Voices of Youth: Youth entrepreneurship sparks creativity at Kalamazoo's RAWK

Editor's Note:  This story is a part of our Voices of Youth, a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network in partnership with the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo, funded by the Stryker Johnston Foundation.

Inside Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK) music is playing, and the room is warm and inviting. The staff at RAWK are ready and waiting to meet young folks attending their Youth Entrepreneur Luncheon. RAWK centers its work on young voices through creative writing but also is dedicated to spurring creativity beyond the page, leading passions to the next level with programming that encourages young business and community involvement.

RAWK was founded in 2012 by locals Anne Hensley and Emily Kastner. The pair started RAWK as a way of fostering the opinions of young folks in Kalamazoo, and to provide youth with creative writing opportunities. The organization’s tenth anniversary passed earlier this year, and Executive Director Dr. Kandace Lavender is excited about RAWK’s future. Dr. Lavender is an internationally known poet, vocalist, and hip-hop lyricist who has been with the organization for two years. While RAWK's work is steeped in fostering youth writing, new avenues have opened that align with its value of encouraging creativity and agency.

Dr. Kandace Lavender, RAWK Executive Director, begins the event. “There is also a growing population of youth in Kalamazoo who are interested in running their own business, but do not have the resources or support to bring their visions to reality,” says Lavender.

At the Youth Entrepreneur Luncheon in November, the facilitators said they wanted to show young folks who want to start their own businesses that support is out there. 

Lavender says that the historical context and attitudes towards employment in the United States feel confining to many. There is a culture of 9 to 5, and of working for larger companies, or corporations, Lavender says.

“While I have definitely heard my fair share of complaints from youth entrepreneurs about the woes around all the responsibilities that come with being a business owner, there is an overall consensus that youth enjoy the feeling of making money from their ideas, gifts, and talents.”

The group splits into pairs to brainstorm business ideas as a part of an exercise at the event. RAWK is located on the corner of Vine and South Westnedge and welcomes passersby with large block graphic text on the windows. The text reads, “CELEBRATE, READ, WORK TOGETHER”.

At the Youth Entrepreneur Luncheon, working together was an essential part of the program. All of the attendees were asked to fill out and wear name tags, and then form small groups of two to three individuals. The groups then combined their brain power to create an elevator pitch for a new company, based upon words written on colored pieces of paper spread throughout the room — words like bicycle, eco-friendly, and app. 

The pockets of conversation translated into colorful sales presentations. One of these was Emoji Sunglasses that the wearer could customize using their favorite icons. The young folks, although visibly unsure at first, warmed up during the exercise, and were all smiles for the rest of the event, especially for the Theresa’s Kitchen-catered lunch.

RAWK invited one of its volunteers Jane Gulliver to speak to the youth at the event. Gulliver owned a Vine Neighborhood staple, J-Bird Vintage, a vintage clothing store, for several years. She spoke to the youth about what it takes to own your own business, and Gulliver touched on the hard work and oftentimes long hours. 

Some of the bright decorations at RAWK.One of the Youth Entrepreneur Event’s attendees who is not afraid of hard work is Gabrielle Mabin, a 12-year-old student at Kalamazoo Public School Online. Mabin owns Gabrielle's Dog Bakery LLC, which she started earlier in 2023. The bakery and new pet shop side of the business (also its own LLC), sells dog paw balms for when your pet’s paws are dry or cracked, shampoo bars, and of course her very popular dog treats. All of her ingredients are organic, says Mabin.

When asked why she wanted to own a business, Mabin says, “It makes me feel good, strong, powerful, confident." Mabin also echoed what Lavender had shared with the youth, saying that the business was an extension of her passion for giving back to the community, and her love of animals and baking. 

“The idea of doing something they love to do and making a living off of it is very counter to what the culture generations before them have experienced when talking about work/employment," says Lavender.

Many of the youth attending the Youth Entrepreneur event have parents who are also small business owners. Gabrielle Mabin’s mother, Tara Mabin, is the owner of Monarch Legacy, LLC, a company geared toward showing superhero representation to young boys of color. Vibrant clothing designs featuring young folks of color as superheroes can be found on the site, along with inspiring taglines of “I am happy,” “I am capable,” and “I am empowered.” Sentiments, it seems, that have passed along to Mabin’s daughter. 

Joaquin Fisher poses with one of his favorite drawings, for sale at the event. Lavender’s son, Joaquin Fisher, a 12-year-old 6th grader at Hillside Middle School in Kalamazoo, is a visual artist. His artwork was displayed at the Youth Entrepreneurs event at RAWK, and it was marked for sale. 

Joaquin says that drawing is a way to get his emotions out and that it can be used to sort through intense emotions like anxiety, insecurity, and hatred. "I like drawing because I like to move my hands," says Joaquin. "Don’t like sitting still," he adds. 
Fisher proudly mentioned that both his parents, Dr. Lavender and Heather Mitchell, are both entrepreneurs. Mitchell works as Youth Enrichment Director and Youth Dance Company Director at Kalamazoo’s Rootead. 

During introductions, each adult attendee spoke a bit about what they do for work. Many had more than one revenue stream, as is common among small business owners or independent contractors form. The adults noted they valued their control over their schedule, but also the busy-ness that can come from owning one’s own business. The overwhelming attitude in the room toward owning your own business is that if you put in the work, it is worth it. 

D Diamond, RAWK Storefront Manager, was asked about the desire to work with the organization, and with youth specifically. Diamond joined RAWK recently, just weeks before the Youth Entrepreneurs' Lunch. 

Store sign at RAWK“It combines all of my interests: working with youth, marketing, and supporting entrepreneurs," says Diamond. "It is something I am really passionate about.”

In only two short hours, it was abundantly clear that the volunteers and staff of RAWK truly live and work the values they are teaching the youth that walk through their doors. Each staff member spoke of having a passion for the work they do.

Lavender says she chose to work at RAWK because as an organization it aligned with her values. “When I read that RAWK's mission was to celebrate and amplify youth voices on the job description for the ED role, I felt that this intentionality was in alignment with my own personal commitment to youth in Kalamazoo.”

The group splits into pairs to brainstorm business ideas as a part of an exercise at the event. Holding an event that supports youth entrepreneurs is an extension of the work with youth, Lavender says, that she feels is vital.

“I think the making money part is a great incentive for youth entrepreneurs. However, I also believe that the greater piece is giving them a real-life experience of what it means to put effort behind your vision, and the positive outcomes it can have on their life. That is an experience and skill that if learned, is priceless."

Lavender also sees small businesses as an important element to any growing city. “I think small business is important for a city like Kalamazoo — and really any other city that is looking to grow their economy. Small businesses contribute 44% of the U.S. economic activity, so the more we as a community make space for small businesses to thrive, we are ultimately creating access for the community as a whole to thrive."

If you would like to get involved with Read and Write Kalamazoo, you can volunteer or donate through their website. RAWK encourages all youth who would like to get involved in activities to attend one of their events, held in person and virtually, which you can find here. The next in-person event, YOUTH VOICES Monologue Workshop in partnership with the Kalamazoo Youth Civic and in honor of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 at RAWK, 802 South Westnedge Ave. Find more details on this event here.
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Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.