Battle Creek

New Battle Creek City Commissioners are learning what their constituents want them to tackle

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

The recent election of five women, three of whom are Black, to Battle Creek’s City Commission, is a “big change”, but one that’s not surprising, says Andrew Grossman, a Political Science Professor with Albion College.

“If you think about it, Calhoun County is very conservative and it’s interesting because it is a semi-rural area dotted with towns that are more diverse socioeconomically by age, entrepreneurial efforts, and ethnic backgrounds,” Grossman says. “You’re looking at much more diverse small towns and with that, you get that opportunity for local politics to work. The local politics of Battle Creek is changing because of the mobilization of younger voters and the grassroots, bottom-up approach.”

Those younger voters represent a generational divide that is taking root in small-town local elections first before spreading on a larger scale, Grossman says. He often asks the 19- and 20-year-olds that he teaches if people in their mid-70’s running for President speak to them. Their answer – a resounding “no.”

“2024 is when my generation is done. There are going to be fewer and fewer people that look like me and are my age, and more people who will look more like the city commission in Battle Creek,” he says.

Of the five new city commissioners, Jenasia Morris represents a perfect example of what Grossman refers to. Morris, who is 21, couldn’t even vote in the last Presidential election because she was only 17-years-old. She says that voting for the first time and seeing her name on the ballot was “exciting” for her.

Like her fellow newly-elected commissioners, Morris has deep roots in the community and joins four veteran commissioners – Kaytee Ferris, Sherry Sofia, Jim Lance, and Mayor Mark Behnke. 

Grossman says people here tend to know their neighbors and will commiserate with each other, something that transcends race. “Skin color doesn’t play as much of a role as socioeconomic status,” he says. 

“If you are a lower-class White or African American, the two of you have a lot in common. All of the gripes and grievances affect people on that same range. They want the opportunities to develop what they’ve been promised for 25 years and they want to take a shot at making change.”

Grossman, who lives in Marshall, says people have been hearing these promises since he first moved here in 1995, and “they don’t come true and people get tired.

“It seems like Battle Creek can’t get beyond a certain point and that frustration took place at the voting booth. In a ruby red county, you can get change left of center as opposed to right of center. Maybe you need to do something differently because what you’ve been doing gets us to the threshold of success, but you don’t get that oomph.”
 
The ‘oomph’ makers profiled

Boonikka Herring, Ward 3 City Commissioner, instructor for Lifelong Learning seasonal classes at Kellogg Community College and a Racial Healing practitioner with Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation.

Boonikka HerringWhat made you decide to run for elected office?
I’ve done quite a bit of community work over the last 15 years. I’ve sat on nonprofit boards and a ton of committees and I felt like I needed to do more. One day my daughter and I were sitting around talking and I said, “I need to be more involved in the community.” I had someone call me the next day to say, “Hey, you should run for City Commission.”
I was running unopposed. There were 57 write-in votes. I was not surprised that I won.

How would you describe your Ward’s demographics?
My Ward is Fremont and Verona and part of the Post Addition which has some pretty jagged cuts as far as the boundaries I represent. I think it’s pretty much working class. I lived over on the east end of the city for nine years and it was a pretty diverse area with Hispanics, Burmese, White, and Black residents. It was a pretty diverse neighborhood and I feel like my Ward is pretty diverse too.

When you were campaigning what did residents of Ward 3 identify as their concerns?
I had quite a few who reached out to me. They said safety in the neighborhoods, lighting, street and road issues, stop signs covered by overgrown bushes and trees were their main concerns. It actually made me get out and drive along Fremont where I saw 12 streetlights that were out and an area that was completely dark. In speaking with some of the local officials, I think I sit in an area where there’s a lot of vandalism and drug activity. I think a lot of that could be deterred by improving the lighting situation. A lot of people in my Ward brought up vandalism and break-ins going on. I think starting to fix the lights would deter a lot of that.

What will be your main focus as a new commissioner?
I want to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can. This is my first time running for elected office. I think the group of people who have been brought into the City Commission are very active in the community and community-minded. I’m happy that we do have a couple of returning commissioners who will help guide us.

Safety concerns are a big issue and that’s my top priority. The access to affordable housing is a huge concern citywide. On this side of town, a lot of people are looking for houses, but there’s just not a lot out there. The ones that are here are in bad shape. I’ve watched so many houses torn down on the east side of town and wonder how many could have been rehabbed for a family or two families to live in.

What are the biggest issues facing the city?
The budget for the city is in a big deficit and that’s definitely a little harder to control with COVID becoming a huge issue again and the tightening down on state guidelines to help prevent the spread. As someone with an immune disorder, it’s a concern for me. People are acting like nothing is going on. And then there are those that don’t want to leave their homes. It’s definitely a challenge, but there are things that still need to be done.

What do you want people to know about you?
I want people to know that I’m accessible. I’m always out in public and reachable. I want them to feel free to stop me and I check my email all day long so that I don’t miss anything. I want people to know who their commissioners are. I am approachable and I am available. I’m just another community member and I want people to know that they can talk to me.

Kathy Szenda Wilson, Ward 4 City Commissioner, Co-Executive Director of BC Pulse.
 
What made you decide to run for elected office?
Lynn Ward Gray, outgoing Vice Mayor and Ward 2 City Commissioner, called me after several other folks had called me and asked me to run. She said, “If we want to address the real issues in this community from a systemic and equitable lens we need people like you.” I had to take a weekend and talk to my family and my work family and when I knew I had the support I needed, there were no barriers to running.

Kathy Szenda WilsonI’d be lying if I said that I saw this path for myself always. We are at a particular moment in history where I had to weigh where my own personal trajectories around my career were going and I knew that it was going to have to take a backseat to public service. In addition to leading BC Pulse I have over the last several years been leading workshops and learning opportunities for people across the country and I’ve actually shifted the language from simply being trauma-informed to more healing-centered approaches. I am joining a commission with folks who are committed to making sure the community works for all and not some. This vote was a referendum. 

How would you describe your Ward’s demographics?
I know that it is pretty equally divided from a political perspective. I think it is a predominantly working- and middle-class neighborhood. There are more homeowners than renters. I don’t know about demographics like race and age. That is information I’m digging into now.

When you were campaigning what did residents of Ward 4 identify as their concerns?
It varied significantly. A lot of it depended on the groups that brought candidates together like the Urban League, Burma Center, and VOCES. They wanted to know how we were going to address the ICE detention facility in our community and language barriers so everyone has access to things the city provides. Is it available in Spanish and Burmese and not just on the city’s website, but also in interactions with the city staff and leadership? We know that nationally one of the things in our face is the issue of racial injustice and we need to know what we’re doing to be more proactive and position ourselves in a way so that we make sure the things we’re witnessing across the country don’t happen here.

I had people tell me they don’t like the bike lanes or pointing out that there was no stop sign on a particular corner. There’s also a lot of frustration about the pickup of yard waste.

What will be your main focus as a new commissioner?
I want to bring a focus on systems change and helping my fellow commissioners to focus on the root causes we’re facing. When we can do that, decisions are much more informed. I want to highlight the importance of us understanding how well our young children are doing. I want to make this a safe community for children to thrive. What this pandemic has really shown is how completely dependent we are on an early childhood system. We need to lift up racial inequities and collect aggregated data so that the decisions made are informed by those who are impacted most.

What are the biggest issues facing the city?
Budget challenges, that’s absolutely going to be a priority issue and challenge for us. That coupled with a learning curve because those of us who have never served before will have to depend on those who have been there to help us learn and understand. I’m glad we already have participatory budgeting.”

(Participatory budgeting is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Participatory budgeting allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent.)

The bones are already there so we can see how this is going to be an accessible process so decisions aren’t made arbitrarily and we can minimize the pain where we can so it doesn’t exacerbate inequities,” Szenda Wilson says. 

We need to start some healing among the community. How do we create a sense of community amidst this unbelievable polarization? I want us to prioritize what it looks like to do that healing and build some bridges. From an economic development standpoint, we need to figure out how we’re going to create more equitable and accessible business opportunities. I do know enough people who have tried to do things in this town and they've run up against barriers. We have to look at it all from a lens of racial equity. Folks of color are over-represented in being unable to overcome those barriers. 

What do you want people to know about you?
I will work tirelessly on their behalf to make sure there is a seat at the table for them. I will do everything I can to bring an equitable and systemic lens to my work on the commission.

Kristin Blood, Ward 1 Commissioner, works from home as an English language instructor to students around the world and tests and provides feedback on web-based prototypes.

Kristin Blood What made you decide to run for elected office?
I ran unsuccessfully in 2017. I started running back in 2017 because I realized that I could serve the community in broader ways and there were some issues I wanted to get involved with and help and be a way of supporting peoples' voices to be heard and I lost by 8 votes. That first time running, it was the issue of allowing chickens in the city limits that got me involved in discussions with the commission and providing them with information and facts. It got me thinking about what local politics could control and when I started learning about that I knew there was more that I could do here. That was my introduction to how local commissions really impact and drive your daily life.

Coming into this election cycle, it wasn’t in the forefront in my mind to run because I thought there was already another strong female candidate, but when she wasn’t able to run, I knew there was work that needed to get done and I decided to try again.

How would you describe your Ward’s demographics?
I think it has a unique demographic in the sense that it is divided around Springfield. We have a good diversity of demographics, not only with housing costs and incomes but also in ethnicity. We have great diversity here in our Ward, but you can see the dividing line as you travel from the numbered streets to the Urbandale area, which makes it clear in the demographics of race alone.

When you were campaigning what did residents of Ward 1 identify as their concerns?
I came across some who weren’t even aware there was a local election going on. They were more focused on state and national elections. When I engaged with them around what they wanted to see happen or what they were happy or unhappy with, I didn’t get very definitive answers because they didn’t realize the impact city government actually has on their lives. One couple said they would love it if their neighbors mowed their lawns. There were folks who asked what the city was going to do about property taxes. The voter engagement happened most often with online forums hosted by different organizations where questions were formulated around policies and practices.

What will be your main focus as a new commissioner?
Definitely helping to support and removing barriers around communication and understanding the language that goes into policies and ordinances. Most people can’t read legalese and that can make it frustrating for people who don’t understand that language. I also want to increase our levels of interaction as commissioners.

What are the biggest issues facing the city?
I have noticed that there seems to be a higher level of engagement to attend Zoom meetings, rather than coming in for meetings. I want to make more virtual opportunities available for those who can’t come down to City Hall so that they can call in and ask questions. I’m really looking at ways to heighten our engagement and build inclusivity where businesses, entrepreneurs, and residents really feel like they belong. I want this to be a place where everyone feels that sense of ownership and pride.

What do you want people to know about you?
I want to listen and learn. I can’t promise that I’m never going to make a mistake, but I can promise that I am going to listen, and process, and grow from my mistakes with as much grace as I’ve been given, I’d like the same from my constituents. I want people to know that I’m in it for the long haul to serve them and not just myself. This is a joint venture.

Jenasia Morris, Ward 2 City Commissioner, Literacy Tutor for First Grade at Lamora Park Elementary School and a student at Kellogg Community College majoring in Early Childhood Education.

Jenasia MorrisWhat made you decide to run for elected office?
There was nothing specific, it was a mixture of everything. Most of my community involvement is with youth organizations. I’ve done some work with the New Level Summer sports program. I do a lot of volunteering with the homeless and carry supplies in the trunk of my car so if I see a homeless person I can give them things like toothpaste, deodorant, or a toothbrush to give to the homeless. I get invited to a lot of events and I attend them and help out any way that I can.

With the current climate of politics and how it’s affecting our day-to-day lives, I decided this was a good time to step up. In addition to being the first time I’ve run for elected office, it is also the first time I could vote. The last election season I was only 17.

How would you describe your Ward’s demographics?
Ward 2 is predominantly Black and traditionally we’ve had the lowest voter turnout. I was really happy to see the large turnout and the age range of people voting. I think a lot of people were fired up. Just seeing how President Trump has handled our country in the last four years, it fired up me and my friends.

When you were campaigning what did residents of Ward 2 identify as their concerns?
Employment and housing and just more so what’s going on with what the City Commission is doing to address these issues. They were excited to know I was connected to youth and wanted to know what I am going to do for our youth.

What will be your main focus as a new commissioner?
Almost everybody I talked to said they didn’t know what city commissioners did. I want to be more transparent about what goes on and share it with them. I want to get more things for youth to do in our city. I also want to work on improving relationships between law enforcement and our community to make communications better and more transparent.

What are the biggest issues facing the city?
Definitely unemployment. I attribute that to COVID and the displacement of families to online school and the stay-at-home orders and quarantines. The city budget is another big issue. I don’t want there to be a big deficit.

What do you want people to know about you?
This is brand new and I’m glad I can reach out to Lynn Ward Gray to help me along the way. I think my age is a great thing because it brings a whole new perspective to the City Commission and gets more people my age involved. I want people to know that I’m willing to learn and I’m going to make mistakes, but I will always try to fix them.

Carla Reynolds, At-Large City Commissioner, employed with the State of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency.

Carla ReynoldsWhat made you decide to run for elected office?
I wanted to be a voice for my constituents in the city of Battle Creek. I was a County Commissioner and I learned so much about the County, but that did not help the city. I just wanted to be a part of a voice in this place that I live. I felt that as far as diversity goes, I would be able to bring my knowledge and different viewpoints to the commission.

When you were campaigning what did residents identify as their concerns?
I’m at-large so I don’t just represent (a certain) area, I represent the entire City of Battle Creek. Different areas have different concerns.

They talked about improving the dialog and communication with law enforcement. They also spoke about the need for affordable housing and about the infrastructure. I spoke to people all over the city. I had some people who were concerned about the education of their kids who want to make sure we provide the best curriculum so all of our students get the education they need. We’ve got a lot of obstacles to get over. This is a really stressful and hard time we’re going through right now.

What will be your main focus as a new commissioner?
With all that I saw going on in our country with all of the racial issues and with the pandemic, I want to see things happening here in Battle Creek. I want our downtown to be vibrant and I really want to work with our Chamber of Commerce leadership on more community events to bring our community together. I’m also very interested in providing affordable housing for seniors and veterans. I also would like to work with Realtors on homeownership as a path to creating personal wealth and work with small businesses to help them grow and prosper.

What are the biggest issues facing the city?
Navigating through the city’s budget will be challenging because of the Coronavirus and its impact on the city and the county. We don’t know what to expect and we’ll have to move forward based on the numbers we have. It will take people working together to get through this pandemic. Providing more affordable housing, creating an open dialog with law enforcement, and having more community events that engage the entire community also will be key.

What do you want people to know about you?
I’m approachable and will serve and work for the community and be a voice for my constituents. I will work and fight for them.

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.
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