Urban League of West Michigan: Partner Spotlight

Copy Of Dianas Oped 1

Urban League of West Michigan: Partner Spotlight

Eugene Sueing, program director, had the opportunity to virtually interview Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones, president/CEO of the Urban League of West Michigan and Second Ward Commissioner of the City of Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids Community Foundation's Board of Trustees recently approved a $150,000 grant partnership with the League to support their work in providing trusted employment, youth development, and health education supports in communities of color. Eugene and Joe discuss the League, how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting communities of color and what we as a community can do to create a path of inclusion, equity and justice. 

Tell us a bit about yourself and the Urban League of West Michigan.

Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones: 

The Urban League of West Michigan is a historic civil rights organization that has been in existence for nearly 80 years. We are one of three affiliates here in Michigan and one of 90 nationwide. We currently serve three counties: Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa. We work diligently to enable African Americans, and other historically marginalized populations to become self-sufficient, secure, and healthy by providing programs in education, job training, employment, housing, health and economic development and we collaborate with other community groups to help achieve these goals.

I have served as President/CEO since July 2011. I’ve also served as a Grand Rapids City Commissioner, representing the second ward, since 2016. My other role in community is that of ordained clergy. I currently serve as Assistant Pastor at Brown-Hutcherson Ministries.    

Why is Grand Rapids Urban League important to the growth and development of our community? 

Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones: 

The League, like the Community Foundation, has served a critical role in the community of Grand Rapids for decades. Historically, we’ve been able to meet the needs of our community in a way that enhances their dignity and respects their personhood. We know that we cannot meet every need for every person who walks through our doors calls us on the phone, but have established an organizational culture that requires every member of our staff to treat our client guests with dignity, respect and the expectation to speak hope into their lives in spite of their circumstances.

This practice has been especially helpful during this pandemic. The people who are reaching out to us these days are experiencing fear and elevated levels of stress due to the fact that their lives have been turned upside down. 

How has the Urban League been serving community during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones:

We’ve been able to serve our client guests in such ways as locating affordable housing, rental assistance, landlord/tenant rights, basic needs (food, toiletries, masks, etc.), employment, mental health services referrals, educational services referrals, and most importantly encouragement, reassurance, affirmation and a listening ear. They have been very transparent and vocal about their plight and their concerns about the uncertainties of life. We see it as our responsibility to speak life into their circumstance.

We are also undertaking a pretty significant project. We have successfully convened a number of partners in community in an effort to create and disseminate 3,000 COVID Care Kits to residents of the urban core of Grand Rapids. These care kits include a bottle of hand soap, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a mask. Partners include SureFil, Haviland Enterprises, Amway, Priority Health, and Public Thread. 

What impact do you see the Community Foundation’s collaboration with Grand Rapids Urban League and other nonprofit and small business initiatives having on our community?

Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones: 

I am a student of history. Context matters. I believe we as a nation have gotten to this place of great inequity, disparity and injustice for historically marginalized communities such as African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans primarily because of racism, and racist policies, systems and structures. 

The only way to disrupt or change that which has produced these wicked outcomes is by being unapologetically intentional. This is what I see OUR community’s foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, doing by way of strategic investment into organizations and structures that serve, care for, and are owned by historically marginalized communities in our beloved city. 

I believe OUR community’s foundation will continue to have impact just as long as there is strategic and equity lens that is being used in their decision-making process. Although it may not be a popular refrain in and throughout our city and country, race matters. And OUR community’s foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, understands this.

Could you share a little bit about your partnerships to provide culturally relevant information about COVID-19 ?

Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones: 

The League had an opportunity to collaborate with our friends at Spectrum Health and participate in two, in-depth interviews with providers of color. The interviews discussed the basics of COVID-19, actions Spectrum Health is taking, and COVID-19 considerations that are unique to our African-American community as well as faith communities. The interviews featured Dr. Jessica Smith, Hospitalist at Spectrum Health and Dr. Simin Beg, Hospice & Palliative Medicine.

Another initiative that we led was the creation of a culturally appropriate and affirming PSA encouraging the community to abide by the recommendations of the CDC and the Kent County Health Department, i.e. washing your hands, practicing physical distancing, and wearing a mask. The League successfully recruited an impressive list of native or longstanding residents of Grand Rapids to participate in the 60-second television spot. It is now airing on all four major networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC) and cable networks. You’ll know it when you see it. 

What other ways have you seen our community come together to address the pressing needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones: 

One of the most beautiful and pleasing outcomes that have materialized during this season of COVID-19 is the recognition that more people seem to have for their fellow man or woman. There seems to be an uptick in how people are responding to the needs of the “other” in a way that was absent pre-COVID-19. Organizations and individuals are stepping up and leaning in, whether it’s providing masks, sanitizer, food, or even words of encouragement. This pandemic is trying its best to crush us, to crush our spirits, our resolve. However, I am believing that we’re going to come out of this season better. Better than we were before. I’m striving for better. I’m living and leading for better.

As our community feels the impacts of COVID-19, in your opinion, what will ensure that we continue to build toward an inclusive economy and thriving community? 

Rev. Joseph "Joe" Jones: 

It’s been said in the past that we should never let a crisis go to waste. The disruption of systems and structures that produce inequitable outcomes is what we’re seeing in the midst of this pandemic. Harvard University Public Health professor said, “This unique moment has shone a bright light on stark inequities that have been under the surface and existed for a very long time.” This truism speaks to health inequities, as well as all other inequities that are at play in our country tis of thee, this sweet land of liberty known as America.

Let us never forget the lessons of the past and all that history has taught us about how we came to be a place of inequity and injustice. Now, more than ever, we have a chance, at least in Grand Rapids and Kent County, to reimagine what our economy looks like, what our community looks like. We don’t have to go back to how it was. We can boldly walk in the way of inclusion, of equity, of justice. This is my dream, my aspiration. As Jay-Z once said, “All I got is dreams. Nobody else believes. Nobody else can see. Nobody else but me.” Changing the circumstances of your surroundings begins with you and your dream. Let’s get to dreaming, shall we?