Though most people in the Kalamazoo area don’t notice, Parchment, Michigan is no longer the bustling hotspot of businesses and activities that it used to be. Driving through the main part of town today, there are a multitude of abandoned factories, warehouses, and other rundown buildings.
“What we find in Kalamazoo County is that [there is] about 3 percent unemployment, but in the core neighborhoods—Edison County, the North side, and the East side—[there is] about 40 percent Joe Brown, Technical Coordinating Manager for Urban Alliance, said. “There’s this huge discrepancy and we’re trying to bridge that gap. We’re giving these people who are often considered ‘un-hireable’ a leg up by teaching them not only how to get employment, but how to stay employed.”
The average income per capita in Parchment is just over $21,000 a year, according to the 2016 Census, which is almost $8,000 less than the Federal poverty level for a family of five.
Urban Alliance has been an established local non-profit since 2006, working with the community to provide unemployed and underemployed people with the life skills necessary to secure and maintain employment. According to Brown, every individual who participates in their development program not only gets a job but is also assigned a life coach in order to help them maintain that job.
In collaboration with Western Michigan University’s Bronco Force, Urban Alliance will take over 10,000 square feet of a warehouse facility in Parchment. The full facility has other companies in the space, which offers a lot of potential opportunities for expansion and future alliances.
“Parchment has had some struggles, it would be nice to see that turn around and see some manufacturing come back to this immediate area,” Brown said.
The new program with WMU will start off by specifically targeting students in the Supply Management program, and give them the opportunity to gain volunteer experience, learn hands-on warehouse and inventory skills, as well as taking part in some physical lab work. Some of the senior students in the program may even have the opportunity to teach some courses at the new facility, according to Ken Jones, Director of Education and Applied Solutions for WMU’s Integrated Supply Management program (ISM).
While Urban Alliance students will provide the physical labor and gain employment opportunities they otherwise may not be able to find, WMU students will gain valuable experience to help them learn and be able to eventually move into full-time positions after their graduation, Jones said.
87 percent of the students working through Urban Alliance have prior convictions in the criminal justice system, 50 percent are under current supervision, 79 percent of them are living in poverty, and 30 percent are actually homeless. It’s a situation that, according to Brown, goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the community. In the state of Michigan, 29 percent of the people released from prison will be re-incarcerated. However, if they are able to get a job during their first year out of prison, that number drops to 5 percent. With the help of Urban Alliance, that recidivism rate drops to just 1.8 percent, according to Brown.
“Kalamazoo is a very servant leader city, with a lot of people trying to do a lot of things for the community. What we’re doing here follows suit but it’s a physical action,” Brown said. “We’re not just changing their [Urban Alliance students’] lives, we’re changing their friends lives, their families lives, their kids lives, it’s an exponential change, and that’s what we believe in. As that change grows there’s a hope restored, and that’s our goal—hope restored.”
Brown and Jones hope to get the new program up and running in just a few short weeks and have their first group of students from WMU sometime in the fall.
Looking toward the future, Jones hopes to replicate the scenarios and day-to-day work of a typical warehouse facility to give students hands-on experience and to potentially expand the program into a 200,000 square foot facility. Urban Alliance students will get paid for their labor while gaining the emotional intelligence and conflict resolution skills necessary in the real world. And hopefully, Brown and Jones add, this alliance will bring back some manufacturing and development to the core areas of Kalamazoo.
“At the end of the day, it’s [Kalamazoo] a city. Cities have problems, we’re not devoid of those problems. Kalamazoo is different because we have a servant leader model here. Having lived all over the country, cities tend to pretend like these ugly truths don’t exist,” Jones said. “But we don’t hide these things here, we actively, collaboratively, have things in place to solve these things. You have to do things at the systemic level to eradicate poverty and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more about the new program can contact:
Joe Brown: firstname.lastname@example.org 269-348-0978
Ken Jones: email@example.com 269-387-4143