The activists next door: A new generation of activists lift Black voices and community in Kalamazoo

For Uplift Kalamazoo, grassroots means doing what you can, when you can, how you can.
During the wave of protests that spread across the country last summer in response to the police killing of George Floyd, a new generation of community activists were finding their voices. 

Ryan Singleton (who goes by King Ryan), Khadijah Brown, and Jovaughan Head, are three such emerging leaders in the activist community. All of them are members of the newly formed grassroots organization Uplift Kalamazoo, and all of them are under the age of 35. 

They, along with a handful of other determined and community-minded young people founded Uplift Kalamazoo, a grassroots organization that works to “bring resources and aid to the local Black community, while also enacting solutions to deal with the effects of systemic racism in Kalamazoo,” as the group's website says.

King Ryan, one of the group’s founders, says that Uplift Kalamazoo “started organically” when the group began coming together to meet the needs of their community. “I didn’t make a choice to be an activist or a community organizer,” he says,”it was more so that the work was needed and we just stepped up to fill that gap.”

“After the killing of George Floyd we were all just out on the street and engaging with other people in the community,” says King Ryan. “We were doing the work, and we needed a name to go with the work we were doing.”  

King Ryan says the group is working through the holiday season to get food to people who need it.Specifically, Uplift Kalamazoo was formed after an incident in June where members of the Black community came together to help a family on Stuart Street who King Ryan describes as “victims of a police standoff.” The uplifters raised about $2,500 in donations, collected food, and clothing, and replaced the doors which had been damaged during a KDPS search of the family’s home. After that experience, the group coalesced officially behind their new name, and Uplift Kalamazoo was born. 

As an organization, Uplift Kalamazoo strives to shift community focus and funding into traditionally Black neighborhoods such as Kalamazoo’s Northside, Eastside, and Edison neighborhoods. Head says the organization’s name supports that mission. “It’s about uplifting the entirety of this community, uplifting Kalamazoo. And so the name in and of itself is the advertisement, it is what we do, and it is our core directive.”  

For Brown, joining Uplift was about finding her place in Kalamazoo. She first met the self-styled King Ryan, Uplift’s charismatic executive director while working on a show with Face Off Theatre Company (a diversity-focused theater group based in Kalamazoo). “That’s how I initially bonded with Uplift Kalamazoo and with Ryan,” she says, “seeing the type of person that he is, seeing the work that he wants to do,” made her think “that’s what I want to do too!”  

While King Ryan and Head are lifelong residents of Kalamazoo, Brown only moved to Kalamazoo a little more than three years ago and says that she didn’t just wake up one day knowing that she wanted to be a community activist. “It’s not work that you would think you’d have to do in 2020,” she says, “it was almost like a call to action after years of being on this Earth and seeing that nothing has changed. It’s my turn to be the voice for my generation.”

Khadijah Brown met King Ryan at a Face Off Theatre production.Brown says of her hometown, “the needs of Benton Harbor aren’t the same as the needs of Kalamazoo. There are more resources here in Kalamazoo than there are in Benton Harbor, and so getting that experience with Ryan and with Jovaughan and all the other members of Uplift Kalamazoo is growing me to be able to then expand the work back home.” 

Head says that he has been involved in activism for years with groups like the NACD (Northside Association for Community Development) and Open Doors (a local organization that works to provide access to housing) and had been disheartened after failing to break through what he describes as a “glass ceiling when it comes to getting things done in the city.” Head says he was drawn to Uplift because he “saw the work that was really being done, meals being really handed out, real tangible tacit things that excited me.” Uplift Kalamazoo, Head says, is “not about board meetings, not about fundraising, it is about getting the work done.”

And what is that work exactly? Right now, it mostly means feeding people. “So many people are struggling,” says King Ryan “right now with the holidays approaching, the energy in the city was about getting food and supplies to people.”

Every Saturday the members of Uplift come together in collaboration with local group Food Not Bombs and community volunteers to provide food and necessities to Kalamazoo’s homeless population in MLK Park. They cook up a hot meal to serve, and pass out necessary items like warm clothing, hand warmers, and hygiene products.

Jovaughan Head says the group’s name, Uplift Kalamazoo, “is what we do, and it is our core directive.”In its efforts to further respond to the needs of the community during this holiday season, Uplift is also working on a holiday food drive to collect and distribute non-perishable food items for families until Dec. 19, as well as a Stuff the Truck toy drive that will be accepting donations of new toys in Bronson Park on Saturday, Dec. 5 from 1-5 pm.

King Ryan says that he understands people’s trepidations about getting involved, especially during difficult times. “You’re nervous, you’re scared, you don’t know how exactly you can help,” but the best way you can get involved he says is by going “straight to the action. Donate some food, or winter clothes, or blankets, or essentials items. Not just to us, but to any of the groups that are feeding people.” He names Food Not Bombs and Black Lives Matter Kalamazoo/Battle Creek as just a few examples.

As for Uplift Kalamazoo’s future plans after their holiday initiatives wind down, Head says the fledgling organization’s directive is clear; “uplift this community, hold the people that are in power accountable, and make sure that we’re actually serving folks the way that they want to be served.”

To get involved or donate to Uplift Kalamazoo visit their website here.  

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn. See more of her work here.

Read more articles by Caroline Bissonnette.

Caroline Bissonnette is nearly a lifelong resident who now lives in Milwood and has previously lived in the Vine for a year. By shining a light on the people working to implement solutions to local issues she hopes to amplify important voices in our midst which are often overlooked.