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Saturday, 21 July 2012 23:25

Power of Presence: Grand Rapids Urban League forges closer ties to business community

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Joe Jones Joe Jones PHOTO: Adam Bird
GRAND RAPIDS — Joe Jones wants to change how the Grand Rapids Urban League works with businesses in West Michigan.

That's important because, on the whole, West Michigan continually struggles to retain a diverse talent pool and workforce, and businesses in the region often scratch their heads at how to break into the growing markets in the urban communities.

The Urban League's reinvention positions the organization to offer new programs aimed at the recruitment and retention of a diversity of professionals and at helping businesses access communities of color.

Jones' own entry into the Urban League as its interim president and CEO — "We're going through the process right now to make that permanent," he said — is a case of being in the right place and being the right match for the organization. He brings to the position more than a decade of experience as an entrepreneur and small business owner in public relations and marketing consulting at E.E. Milestone + Associates Inc., his current company, and previously at Jones & Gavan LLC.

The Urban League charged Jones with developing and implementing a strategic plan aimed at improving the quality of life for the underserved urban communities in Grand Rapids and the broader West Michigan community. Traditionally, the organization worked to empower African-Americans and other minority groups in the urban community to achieve economic self-reliance. While Jones said the organization has done a good job at serving as a pipeline for employers, his goal is to "put our employment program on steroids" and work closely with companies as they look to hire from and do business with the communities of color.

Along with accessing more jobs, the Urban League needs to do a better job of modeling success so that young people can see the region offers them good professional opportunities, Jones said. If they know the opportunities are there, they're more likely to stay in West Michigan and engage with the community, he said.

Jones should know. He moved to Grand Rapids with his wife in 1996, but initially thought of it as his temporary community.

"I only had a five-year plan. My plan was to get back to Detroit because I grew up wanting to be the mayor of Detroit," Jones said. "This was going to be just a short stop on my journey."

Modeling success

As an entrepreneur, Jones believes in the idea that anyone, through hard work, can achieve social mobility. But from his own situation, he said he knows there's more to success than willing yourself to succeed. Navigating the path toward professional success is easier when you have examples of successful people who look like you.

As a native son of Detroit, Jones saw many successful people who looked like him. Coleman Young was the mayor and other African Americans led the city's businesses and churches and served as his role models, he said. Growing up around successful African-Americans served as a "major advantage" in his development as an entrepreneur, he said. But he saw a "glaring absence" of professionals of color who were both present and available in Grand Rapids.

His observation continues to hold true today. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 economic census, the most recent report available, 13.4 percent of businesses in Grand Rapids were black-owned firms, compared to 64.2 percent in Detroit.

"(West Michigan) is a community that has strong leadership and presence with regards to professionals of color. The difference is professionals of color are very much scattered in the Grand Rapids area," he said. "What that does is it makes it difficult for our young people to be able to not just see, but communicate with and have relationships with professionals of color — successful individuals in their eyes, who look like them."

After taking the helm of the Grand Rapids Urban League last year, Jones set out to leverage the organization's nearly 70 years of community activism to be better at "modeling success to young people."

"We are at a critical juncture right now in the community because of the need for professionals of color, leaders of color to really step up and take it up a notch — (by) not just being present but being available," he said. "I was always taught that we lead by example. I could talk until I'm blue in the face, ... but folks want to see. ... They don't want to be told."

Until those examples are present and available, Grand Rapids will continue to struggle to retain a diversity of professionals, he said.

In response, the Urban League this summer brought back its Urban Fellows program, which engaged about two dozen 14- and 15-year-old African-American males in a public information campaign based on health and wellness initiatives. Beyond the campaign's attributes, the project exposes the youths to examples of successful African-Americans and allows them to interact and communicate with role models, Jones said.

It's much more than an African-American businessman simply giving a speech about how he got to be successful, Jones said.

"One of the things I can't say enough about is the power of presence," he said. "There's just something about being there, about a young person being able to access success."

Separate from the pack

That perceived lack of access to successful people of color led Mercedes Barragan to want to leave West Michigan immediately after graduating from Grand Valley State University. She said she enjoyed the university and the region, but she didn't know many people in the area who shared her cultural heritage. That disconnect had her looking elsewhere to start her career.

"I didn't think there were a lot of opportunities for me," she said.

Barragan ultimately connected to Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions (BL2END), an organization in which she found a network of people in similar situations to her own. BL2END serves as an outlet for young African-Americans, Hispanics, and people of other races who didn't grow up West Michigan but who want to become familiar with and engage in the Grand Rapids community. She now serves as marketing and communications co-chair for BL2END. At the organization, she eventually connected with Jones, a member of the BL2END advisory council.

She said his message of a silver lining in the lack of examples of professionals of color left a lasting impression on her.

"A young professional of color can go to Chicago or Atlanta or California and be one in a million, or you can stay in West Michigan where you're really needed and ready to shine," she said of Jones' message. "That was prophetic to me. I think it's true that West Michigan really needs a new perspective and I think it's going to come from people of color. It really encouraged me to stay."

Intentional outreach

Like Jones, Barragan decided to stay in greater Grand Rapids, eventually landing a position as a marketing communications associate at Cascade Engineering Inc. At Cascade, a company that's very public about its efforts as an anti-racism organization and one that embraces a diverse workforce, she helped organize the Young Professionals of Color conference, an all-day event scheduled for Aug. 2 at the Varnum LLP offices in Grand Rapids.

The conference stemmed from the observation of some Cascade executives that the business community does a lot of talking about the struggle to attract a diverse workforce, but not much when it actually comes down to being inclusive, said Kelley Losey, business unit leader and director of Cascade Consulting Group.

"The whole goal was to look at it from the perspective of young people of color and how do we help them navigate their careers where they're at, or where they want to go, and how do we keep them here in West Michigan," Losey said. "We want to understand how we can support them."

"I think a lot of (businesses) have a lot of good intentions, but that doesn't really make it work. There's got to be action," Losey added.

Reinforcing Jones' message of the power of presence, the conference's planners looked for successful people of different races to lead the event's various programs. Their objective is for young professionals of color to learn from the success stories to better inform their own journeys to success. Jones will lead one of the sessions at the conference, where he will be joined by Cascade's Kenyatta Brame, Floriza Genautis of Management Business Solutions, Tracey Brame of Cooley Law School, Tina Pietrangelo at Louis Padnos Iron and Metal Co., Carlos Sanchez of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and LeMark Payne of Spectrum Health, among others.

"The whole issue of presence is just inspiring," said Olubunmi Parks, project coordinator and executive assistant for the department of business services at Cascade Engineering. "When you're in a community where you see people who look like you (who are) thriving, it really inspires you to think that I can do that too. Not that you can't get that inspiration from people who are not of color, but it is definitely an extra push to let you know that regardless of the obstacles, you can make it."

Parks said West Michigan is a welcoming place with a support system in place for young professionals of color — even if those resources aren't immediately noticeable.

"You don't always think of Grand Rapids as being a diverse place, but I think right now, we're in a really cool place because we want to create diverse businesses, but we want to be more than that: We want to be inclusive," Barragan said. "It's one thing to be a diverse company. It's another thing to be inclusive."

Increasing involvement

The Urban League's Jones said businesses want to be inclusive by recruiting and retaining professionals of color, but they also hope to access the buying power of the urban community. The Grand Rapids Urban League is right in the middle of both concerns.

Judging from the calls he's received from employers around the region in Holland, Muskegon and Kalamazoo, Jones said it's obvious to him that employers want to tap into the region's diverse workforce. But although the jobs exist, people in the core urban community still struggle to find jobs because they're under-trained or untrained for the jobs of today.

As such, the Urban League must work to ensure that the people it serves have the proper educational opportunities. Education is empowering: If people don't have the right skills, then the Urban League must work with the right partners to find ways to provide youths the opportunity to build their skills, Jones said.

"What's required for organizations like the Urban League is to use every aspect of our network. The dollars from the government are shrinking. The dollars from philanthropy are thinning," he said. "I tend to believe that influence is priceless. We have to use every bit of it in place of financial resources."

Jones said the Urban League has several partnerships under development that it plans to announce later this year that will have the organization playing a "prominent role in recruiting and retaining professionals of color."

Jones wants the Urban League to work in concert with groups including Goodwill Industries, Hope Network, Grand Rapids Community College and others to provide the community — including ex-offenders — with resources to improve their skills to become sustainably employable.

The communities of color also disproportionately face another cultural issue: prisoner re-entry. Non-white individuals made up more than 56 percent of the state's prison population, according to 2010 data from the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Jones said the Urban League can fill the role of helping companies navigate through the process of hiring ex-offenders. The community needs to seriously weigh the costs of recidivism and incarceration versus what it takes to give ex-offenders a chance to work, he said.

"My hope is that we'll develop an allergic reaction to crime and that in place of that, we'll feel more compelled to hold one another more accountable," he said. "One of the missing pieces in all this is community accountability."

Community key to economic development

Beyond talent and workforce recruitment, companies also turn to the Urban League for help in making inroads into the urban community.

"We know the urban core. We know, we understand, we work with, we communicate regularly with communities of color," the Urban League's Jones said, noting that "money is green" and the core urban community has a "tremendous buying power."

"It doesn't matter what you're in: If there's a product or service that communities of color pay for, we feel strongly that we can come alongside a company and help them penetrate that market," he said.

Jones wants to see the Urban League transition into a social enterprise model by enhancing and adding value to businesses, which would pay a fee for the product or service.

"We're pretty convinced that the ability to get folks employed can and will help all facets of community, everything from crime to homelessness to academic achievement," Jones said. "We feel like, as an organization, if we focus on helping to access and build opportunities for employment and small business development, we can hopefully make this region even more attractive for business and industry. A healthy core just speaks a lot."

While Jones praises the efforts to revitalize Grand Rapids on the Medical Mile and elsewhere, he adamantly argues that similar efforts must extend to the city's core urban community if the revitalization is to be complete. He uses the analogy of a shiny apple that's been infected by a worm. While the apple may look great on the outside, it's inedible if the core has been destroyed.

"We believe that we've been called to help in developing an extremely healthy core city, and that we are as much responsible for economic development for the region as downtown and the outlying areas," Jones said.

Breaking through that shiny exterior to fix the problems in the core urban areas will require leaders and people with influence to intentionally step out of their comfort zones and talk about complex, nuanced problems, he said. Continuing to sweep problems under the rug serves only to prolong those problems, he said.

Additionally, Jones views the community as an integral piece of economic development: If the community members possess the right skills and engage in jobs in their community, the whole system becomes sustainable, he said.

"They're recognizing that we're better together than we are apart," he said of the city's business leaders. "It's going to take some folks who are enlightened to enlighten. ... This can and should be done as a business imperative. If we do this thing correctly, it could have a tremendous effect on our ability to grow economically. A healthy community is ultimately about building a stronger economy."

Read 3247 times Last modified on Sunday, 05 August 2012 22:49

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