Calhoun County

Michigan We Choose lifts up voices of members of Black and Brown communities

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

Sonya Brown was the lone voice of opposition among trustees on the Albion Board of Education who voted in 2016 to close the Albion Community Schools. While she knows that there’s nothing she can do to reverse this outcome, now she is lending her voice to a statewide organization to ensure that what happened in her hometown of Albion doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Shortly after school board trustees voted to annex their schools to Marshall, Brown, joined forces with Michigan We Choose, established to give members of the state’s Black and Brown communities a voice in decisions that directly impact their lives.
“These communities have always been vulnerable and have traditionally not been fairly represented or given a seat at the table where decisions are being made that impact their lives, often in negative ways,” says Brown, who works at Calhoun County’s Justice Center.
Proof that members of Michigan We Choose are lifting up their voices and being heard became clear after the city of Benton Harbor’s only high school was spared from a potential closure in 2019.
“We showed up when state education officials were threatening to close Benton Harbor’s high school,” Brown says. “People were watching. I don’t think our state legislators realized that keeping the high school open had the statewide support that it did.”
A large share of that support came from members with Michigan We Choose and national support from the Journey for Justice Alliance and other We Choose member organizations representing cities and states throughout the United States that are members of the Journey for Justice Alliance. These groups routinely show up where they’re needed to make sure those who stand to lose the most know that they are not alone, says Kamau Kheperu, a member of Michigan We Choose and a Community Organizer in Detroit.
Michigan We Choose members and community residents in Benton Harbor shown at a meeting to discuss the proposed closure of Benton Harbor High School.According to its website, the Journey for Justice Alliance launched in 2012 “in response to the growing problem of school privatization (starving of neighborhood schools, school closings, charter and contract school expansion, turnarounds) impacting cities across the United States.”
Brown says she got involved after reading comments from a board member with the Inkster School District who said that losing a school district is like losing the heart of the community. Those comments came after that school district was dissolved in July 2013. And Brown learned that a similar fate awaited Saginaw’s Buena Vista schools in July 2013.
She learned of these closures through research she had been doing in her role as an Albion school board trustee, and at the same time she discovered that the majority of people in these communities did not know that what they were experiencing was happening in other school districts across the state.
“Since the Inkster schools dissolved that school board member became a member of the Inkster City Council and she invited me to go to a Michigan We Choose meeting,” Brown says.
She organized a Michigan We Choose chapter in Albion after that meeting. The state organization has member cities throughout Michigan who meet regularly to share information about potential threats to the quality of life of marginalized individuals in communities throughout the state. It focuses its efforts on elevating their voices at the national level.
Among these efforts was a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2016 organized by the Journey for Justice Alliance to protest the appointment of then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who was nominated for that position by former President Donald Trump. Kheperu, of the Detroit chapter, says busloads of individuals with Journey for Justice state affiliates attended to support the national organization.
“We look at it this way. Folks get elected and sometimes the community trusts their judgement and doesn’t hold them accountable,” Kheperu says. “In order to hold them accountable a community has to know what’s going on. When a community questions legislators and sees that these elected officials aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do what’s the next move? Get this person out of office or what? People have to realize the power they have and not just sit back and hope for change. We’ve still got to hold these elected officials accountable. Let’s put a structure in place to hold them accountable.”
Michigan We Choose members and community residents in Benton Harbor shown at a meeting to discuss the proposed closure of Benton Harbor High School.As one more step towards this process of accountability, the Journey for Justice Alliance is hosting an event in the nation’s capital Sept. 22-24 focused on quality-of-life issues within marginalized communities throughout the United States. Kheperu says much of this event will include advocacy work and organizing.

In May, he says, Journey for Justice held a national convention in Baltimore, Md., where representatives from various We Choose cities and states came with their particular areas of expertise in sectors including affordable housing, food security, and employment with a goal to create a Quality-of-Life platform based on specific demands focused on various sectors.
 “That meeting was an opportunity for us to come together as a national collective and write down our concerns and take a list of demands to our state legislators and speak to them during our upcoming meeting in Washington,” Kheperu says. “Different We Choose member-states are going to meet with their legislators. We’re going to have a dialog and begin to build bridges. We want to nationalize our local work.”
Among the strongest and most effective statewide We Choose networks is one in New York. Kheperu says that coalition is “mean” in a good way because of the work they have done which included the election of Bill DeBlasio, a Democrat, as the mayor of New York City.
Sharing information, creating connections
Kheperu says there was no excuse for cities throughout Michigan to be unaware of what was taking place in the Inkster and Saginaw schools. He says Michigan We Choose is working to ensure that when closures like this are on the table, his organization will have a seat at that table and the opportunity participate in the dialog.
A Critical Conversation in Detroit led by Zakiyah Ansari, far left, who leads the We Choose coalition in New York.“What happened in Inkster made us realize that we’ve got to share our own individual stories and our solutions,” he says. “It was clear that we didn’t know what was going on. That sparked an interest in how can we have close proximity to city and not know what was going on in education in Black and Brown communities. What was going on was happening in isolation and we wanted to know how we could build a bridge to different cities where this was taking place.”
They created Listening Projects targeted at education and traveled to different cities where community members were given the opportunity to speak and give voice to their concerns and propose solutions. What Michigan We Choose representatives heard is that school systems were taken over by the state without community input, Kheperu says.
The first listening session in Albion happened in 2016, followed one year later by a Critical Conversations meeting with community members and State Rep. John Bizon and Calhoun County Commissioner Gary Tompkins, Brown says.
“The school is the hub in Black and Brown communities. If you close our schools it just tears our community up,” Kheperu says. “We as citizens in the community have to figure out not only how to pull people back together because now you’ve got people in community traveling other places to get their kids to school and back and they don’t have a lot of time to spare. It’s hard to pull them back together to talk to us.”
The majority of these individuals also don’t have jobs that offer the flexibility to engage with the work of Michigan We Choose, Brown says.
“With the people I talk to, education is still an important issue in Albion,” she says. “But housing is also an issue, particularly the lack of a variety of housing including affordable options and senior housing. When you don’t have a sustainable, viable, thriving school in your community it’s hard to attract people and companies that will create jobs and a tax base to fund different housing options. We want to highlight how all of these quality-of-life areas are so intertwined. Not having a school is affecting economic development, housing, jobs and so much more.”
Michigan We Choose also has broadened its scope to include a growing list of issues including disparities in economic prosperity, healthcare, the environment, investing in youth, housing, safety, senior care and food security which impact Black and Brown communities.
“Institutional racism is affecting all of those areas,” Kheperu says. “We want to stop working in silos and start working together. Even though these are different sectors, the root causes of the disparities are the same.”
Through their work in education, he says his group was able to find individuals already working in some of the other areas needing attention.
“Now that we know we have the same playbook in each different city with Black and Brown communities, it’s a matter of opening the channels, so if there’s something going on in Albion that needs our support we will be there.”
Brown says among her focuses with Michigan We Choose in Albion is training people to run for elected office so that they can work for the change they want to see. “That’s the way America was built,” she says.
Often people want to do something, but they just don’t know what to do or how to do it and that leads to frustration and the inclination to give up, Kheperu says. Michigan We Choose provides people with the support they seek to take action and make positive change, he says. 
Brown says even though she was a lone voice, she never thought about giving up.
“Being a lone voice is good but eventually you’re going to have to have support. If you feel supported you can do certain things that you couldn’t on your own,” Kheperu says. “The same is true for the cities who have joined us. You as a city, you’re not alone and we choose what’s best for us.”

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Jane Parikh 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.