hearts to coincide with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation initiative and Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations and observances. When they engage as a group in these social justice efforts, they call themselves the “Street Hearts.”

These in-person activities have been put on hold as have the group’s face-to-face meetings. They began meeting virtually in early 2020 when masks and social distancing became the norm. The majority of its members are retired. Harris sets up the weekly gatherings which used to be held at the Second Missionary Baptist Church.

Always with people who didn’t look like me

Harris grew up in Buchanan, which was at that time a predominantly White community, and says he likely never knew what racism was as a child. He lived with his family in a neighborhood that was 95 percent African-American.

In a nod to his hometown, Harris points out that Buchanan was named 2020’s Nicest Place to Live in America by Reader’s Digest magazine.

“I think I was a little bit too young to realize and I don’t remember any overt racism,” he says. “Everything I remember about Buchanan was that there was a movie theatre where Black people sat in the balcony and White people sat on the main floor. There was a sweets shop where kids went after school, but Black people did not go there. There was an incident before my time and we knew not to go there.”

His childhood, by his account, was uneventful. His mother was a stay-at-home mom for many years and his father worked for Clark Equipment in Buchanan. Harris says he was used to being among the city’s minority residents.

“I didn’t really see any challenges. We were poor but everyone around us was in the same situation, but it didn’t seem to have any detrimental effects on us,” he says. “We did what we had to do and worked as much as we could. After school, there were odd jobs. I worked in a grocery store for a couple of years while going to junior college.”

He attended Lake Michigan Community College after being discharged from the Army where he served for four years in their Security Agency and worked in Communications Research. At the time, he says, “Vietnam was pretty hot and I was at the age where I would have been drafted and I asked the recruiter for a job to keep me out of Vietnam.”

After learning what he needed to know and meeting the requirements, he had his choice of duty stations and settled on Japan. He says that like most natives living near a military base, the Japanese people wanted the money soldiers would spend, but weren’t happy that they were occupying their country. He made a point of learning Japanese and struck up a friendship with a farmer who offered him tea and something to eat when he would stop to visit during motorcycle rides he took through the countryside.

“I didn’t have the attitude of being a rich American and that made life easier there,” Harris says.  

“Certainly, there were jokes and different things like that, but I didn’t let that bother me,” he says of his time in the Army. “In basic training, I was in a unit with guys from the Dakota’s, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and some of those guys had never been close to a Black person before. They had a lot of curiosity, at the same time, I did not experience any racial incidents.”

Upon his return, he earned his Associate’s degree and moved to Battle Creek in 1972. His mother had suggested he could work for his brother, who owned a gas station here at the time in exchange for a place to stay. He lived with his brother and attended Western Michigan University where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Accounting in 1974.

By this time he was married. His wife, Nancy, had family in Battle Creek and the couple decided to make their home here. He took a job at Kellogg and says he felt very fortunate to work there even though he once again found himself in the minority.

“There were a few Black people there at the time. As time went on more and more came on, of course,” Harris says.

Any mentoring that took place was done informally with Black employees having conversations among themselves. Since then, more formal programs have been put in place as the company worked to become a more diverse and inclusive employer.

His experiences early on as one of the few Black people in the room helped him to navigate through his early years with Kellogg.

“My whole life had been that way,” Harris says.

Nothing to compare it to

“Battle Creek for me has been an OK place to live. I haven’t lived that many places so I don’t have much to compare it to,” Harris says. “I have not had any major problems myself. Job opportunities are limited, but there appears to be quite a bit of community support for individuals who want and need that support. There can always be improvements.”

One area of change that he’d like to see is more opportunities for young Black people to learn a skilled trade.

“That’s an area where most Black people have been shut out. You can make a decent wage and it doesn’t require a four-year degree. It’s important to help young people feel like they can accomplish something,” Harris says.

African-Americans make up 6.2 percent of those in construction, including both skilled and unskilled labor; while Latinos were at 30.7 percent and Asians were at 2 percent, according to an article on the NLC Service Line website.

“Meanwhile, African-Americans had the highest unemployment rate nationally at the end of 2018, at 6.5 percent, followed by Latinos at 4.5 percent and Asians at 3.2 percent – all while there were skilled trade jobs that needed to be filled. This is why it is important to encourage women and minorities to enter into the skilled trades,” the article says.

Harris is hopeful that Michigan Reconnect, a new program that will offer Michigan residents 25 and older a tuition-free education at a community college, will encourage more minorities to earn a Skilled Trades certification or further their educations in other areas so they can get good-paying jobs.

He has worked with the community’s young people as a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and a tutor through his church, Mt. Zion A.M.E., and knows how important it is for them to see that they can have successful careers and good lives.

As the father of two, both adults in their 40s, Harris says he thinks their generation and those that will follow are more accepting of people who don’t look like them.

“Their lives are different than ours. They’re more accustomed to people who look different and come from different backgrounds. Our kids were raised in Pennfield and were always one of a few Black students in all of their classes. They’ve always been in that situation,” Harris says. “We tried to raise them in a community that mirrored the society they were going into.”

But, that mirror-image is changing and Harris says he is encouraged by that.  

“I think a lot of the problem comes from a lack of knowledge and experience. When the other person realizes that ‘my life is very similar to that person’s life and we may live in different neighborhoods but we have much in common’, I think that is when we see other people not as enemies, but as common American citizens. It’s difficult to change minds without changing hearts.”

While there are many ways to do this, he says book groups like his are something he wishes more people would establish because of the open and honest dialogs they encourage, something that he says is so important given the political climate the country finds itself in.

“I believe it takes time to change attitudes and beliefs and something like a book group is a good place to make those changes,” Harris says. “The more you’re around people who are different than you, the more you begin to understand what you have in common. It takes time to make that change. In the end, it’s worth it.”

Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.

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.