Northside director says 'We the people' will continue to push for justice, liberty, and tranquility

KALAMAZOO, MI -- To understand Elizabeth Washington’s vision for the future of Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood, read the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.
It states: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The new executive director of the Northside Association for Community Development says, “I want it to continue: We the people, in order to make a more perfect union, increase the contributions and opportunities for all Americans.”
 Elizabeth Washington, new executive director of the NACD, meets neighborhood residents at a Friday, March 1, 2024 open house.NACD will continue to try to create a more perfect version of the American dream, Washington says, by working to make a reality of what the Constitution promises: justice, domestic tranquility; liberty; and the general well-being of all.
Access to those things has not always been available to people who live in low-income or core urban communities, she told about 300 neighborhood residents, community leaders, and others on Friday, March 1, 2024. Calling on her 16 years of work as a social studies teacher, she says such inequities and injustices have been a result of institutionalized policies, practices, structures, and norms that have favored some people over others.
But today's efforts are focused much more on equity, equality, inclusion, and diversity, in contrast to what was represented inside Independence Hall when a homogenous group of wealthy men penned the Constitution. With Elizabeth Washington as head of the organization, the Northside Association for Community Development will be part of efforts to promote justice, tranquility; liberty, and the well-being of all.
Over 300 people showed up to the NACD Open House to welcome Elizabeth Washington as the new NACD Director.“It’s a great opportunity to utilize all of the skills and things I’ve honed over the years from being an educator, working in the equity and inclusion space, and into the community health space — learning how to go from being a teacher to being a vice president of a healthcare system,” says Washington, who was named executive director of the 43-year old nonprofit organization in December.
“All of the learnings, I felt, have led me to this opportunity with an organization that is entirely driven by the people and for the people,” Washington says. “It’s not about me. It’s not about a company’s bottom line. It’s people in the neighborhood saying, ‘This is what we need and this is what we want (in order) to have a thriving, vibrant neighborhood. How can you help us do that?’”
Washington spoke Friday at an open house at NACD’s 612 N. Park St. location. Area residents and other community leaders had the occasion to meet and get to know her.
NACD Chairman Raymond Ryan, center, and his wife, NACD Treasurer Ronnetta Ryan, right, speak with some of the many people who attended the organization’s open house on Friday, March 1, 2024.“I’m excited about the future of the NACD,” says Raymond Ryan, who was elected chairman of the association’s board of directors on Feb. 20. He has served on the board for about two years.
“We just want to serve the community,” says Ryan. “So as Kalamazoo grows and changes, we want to make sure the Northside community is in a position to take advantage of some of the changes that are coming and also address some of the needs and concerns of the people that live in this community.”
Mentioning the organization’s development of four recently-built affordable homes, it’s free-and-clear ownership of the Park Street Market property (which ended a decades-old need for the neighborhood to have its own supermarket), and the potential for the association to build on properties that it has acquired, Ryan said, “The NACD, under (former director) Mattie Jordan-Woods, has done some great things. But under Elizabeth, I think we can still go forward.”
Elizabeth Washington, new executive director of the NACD, meets with well-wishers at NACD’s March 1, 2024 open house.Sidney Ellis, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, said he thinks Washington has a broad range of insights on life in the community, making her a great person to continue the work that was being done by Jordan-Woods.
“I think that she has a very clear idea of diversity and inclusion, which is needed for the Northside Neighborhood — not just to bring people in but to make the people who are here aware of the things that are around them that they can take advantage of,” says Ellis.
Jordan-Woods, who was praised by Washington at Friday’s event, says, “The organization is in great shape and I’m looking forward to them doing great things,” She retired from the NACD late last year after serving as its executive director for 36 years. She continues to work in the community as chairperson of the Northside Cultural Business Group.
Some 36 years of service by retiring NACD Executive Director Mattie Jordan-Woods, at center, was praised by was praised at NACD’s March 1, 2024 open house.Washington is a Kalamazoo native who attended Kalamazoo Central High School and graduated from Kalamazoo College with degrees in Human Resources and Relations and with a secondary certificate in Social Studies and English. She taught in the Niles, West Ottawa/Holland, and Kalamazoo public school systems. From 2015 until the end of 2022, she was vice president of Community Health, Equity & Inclusion at Bronson Healthcare.
She appears to have found her way into public service honestly. With a laugh, she says, “I was the babysitter everybody wanted.” And in elementary school, she was known to stick up for other children. In third grade, she found herself in the principal’s office at St. Augustine Cathedral School after she socked a fourth-grade boy for trying to bully a younger student.
As an adult, she says, “Every time I got a job, I ended up being the supervisor or some sort of training officer within two weeks. But it was always something with a human service component.”
Elizabeth Washington, new executive director of the NACD, addresses an open house gathering on Friday, March 1, 2024.As she ramps into her new role at NACD, she says she is spending time learning and updating the organization’s operations — replacing work that has been done with paper and stored in file cabinets, with work that is done on computers and stored in the clouds.
She worries about the potential impact that developments like the Kalamazoo events/athletic performance center (which is expected to be built just south of the neighborhood in downtown Kalamazoo) and the Hard Rock-brand hotel (the planned conversion of the former Gibson Guitars factory on its neighborhood’s northeast side) may have on the neighborhood. Such projects can give outsiders influence over adjacent areas.
“I want the people who live, work, play, and pray in this neighborhood to be able to continue to do that, without property being bought up and used in ways that are going to gentrify our neighborhood,” she says. So she wonders, “Can NACD move fast enough to create the environment so that the residents of our neighborhood are empowered to have that control over the neighborhood?”
At right, Elizabeth Washington, new executive director of the NACD, meets neighborhood residents at a Friday, March 1, 2024 open house.On Friday, she rekindled her years as a teacher of history, civics, and social studies to provide a primer on some of the social barriers that have held back African Americans and urban communities, including real estate redlining, unfair banking practices, and systemic racism. 

She says residents can’t solve all the problems that have impacted the community, “But we can decide right now, from this point forward, to do something totally different. We’re going to learn to talk and understand one another (and) find out where we’re all coming from so that we can create a more perfect union.”

She invited those in attendance to be the eyes and ears of the organization at the many public meetings that will sporadically consider issues that impact the neighborhood.
Wendy Fields, president of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of NAACP, is shown at NACD’s March 1, 2024 open house.“We’ve had a solid foundation laid by Mattie Jordan-Woods,” says Wendy Fields, president of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP. “But you know, as I know, the next person is always going to build and take us higher, better, farther. And that’s what I feel with any organization, mine included.”
So she says, “I am excited about where she’s (Washington is) going, where she's taking this place and the Northside. I’m just embracing and loving her vision.”
Mentioning affordable housing and plans made by the association long ago, Washington says, “The plan has been here: Increase the number of resident-owned businesses, especially those of African American and low-income residents; preserve existing housing; and build new housing to accommodate all residents’ needs.”
Increasing the number of owner-occupied homes is one of the four fundamental pillars of NACD that Washington says the organization will continue to pursue. The others are:
  • Training — Helping people improve their skills and find better jobs by utilizing workforce training classes and other educational sessions.
  • Health & Wellness — Encouraging a holistic approach to wellness that helps area residents remain healthy. It will acknowledge the needs of senior citizens, young children, blended families, and immigrant families. At Bronson Healthcare, Washington says she learned that the failure to find good housing, nutritious food, and a good-paying job can have a negative impact on any person’s health.
  • Economic Development — Encouraging growth through property ownership, unique business training opportunities, and workshops to help families build wealth.
“Nothing will change about those things,” says Washington of NACD’s focus on its pillars.
Elizabeth Washington, new executive director of the NACD, gets a warm hug at NACD’s March 1, 2024 open house.However, Artrella Cohn would like to see an increase in collaboration between NACD and other community organizations.

“The number one thing that I would love to see out of NACD — moving forward, is an increase in community collaboration,” says Cohn, who is senior director of Community Engagement and Student Investment for Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo. When organizations do things together, they do them better, she says.
“The community needs to see that we can do things together — that everybody is not trying to do their own thing," Cohn says. "There’s a lot of new nonprofits, especially in the world of K-12 education.”

Elizabeth Washington, new executive director of the NACD, meets with well-wishers at NACD’s March 1, 2024 open house.Speaking of young people who face the growing threat of gun violence, she says, “The more we coordinate resources and support for them, the less opportunities there will be for gaps for them to fall into because we’re not all speaking the same language.”
Some of the organizations that come to mind, Cohn says, are Community Advocates for Parents & Students (which has been at Interfaith Homes for about 18 years), The Douglass Community Association, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo, Young Kings & Queens, and youth programming done by local churches.
Dr. Kristi VanDerKolk, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, says almost everything about Washington makes her a good fit for her new role.
“She’s got a lot of experience working in the Kalamazoo community with a lot of individuals making space for discussions about things like structural racism and health equity and equity for the Black population in Kalamazoo,” VanDerKolk says. “So I think that she’s really positioned herself well in the community to make a difference here.”
Willie Mae Watkins is a longtime resident of z Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood who hopes NACD will continue to provide resources to help children.Willie Mae Watkins, a resident of Princeton Avenue since 1976, says she felt a need to introduce herself to the new director and let her know she has support. The NACD is important to her, Watkins says, “because we need people to support our children coming up.”
“I found out that a lot of children don’t know how to read and they live on the Northside,” Watkins says.
She is worried about whether a good location will be found to house the Alma Powell Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library. It was closed in February at the Douglass Community Association. Although there are plans to reopen it at another location, she and others have voiced concerns about when and where it will be reopened.
Fields says Washington is a good fit to lead the Northside Neighborhood’s lead organization "because Elizabeth, in my dealings with her, understands the significance of our history and bringing that perspective in. So when you’re talking about building equity and looking through a lens of equity, that historical piece that she’s aware of and has taught in training, I think it’s going to be very impactful when we look at being in the midst of the Northside, which is a predominantly Black area. So I’m just excited about what she’s going to bring here as we build and go higher and go further.”
Ryan says the leadership role requires someone with a servant’s heart.
Over 300 people showed up to the NACD Open House to welcome Elizabeth Washington as the new NACD Director.“You’ve got to have the mindset of a servant,” he says. Speaking of Washington, he says, "She’s a willing spirit. She cares about people. She cares about the community, and she cares about equality and justice. That’s a great fit. And she has the skill set and experience to do the job.”
Washington says Jordan-Woods provided the organization with a solid foundation. Although its work involves maintaining good relationships with city, state, and federal entities; networking with other organizations; and participating in ongoing conversations with community stakeholders, the offices of the Northside Neighborhood’s key advocacy organization will continue to be a place where any area residents can find help.
“I want people to know that we’re not changing those foundational pillars,” Washington says. “We’re still here as a neighborhood association to not only do these big kinds of things but also for the person who walks in and says, ‘Hey, I need information to be able to support my aging parent.’ We’re still here and are going to continue to do that big work and that everyday work."

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.