Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek coverage. This profile is one in an occasional series on the life experiences of Battle Creek residents.
Shabaka Gibson had the qualifications and experience that very few people had for a job he applied for in 2015. Apparently, what he didn’t have was the right name.
“When I applied I thought I’d at least get a phone interview. Instead, it was just complete ghosting,” says Gibson, now Vice President with Battle Creek Unlimited.
Then he created an alter ego named Ethan Thomas with a different email address and phone and applied for that same job, which was focused on corporate citizenship management in developing countries. With this much more Anglo Saxon-sounding name “Ethan” got a call back.
Gibson says any interest he had in the job he applied for vanished after his experiment with the more White-sounding name. He knows there tends to be controversy surrounding his first name.
“If people read a name and it doesn’t make sense to them or triggers some preconceived notion they’re not going to go any farther in the interview process,” He says. “We live in a country where ‘Shabaka’ is a very uncommon name. People will spend more time trying to figure out my name, than what I can do as an individual.”
As a Black male growing up in Benton Harbor, Gibson says he encountered prejudicial behavior and racial slights at an early age. His parents were both employed as production workers, world’s away from what their son would grow up to become.
When asked about the support he received from his parents, Gibson says, “No one tells their kids ‘We hope you grow up to be a dumb person.”
He calls Benton Harbor an “interesting place because you’re surrounded by the economic impact of a Fortune 100 company (Whirlpool Corp.) and a tourist industry in St. Joseph that draws in a lot of wealthy people from Chicago and South Bend and you see this picture of the world on one side and how it’s related to people who stay on the other side that’s the exact opposite,” which would be Benton Harbor.
Gibson, who says he is curious by nature, says when looking at the vast disparities between the two communities which are next door to each other, for him, it is not so much about the social justice piece but rather about understanding the economies and using that as the mechanism from which to make decisions and optimize.
While working on his Master’s degree at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy
, he says he developed a clearer understanding of how policy, business, and society interact.
He has used that knowledge base in the various jobs he’s had that prepared him for his current role with BCU. He considers it wasted energy to focus on the wrongs that he and his fellow African Americans have faced and continue to face in all sectors of society.
“You’ve got to deal with the world the way it is and not how you want it to be,” Gibson says.
Succeeding on an unlevel playing field
The education Gibson received as a student in the Benton Harbor schools did not earn him a fast-track to any college or university. He attended what was considered at the time one of the worst-performing high schools in the state. If there was a silver lining in this it is that he was part of a cohort that existed at every class level of between 35 and 40 students that “usually did pretty well.” The class one year ahead of him included Anita Harvey, Superintendent of the Battle Creek Public School System and Kyra Wallace, President and CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League, in its cohort.
“If you were not in that cohort group, maybe you did well and maybe you didn’t,” Gibson says.
He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Western Michigan University and also has an Associate’s degree in Russian Language from the Defense Language Institute, in addition to the Master’s degree.
After earning his undergraduate degree, he went to work for a couple of years as an Economic Development Specialist with Berrien County. From there he took a job as City Manager in Stevensville.
He characterizes his time in Stevensville as being very constrictive.
“I felt like I had to work twice as hard,” Gibson says. “There were people working with me in Stevensville who gave me a hard time. I felt like I had to prove myself over and over again. I felt like I had handcuffs on a lot of the time.”
Two years into his three-year contract with the municipality, war in Iraq was raging and he was sent over by the Army Reserves to serve in a role he had previously trained for as an Army Intelligence Officer with the Reserves. He says his previous military service gave him the inside track with the Berrien County job when the individual making the decision found out he was a Veteran.
Being a Veteran cancels out a lot of the apprehension people have about him because of his first name, Gibson says.
“Vets see the world a little bit differently and it doesn’t matter about the color of your skin,” he says. “If you come across another veteran the inclination is to help them out. I got that job in Berrien because of this.”
Gibson told his bosses in Stevensville not to hold his job for him because when he returned from active duty he would be enrolling in graduate school.
He says he found it ironic that his successor in Stevensville, who happened to be a White man, was given a much freer rein and eventually would be sent to prison for embezzling millions from city coffers.
“This white guy comes in and they go completely blind while he takes them for millions of dollars,” Gibson says.
In a twist of fate, the man who replaced the individual who had embezzled the funds turned out to be Joe Sobieralski, who is President and CEO of BCU and now Gibson’s boss.
Becoming an Economic Developer
Gibson had every intention of becoming an Economic Developer when he graduated from the University of Chicago in 2009, but the Great Recession sidelined those plans.
“Early in their careers, economic developers tend to bounce around with the idea of always taking jobs that move them up in terms of size, pay, influence, and impact before staying in one place to finish out their careers, Gibson says. “With the recession, the number of spots was dwindling because these positions were being cut and people weren’t leaving their jobs to move up.”
He interviewed for a position with Exxon Mobil, where he had done an internship, in that company’s Corporate Affairs department to work in global remediation and redevelopment.
“They offered me a job and I said, ‘I’m broke and I don’t have a job, so yes, I’ll take it,” he says. “I did that job for eight years, but I wanted to be back in Economic Development and I got to a tipping point where I said I’m either going to continue at Exxon or make a change.
“I started trying to make the transition in 2013 or 2014.”
He took a position in 2016 in Wisconsin as an Economic Development consultant and one year later joined BCU where he has found himself a rarity in a White male-dominated field. He says economic developers who are Black females are even more of a rarity.
During his time at the Harris School of Public Policy, Gibson says there was a display of alumni photos, and “every year there was always one Black male and one Black immigrant male and this went on for a long time. I could usually count on one hand the number of Black male students there.
“Harris is not a racist place. The reality is that there aren’t a lot of African American males who are able to meet the school’s extremely high standards.”
The Harris School is one of the top three Public Policy schools in the United States. African American students who are accepted into the program know that if they have the talents to get into a prestigious program like this it means they also have the ability to become lawyers or physicians instead. Gibson says these are career paths many of them opt to pursue, which contributes to the racial imbalance in the economic development sector, a pattern he also saw at Exxon and in the top-level positions such as the one he had in the Army Reserves.
Larger cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit tend to have higher numbers of Black economic developers because of high concentrations of Black people living there. He says it’s a challenge for a Black economic developer to work for any economic development agency that has an all-White board and is located in a small town with very little ethnic or racial diversity.
“It’s easier to take your talents and go into a more diverse area,” Gibson says.
“There’s this thing when a Black professional operates in a field with very few Black professionals in it that when you walk into a room and try to see people who look like you, for a split second you’re disappointed and then you move on. When you do see someone who looks like you, you smile because you know they’ve probably been through the same headaches you’ve been through.
“You’re constantly in an assessment mode when you first walk into these situations,” Gibson says. “You can’t have expectations that people will be accepting or see you as an equal until you prove it.”
A younger version of Gibson would have been annoyed or mad at this, but he says he has always chosen to be his authentic self and focus on how to make situations work in his favor.
“Whenever there is an issue between different groups of people the easiest thing to do is to grab onto racism because it’s the lowest-hanging fruit,” Gibson says. “The issue is that the problem never gets resolved because the focus isn’t on the problem anymore, it’s on race.”
Gibson says there are injustices in this world that must be addressed while also dealing with the world the way it is. He offers up this quote from President Theodore Roosevelt to underscore this point: “This country can’t be great unless it’s great for all."
“I always say that because we're the United States, we should focus on the things that unite us instead of the things that divide us,” Gibson says. “When we do that we start to succeed. Although we’ve got all of these issues in front of us, we’ve still got opportunities to be a really great nation, but all we’ve got to work together.”