Battle Creek

Village plan to achieve equity and prosperity builds on work in Battle Creek over the past decade

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

The framework for the “Village,” a new comprehensive plan to achieve equity and prosperity for members of Battle Creek’s Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) community, has been in place and active in one form or another for more than a decade. 

During a press conference on June 10, leaders of the city’s Black, Burmese, and Latinx communities came together to announce the Village reemergence plan which will focus on systems change, breaking down historic barriers, and creating access and opportunity. 

These changes are to take place through a concentration on four key pillars: 
• industry and food; 
• education; 
• health and wellness; and
• personal growth and advocacy.

Ultimately, the reemergence plan is about restoring human dignity to the city’s historically underserved and marginalized BIPOC community, says Nakia Baylis, Ph.D., Senior Director of data and equitable systems at the UWBCKR (United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region). Leveling the economic playing field for BIPOC communities is among the ways this will be achieved, she says.

“We are creating a foundation to support BIPOC-owned businesses that will result in opportunities to build generational wealth so that everybody will be participating in the local economy,” Baylis says. 

A line of cars stretched from Kendall Street back to Washington Avenue as people picked up boxes of food, personal protection, and supplies for children.This will be the area of focus for the Industry and Food pillar led by Pastor Chris McCoy, Executive Director of New Level Sports Ministries and Chairman of Catalyzing Community Giving, and managed by Damon Brown, with R.I.S.E., a nonprofit reintegration program for returning citizens. This work builds on McCoy’s long-term dedication to helping the Black community build wealth and ownership in Battle Creek.

In early May, New Level and Battle Creek Unlimited announced the establishment of the Washington Heights Entrepreneurial Fund, an economic development partnership between the two organizations that was seeded with a $2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

McCoy says this fund will be part of the Village reemergence plan.

“Everything we do is part of the Village plan. Anything that comes to Washington Heights and the BIPOC community, we consider part of the Village. This fund is connected to the Village,” McCoy says. “We’re happy that our communities have this opportunity to start businesses.”

An initiative like this comes at a time when economic inequality in the United States has experienced a sharp increase in recent decades—especially between racial groups, according to GoSite, a blog focused on Small Business News and Resources.

A report on the website included in the GoSite blog found that Black and Latinx families are twice as likely to have zero or negative wealth—meaning their debt is higher than the value of their assets—compared to white families. Median white families also have 41 and 22 times more net worth than median Black and Latinx families, respectively.

The Welcome to Washington Heights sign at Kendall St.“Systemic racism has contributed to the persistence of race-based gaps that manifest in many different economic indicators,” according to Inequality.org. “The starkest divides are in measures of household wealth, reflecting centuries of white privilege that have made it particularly difficult for people of color to achieve economic security.”

As an example, Black-owned businesses often start with 1/3 the capital of other businesses, according to Crunchbase.com, which provides detailed information about public and privately-owned. The Harvard Business Review says Black startups only receive ~1% of venture capital.

These continued disparities have led to a disproportionately high number of BIPOC individuals and families in Calhoun County who are living at or below the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) threshold, Baylis says. They represent households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living for Calhoun County.

In Michigan, the ALICE report says that the actual cost of living in every county shows that 40% of all households do not earn enough to cover basic expenses, including housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and a  basic smartphone plan. This gap between wages and the cost of living is a structural economic problem, in Michigan and nationwide. 
 
Yet for Black households, that number is much higher: 63% of Black households in Michigan are unable to afford basic household essentials in their communities. This is almost three times the rate of hardship shown for Black households by the antiquated and arbitrary Federal Poverty Level (FPL). And it is almost twice the rate of hardship for White households.
  
From 2010 to 2018 — which covers the “recovery” from the Great Recession — the number of Black households below the ALICE Threshold (the minimum income needed to afford household basics) increased by 11%, while the number of White households struggling to make ends meet increased by only 1% in  Michigan. 

The federal poverty guidelines for a family of four in Michigan is $24,600. The ALICE threshold for a four-person household with an infant and a preschool-age child is $61,000, according to the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.

“In order to leverage our power, we need to own our future and that means building significant assets and wealth,” Baylis says. “This reemergence plan is meant to lift BIPOC households above the ALICE threshold, but this work will benefit the entire city.”

Among the more significant findings in the most recent ALICE report is that the state of Michigan’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) would increase by $97.9 billion dollars if everyone was participating in local economies.

The Village reemergence plan will support systemic change for marginalized residents while also increasing the local GDP and creating community connectedness, Baylis says.

The Village is an initiative of the regional United Way and supported through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Catalyzing Community Giving grant program. CCG is a national grant that supports communities of color in using philanthropy to become agents of their own change and to positively impact the lives of children and families in their communities. In 2020, the Kellogg Foundation provided the seed funding for the Village, taking the fundamentals of previous planning processes and applying them across BIPOC communities in Battle Creek. To date, W.K. Kellogg Foundation has invested nearly $1.4 million in the Village.

“This is ambitious and it is achievable,” Baylis says. “It will take 10 years for complete implementation, however, as we build new systems in each pillar area there will be significant wins along the way. It’s going to take significant resources and a significant community commitment to see this through for 10 years, that’s we’re why trying to build in mechanisms for multi-dimensional activity.”

The Pillars to Support Economic Equity

This activity is centered around each of the four pillars, three of which will serve as the underpinnings for Industry and Food Pillar, says Wilbert Fobbs, a Community Advocate for the Village plan which is an outgrowth of McCoy’s earlier work and CCG work that began in January 2020.

The pillars are based on a concept McCoy created for a Youth Village that began in 2001 at New Level.

“The Youth Village works with inner-city youth and focuses on them getting a post-secondary education so that they can get a degree,” McCoy says. “We were seeing that African American students were being exploited for their athletic skills and not for their academic skills. We are still working to change that narrative.”

The emphasis on getting an education beyond high school is designed to build generational wealth. The Youth Village began with 10 youth and now serves with more than 1,000 students from Albion, Jackson, and Kalamazoo, in addition to those from Battle Creek.

Baylis says using the framework already in place at the Youth Village for the reemergence plan is a recognition of significant work that is already taking place in the community to address areas that are preventing the BIPOC community from moving forward. She says Village leadership doesn’t want to duplicate efforts and intends to utilize and build on existing successes and opportunities in the community.

Once the plan was finalized, Fobbs says, “We started looking inwards at what assets we had in the Village cohort. Pastor McCoy started talking about the Youth Village plan and he was comfortable with us taking up where that left off. The CCG membership took his work and those pillars and started to drill down to what they mean for the community.”

Pastor Chris McCoy, Executive Director of New Level Sports MinistriesThe Village is led by a steering committee of local community leaders, which in addition to McCoy includes: Jose Orozco, Executive Director of Voces; Tha Par, Executive Director of The Burma Center; and, Pastor Richard Bailey, a pastor for Truth in Action Ministries. These community leaders work in partnership with the Village management team that includes Damon Brown, founder of R.I.S.E. Corp; Deboraha L. Sallee, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) Greater Battle Creek Chapter; Kyra Wallace, president and CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League (SWMUL); and, Dr. Elishae Johnson, owner of Eudemonia PLLC.

Par manages the Health and Wellness pillar, which will seek to advance culture and community pride, creativity and innovation, parent engagement, and mentorship and leadership networks. Johnson, who owns a practice providing telehealth counseling and consultation, will manage this pillar with Par and Brown.

“The Village’s focus on health and wellness aims to reduce generational trauma in communities of color by addressing the different sources of trauma. For the Burmese community, the current conflict and violence between Myanmar’s military and pro-democracy demonstrators is a recent source of stress,” Par says in a press release. “Together, we will leverage our diversity to create one community that views everything through an equitable lens to effectively address different historic trauma within all oppressed groups.”

Par will also be focused on stabilizing the Burma Center’s infrastructure and establishing it as a key hub and resource for the community.

Orozco will manage the Education pillar, working to unite the BIPOC community in Battle Creek around high-quality educational resources and alternative education programs that will prepare residents for diverse employment opportunities and career advancement. Kyra Wallace will be managing this pillar in partnership with Orozco. This includes supporting family engagement, culturally relevant teaching and spaces, youth entrepreneurship, and community education support systems.

Orozco said, “education is the foundation of true systemic change and through this effort, we are demonstrating to our young people how shared goals can be reached with and for all communities of color.”

The pandemic exposed a lot of inequities in the community around food and local groups stepped in to help those without enough to eat. Pastor Bailey is leading the Personal Growth and Advocacy pillar. This will be bolstered by programs that focus on leadership, management and succession, civil and human rights, and collective ownership. Pastor Bailey says in a press release, “Our path forward is designed around solutions that will help our community become economically independent including community development corporations and a neighborhood credit union, which will create job opportunities and build and sustain prosperity.”

Sallee will be managing this pillar in partnership with Rev. Bailey.

The work in progress and what happens next

Those in charge of firmly implanting each of the pillars were working on initiatives prior to the announcement of the Village plan.

“The pandemic exposed a lot of inequities in the community around food,” McCoy says. “We stepped up to the plate and passed out 65,000 pounds of food and we were feeding families in the Post and Washington Heights neighborhoods. We’re still delivering food through New Level and providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’re now moving towards food independence with the development of food markets. We have a 5-acre garden and a hydroponic building where we can grow 365 days a year and a licensed kitchen.”

New Level also is working on the development of a lemonade stand through its Camp I can program that will be run by local youth and give them opportunities to learn about running a business and the science of making lemonade. Fobbs says proceeds will be used to purchase books for Willard Library that will reflect the BIPOC community.

“Our youth will be able to go to the library and read books about people who look like them and share similar experiences,” Fobbs says.

VOCES and the Burma Center also are addressing youth and education by offering summer programs for youth. VOCES is focusing on STEM education and the Burma Center’s curriculum includes the Burmese history, culture, and language component.

Baylis says initiatives like these will be occurring alongside the bigger picture community conversations that will be happening. She says each BIPOC community has needs and challenges specific to them that will be part of the Village work to address.

“We have set up a series of three conversations focused on each pillar area,” Baylis says. “Right now we’re talking about education and the management team is holding community conversations focused on what is going on in communities right now. The first in the series of overall conversations is to listen and learn about what the needs and wants are. The second conversation is to confirm that this is what we heard you say, and the third conversation will be focused on how we move through this work and turn words into action.”

“We will be bringing other organizations into the conversation. We’re building a new system and it’s critical that these systems are integrally aligned with other systems.”

This includes a newly-formed youth leadership group that will be part of the Village plan. They will receive their own funding and will be charged with leading their own change, Baylis says, adding that, like their adult counterparts, they will learn about philanthropy’s role in their efforts to become their own agents of change.

“The Village reemergence plan is all about the BIPOC community daring to dream and having hope for a better future, which is difficult when they’re facing realities in the here and now,” Fobbs says.

 

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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