Diverse Communities and COVID-19


A new coalition in West Michigan is focusing on urban communities and diverse businesses and neighborhoods to strengthen community partnerships during COVID-19. Learn how you can join Urban League of West Michigan and West Michigan COVID-19 Business Coalition in helping those who need help the most.



00:06 Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Money, I’m Home. Thanks so much for joining us, I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson with Consumers Credit Union, and we are focusing on finance to fitness here with Money, I’m Home podcast. Today, we have a very special edition, we’re focusing on our “Stay Safe, Stay Home” programs that everybody is following right now, and I’ll tell you what, it has changed drastically the landscape of business, of non-profit in our communities. Joining us today are two very special guests. We have Joe Jones, who’s the president and CEO of the Urban League of West Michigan. Joe is also on the West Michigan COVID-19 Business Coalition, so we’re going to talk with him about that, and then also Lisa Knight, who is the vice president and chief program officer for the Urban League. Welcome, thanks for joining us today, I know it’s been a very busy strange couple of weeks.

00:55 Lisa Knight: Thank you, thanks for having us.

00:56 Joe Jones: Thanks for having us.

00:57 LJJ: Joe, let’s start with you. I want you to do me a favor and close your eyes to March 1st, think back to when there were rumors or inklings that there might be a possibility that the way that we do business will drastically change. And, with the Urban League of Grand Rapids in West Michigan, you truly focus on helping people stay in their jobs, stay in their homes … education, every single quadrant that you focus on … At that point in time, were you thinking what a drastic change this was going to be for West Michigan?

01:32 JJ: I can say without hesitation that yes, we were, I think, in many ways prepared for the very worst to occur for a couple of reasons. One was we were thinking at part all that was happening in other parts of the world, particularly China, what was beginning to happen over Europe, and we saw it as something that would have potentially a devastating impact on our country, but in particular on the African-American community. I think it’s fair to say that our fears have been validated, and in terms of the collateral damage that’s occurred. It has been said that when America gets a cold, black folks get the flu. And now the question is, when America has COVID-19, what does that mean for black folks? And, unfortunately, for quite a few it means death. So, the physical death, but also death to economic prosperity opportunities, death to small business development opportunities, death to community development opportunities, and that is what we’re seeing.

02:38 JJ: This pandemic is shining a significant light on the disparities and the inequities that exist within our country, especially as it pertains to not just African-Americans, but other historically marginalized populations like Latinx as well, and of course our Native American brothers and sisters. There’s a real effort to get ahead of this pandemic, and that whole effort is really about providing resources, guidance, and business services to both employers and employees of our community that have been affected by this pandemic. And so, it’s … This consists of organizations like Experience Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber, as well as Asian Pacific American Commerce, City of Grand Rapids, the DGRI which is Downtown Grand Rapid Inc., Kent County, Linkup, Local First, The National Business League, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, West Michigan Works, and, of course, Your Urban League of West Michigan. And so, it is a very intentional effort to try to address this pandemic and the impact, the devastating effect it’s having on respective communities as in particular communities of color in our region.

03:55 LJJ: What a wonderful collaboration.

03:57 JJ: It’s times like this in which the true character of individuals and organizations really present themselves, and I think that you’re seeing a real commitment to collaboration.

04:09 LJJ: Lisa, as program Vice President with West Michigan Urban League, I know the fact that we focus on employment, housing, education, health and advocacy, much of that is done face-to-face in the past. How did you pivot to be able to start continuing to serve when some things can’t be done face-to-face during, “Stay Home, Stay Safe?”

04:31 LK: We are trying to make sure that we maintain the social distancing as is requested across our country. But, in also realizing that the populations that we serve are the ones that are the hardest hit during this situation, they are not able to access the things that they need, and in all honesty, not really getting the true information that they need to make the best choices for their selves. But then, when you think about that word “best choices,” for most families that are impoverished and don’t have access to food, “best choice” is to get whatever I need to get the best way I can. And so, what we have stepped back and said, “How about we reach out to them instead of them having to come to us?” We still have clients out there that because they have lost income they’re not able to meet their household needs by paying their bills, their electrical or gas bills or water bills and even keeping the roof over their head and paying their rent. So, we’re trying to make sure that we still get calls coming in regarding landlord and tenant rights because there are people that are still getting eviction notices from their property owners, and they don’t know what to do. People are resorting to drastic measures, and so we want to make sure that they know what their rights are, we want to make sure that we are able to support them so we’re trying to just think outside of the box and figure out the best ways to help people.

05:58 LJJ: Joe, when you see this happening … I know that you’re concerned as the CEO, not only for the clients that we serve but also for your staff. How have you been helping in just keeping that communication flow? What are some of the tips that you’re doing to keep the spirits up? I think remote is not easy.

06:20 JJ: No, it’s actually rather difficult. I would say that one of things that we tend to overlook about this pandemic and the effects it’s having is that when you talk about this practice of social distancing, they’re now calling it physical distancing, is that it’s very countercultural as it pertains to the African American and Latinx communities. Usually when crisis or trouble strikes, those communities they come together. We’re being told to do the opposite, which is just not within our wheelhouse, it’s not something that we naturally do. And so, to operate in a place where there’s a limited physical contact, limited interaction … On a pretty regular basis, black and brown folk, we totally crush the social distancing rule, we don’t … We are well within six feet and we see this as part of who we are, it’s part of our community, it’s part of our culture, and so to work in this dynamic is all the more difficult.

07:24 JJ: I have to credit both Lisa as well as our Chief Operating Officer Brenda Moore who have been spending time encouraging and affirming our staff and reminding them of the importance of the work that they’re doing. Because, it really is work that is necessary, and it may not even feel as if it’s doing enough. But we have, as Lisa has mentioned, folks are calling us for help for basic needs and housing and employment and the like, but also people are just calling because they’re afraid and they want someone to talk to. And so, they give us an opportunity to further carry out our mission and wanting to affirm and to provide dignity and respect to just, really hopefully leave some hope, a better sense of hope with those that we’re trying the best we can to connect with. Because that is critically important right now, is to be able to have it to where people feel as if there’s a reason to hold on and not lose their minds because it’s really easy right now.

08:27 LJJ: Lisa, I know that you’re also really focusing in on some aspects of staying healthy, safe meaning masks and what is it that you’ve been doing that is a little bit out of your wheelhouse as Joe just said, but is making such a big impact?

08:44 LK: You know what’s really funny is that in this day and hour we have to step back and look at all the skills and talents that we have as individuals and kind of reinvent ourselves, but also looking at the needs of our community. About five weeks ago, I reached out to a friend, Janay Brower at Public Thread and said, “You know what? We need to make masks. We need to get these out. The community is going to need them. People are going to need them. How can we do this?” And so, Janay immediately responded back to me and she was like, “Hey, let’s make it happen. Let’s do it. We can do this. I don’t know how we’re going to do it … we’re going to do it.” And so, then she and I sat down and begin to brainstorm, “What are the things that we’re going to need? How are we going to do this? How do we not necessarily recreate the wheel, but take what might be already available and then begin to integrate that into what we’re doing, so that we can not only try to supply a need for our healthcare workers who might need it, but our front line people who are out there in the streets every day, and our bus drivers, and our postal workers, and people that are working at the Dollar Generals and the little corner stores in our community?”

09:54 LK: And so, we started prototyping, we started sewing, and we reached out to a number of seamstresses in our community to see who could volunteer time, who could come in and help cut material, who could help us get this thing going. And so, now we’re reaching out, we’re trying to apply for some of these grants out there to keep this running so that people can get a living wage, they can still meet their needs, they can pay their bills and feed their families, and yet produce something that is going to be of need in our community. And so, we’ve got this whole production line going on, and we are making masks.

10:30 LJJ: Lisa it’s an incredible story. How can people who are listening reach out for multiple reasons? Perhaps they are in a tenant situation that is just un-tenantable and they need assistance on how they can speak with their landlord. Perhaps they’d like to volunteer to help with the mask making, or perhaps they’d like to donate. How can anyone that’s listening reach out to get help?

11:00 JJ: It’s easy, you can actually give us a call at the Urban League at 245-2207. We could do all that we can to help match your desire with the needs that are out there. I will tell you that the needs are … They’re across the board, so we would love to hear from folks. In many ways, this aligns very well with who we are as an organization. I say all the time and that is the work that we do is very personal. And so, this is our community, and we feel a significant amount of responsibility, and we just happen to be positioned … I’ve been positioned for over 70 years to meet the needs of our community and so we would love to partner with those in the broader community who want to lean in for such a time as this.

11:45 LJJ: Well Lisa and Joe, thank you so much for your time today. If anybody … if you’re a business that would like to help in that mask making, and maybe you have either time or talent or funds to donate, we sure would appreciate that. We want you to know that there’s two websites that you can go to to learn information to help, www.covidwm.org, and then also of course the grurbanleague.org. You can donate on the grurbanleague.org, but most of all we really need your talents and your passion for helping us all succeed and see that bright shining light that Joe and Lisa both talked about. Thank you both for joining us today.


12:33 LJJ: Hey, Money, I’m Home, from finance to fitness. Thank you so much for joining in with us today. I’d like to thank Jake, our production extraordinaire, thanks for editing and making this sound so good, Jake. Everybody have a great week, stay safe, stay home, and if you have a topic you’d like us to talk about please send it our way. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson with Consumers Credit Union. Money, I’m Home.



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