Grand Rapids City Commissioner Joe Jones recently stepped down from his full-time job as CEO of the Urban League of West Michigan to launch a consulting firm focused on diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and other social justice advocacy. Jones launched The Hekima Group LLC (named after the Swahili word for wisdom) after a decade at the Urban League where he worked closely on the ongoing inequities for people of color in West Michigan. Jones said he felt a calling to launch the consultancy following the nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd, the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate harm to communities of color, and his own personal brush with the virus in October. Jones spoke with MiBiz to discuss his new venture and recent City Commission business.
Why did you decide to leave the Urban League after a decade, and what do you hope to
accomplish with The Hekima Group?
There were conversations with the board over the last year or so about plans to transition out. I felt like I had done what I was called to do in terms of helping to better position the organization to get back to its original mission of being very present in the community.
I’m really feeling a call to lean in more aggressively to address inclusive economic growth. I believe that West Michigan can’t be all that we want it to be until we’re creating more opportunities for people to be what they desire to be. I think that’s been the disconnect for some time now, particularly for African American and Latinx residents not being able to take a bite at the apple and not having access to economic prosperity compared to their white counterparts.
In announcing The Hekima Group, you cited the ‘collateral damage’ from both the pandemic and the social justice movements that launched last year. How do those two issues continue to play out in Grand Rapids?
The devastation that’s come by way of COVID-19: That chapter is still being written in terms of the damage that has been done and that will be done to African American, Latinx and historically marginalized communities in general. The lift is really to persuade or influence those communities to consider the vaccine. To be able to communicate to the African American and Latinx communities about the critical need to take the vaccine, and yet respect their decision not to, weighs heavily on me.
The killing of George Floyd, the aftermath, and the racial unrest was real. That was a significant amount of pent-up frustration, anger and just rage where you had people saying: I need to make my voice heard and I need to make it known this is just not right. Those two events were very significant in my decision making.
Did anything else play a role in your business decision?
I also tested positive for COVID in October. I started out with cold symptoms, which evolved into a loss of taste and smell and a headache nonstop for five days. As I was dealing with it in isolation, I couldn’t help but think about my mortality. I’d often think about the fact that I could die at any moment. COVID does a job on one’s physical body, but it also has done quite the job on one’s mental well being. It took a toll on me both physically and mentally.
What role do you see The Hekima Group playing, either working with companies or doing issue advocacy?
I believe wholeheartedly in our ability to walk alongside folks trying to engage in being a more just, equitable and inclusive organization. It’s bringing wisdom and strategy in areas like (diversity, equity and inclusion), strategic and multi-cultural communications, crisis management, corporate responsibility and public affairs. All of these things are a reflection on the experience I’ve developed over the last 30 years.
How can companies ensure their equity goals or commitments have staying power?
Post-George Floyd, there were a number of companies, organizations and individuals who really wanted to step up and be part of the solution. They were writing significant checks and making aggressive pledges to do better. But really, the jury’s still out on whether that same (energy) is still present, or if so, how can we maintain it. That’s a legitimate concern.
The City Commission just signed off an option agreement to move forward with the 201 Market Ave. property redevelopment. How can that project move forward with an equity lens?
One of the most glaring opportunities for that site in particular is around ownership opportunities for contractors and other businesses to participate in its development. Those are two areas that if we as a city can pull off, then we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
Similarly, how can the city help ensure equity within the city’s expanding cannabis industry?
The city has shown itself as having a value on equity defined as leveraging our influence to be intentional around removing and preventing barriers that have been created by systemic and institutional injustice. Historically, it has been an albatross around the necks of black and brown folks. Now that it’s legal, there’s not many on-ramps to opportunities because of the cost factor. It’s very costly to get into the industry. That’s a major barrier.