Vulnerable children and their families throughout the United States will soon have 120 individuals better positioned to help them achieve optimal health and well-being, access better food and pursue academic achievement and financial security.
Last month, the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) convened its inaugural class of the WKKF Community Leadership Network. This class of 120 fellows includes two dozen leaders from Michigan — half of them from West Michigan — who will learn and work in communities across the state.
The three-year fellowship program will help community leaders develop their skills with the overall aim of helping the children and families who are most at risk.
Eric Foster, a member of the inaugural class, said he considers his fellowship an “awesome” privilege to hone his leadership skills as an individual on a personal and professional level.
Foster is the principal owner of Progress Strategies+ LLC, a Grand Rapids-based company that oversees and implements client project management work for organizations, nonprofits and companies.
His work encompasses five areas: diversity and inclusion, community engagement, grant writing and administration, public policy and advocacy, and social responsibility.
“I’m hoping specifically through interaction and learning (that I’m able) to fulfill four goals,” Foster said. “I want to learn how to deconstruct conventional models of leadership, learn specific tools and models to measure my work as a leader, learn about holistic leadership development and establish leadership tools for grassroots leaders who want to include social responsibility.”
Currently, local fellows are actively working within their communities on an array of issues including early childhood education, youth leadership and mentoring and the promotion of healthy behaviors. As a part of the WKKF Community Leadership Network, fellows will be able to find connections within their work, partnering with one another and with institutions in the community to deepen their impact.
“We are developing people who have a broad vision about changing their community to benefit every child,” said Esther Nieves, program officer at WKKF. “Over time, the intent is that it benefits every child.”
Community Leadership Network participants will have opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise with one another while building up their leadership skills. Nieves said the fellows identified major issues they would like to see addressed.
One fellow engaged in the health and wellness sector spoke about issues of obesity and what could be done to encourage lifestyle changes in at-risk populations, she said. Suggestions included providing moms with healthy recipes as well as holding events to allow families to taste healthy meals.
Others focused on helping recent immigrants connect with one another to develop shared economic solutions and encourage entrepreneurship, Nieves said.
“The focus of these fellowships is relevant to the foundation and its mission centered around children,” Nieves said. “There needs to be a focus on the well-being of families and economic security and stability and what that looks like in a changing nation.”
Nkechy Ezeh, a fellow and CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) in Grand Rapids, said she looks forward to seeing how other community-based leaders are solving complex problems and then learning from them.
ELNC was established in 2011 by the WKKF to give children from impoverished families access to quality pre-schools. Part of the effort involves rehabbing spaces where programming is offered so the children have a nicer place to go to learn. There are currently 323 slots available.
Ezeh says she tells parents that if their children aren’t ready for kindergarten, they’re not ready for life.
“I’m excited about this fellowship program because it’s really supporting what we’re already doing. We’re intentional in what we do and how we advocate for children,” Ezeh said, adding that the program will also encourage people not to work in silos so they will be able to leverage resources in their communities.
Foster said he is currently training 28 resident leaders through the Seeds of Promise program that empowers residents to collaborate with community stakeholders and transform their neighborhoods.
Part of what they’re learning is how to govern themselves and how to infiltrate systems to create positive change, he said.
Outcomes of the fellowship program will be measured by how each fellow changed his or her extended field of knowledge, how the fellow connected to a broader number of people and formed collaborations, and how fellows connected other services to families to help them support their children’s education.
That initiatives such as the Community Leadership Network provide people the opportunity to gather and share ideas serves as a critical part of the fellowship program, Nieves said. Discussions must happen around issues of disparity rooted in race and economic stability, she said.
“We cannot heal as a nation unless we have honest conversations,” Nieves said.