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Sunday, 31 August 2014 22:00

Leadership focus drew new director to Arcus Center

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Mia Henry Mia Henry COURTESY PHOTO

Last month, Mia Henry took over the executive director position at the Arcus Center for Social Justice and Leadership (ACSJL) at Kalamazoo College. Her appointment comes the same month the center moved into its new facility that it was able to build following a personal gift from Jon Stryker, a 1982 alum and founder and president of the Arcus Foundation.

The Arcus Center was founded in 2009 with a mission to “support the pursuit of human rights and social justice by developing emerging leaders and sustaining existing leaders in the field.” A $23 million grant from the Arcus Foundation funds the ACSJL’s ongoing operations. This fall, the center hosts the With/Out Borders Conference, which takes a close look at the political, ideological, cultural and social borders that make up our world.

Henry talked to MiBiz about her new role at the college, social justice and the need for leaders in the nonprofit sector.

Congratulations on your new position. How has everything been going so far?

It’s been a lot of meeting people on campus and figuring out where things are and how things work and what the timeline is on (the new Arcus Center) building, which is a huge deal because we have a conference coming up in September that depends heavily on this building.

You came to Kalamazoo from Chicago. What attracted you to West Michigan?

Well, Kalamazoo College attracted me to West Michigan, I have to say. I had no plans to live in West Michigan had it not been for the opportunity to work here. So clearly, the work of the center is unique — not just among college campuses, but in general. There are very few places dedicated specifically to leadership in social justice and what that looks like. And that’s been an interest of mine for a very long time.

I read in a previous interview you gave that you were attracted to the Arcus Center because of its broad way of looking at social justice. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

I think it’s just looking at the essence of what it looks like to do anti-oppression work and think of ourselves as one activist and recognize oppression and injustice wherever it is. Not just when it pertains to the community of which we belong, but when it pertains to any community that’s been marginalized. I’m very interested in what it means to develop an activist identity, which has to, by definition, go beyond any particular issue or any particular place and time.

How have you developed your activist identity?

I would say my activist identity is more from my family. I grew up in a household that was very vocal about injustice, in particular in the black community. … I think a lot of that came from the fact that they owned their own businesses in the black community, and they weren’t dependent on white people in order to live and make money, whereas many other black people were. That kind of fear of losing their jobs and homes wasn’t as pressing in our family, so they had more freedom to participate without loss.

You worked a lot with youth in Chicago and now you are working with college students. What do you enjoy about working with youths and students?

It sounds really cliche, but they’re just more open at that age and there’s more curiosity and less dogma. There’s a commitment to learning, whereas in adulthood, we know everything and we think we don’t need to learn anymore.

Did you face any major adjustments moving from a big city to Kalamazoo?

All in a good way. I’m not from Chicago, I’m from [Alabama] and I grew up on a cul-de-sac. I never saw myself growing old in a large city, so that part is welcome. … It’s different and much more relaxing.

One of the themes I’m seeing in the nonprofit sector is this need for leadership development. Are you seeing the same need and how do you help develop future leaders?

Oh yes, definitely. But I also define leadership development pretty broadly. It’s not only understanding the how-tos of running a nonprofit or raising money or working with boards. There are the hard tasks of running organizations and institutions and then there’s the idea of how one has a good work-life balance. I think in nonprofits, because people are so passionate about the work, it becomes like guilt, actually, if they’re not doing it 24/7. And it bleeds over into everything. … Leadership development also includes what it means to maintain healthy relationships in order to be balanced and preserve oneself so you can do this work for the long haul.

How do you take on such a broad issue like social justice and not get overwhelmed by all the work to do?

You chip away at these problems. Just because there will always be disease doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any doctors. So what it means is to be committed long-term to improving the world and not getting burned out by the time you’re 25 or 26.

What helps you from getting burned out from the work?

I tend to exercise a lot. Before I came [to Kalamazoo], I was boxing and I was doing that for about three years.

Interview conducted and condensed by Lindsay Patton-Carson


Sidebar: Arcus Center completes construction on new building this fall

After three years, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership is set to open the doors to its new $5 million building.

Plans for the 9,500-square-foot building were unveiled in May 2011, with Kalamazoo College beginning construction in December 2012.

The one-story facility, which was designed by Studio Gang of Chicago and built by Kalamazoo-based Miller-Davis Co., is expected to achieve LEED gold certification. It features a white cedar exterior built from about 2,000 Michigan-sourced logs.

The funds for the new building came from a personal gift from Jon Stryker, a Kalamazoo College alum.

Editor’s note: The story was changed from its original form. The new Arcus Center building was built with a personal gift from Jon Stryker. A grant from the Arcus Foundation, which Stryker founded, funds the center’s ongoing operations. 

Read 2293 times Last modified on Monday, 08 September 2014 10:16

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