In Battle Creek, Michigan, where 31 percent of people of color live in poverty – compared to 15 percent of whites – and the infant mortality rate among African Americans is nearly double that of their white peers, the local community college decided to tackle the sticky issue of race head on.
Kellogg Community College Center for Diversity and Innovation (KCCCDI) in 2015 started partnering with local and national organizations to host community forums, encouraging people from different races and socio-economic backgrounds – including business and community leaders, educators and city officials – to discuss racism and race relations in their communities.
“What we are simply trying to do is build a foundation of knowledge and understanding on how race and racism are systemic and how they impact organizations and individuals within our community,” said Jorge Zeballos, KCCCDI executive director. “We build that knowledge and awareness of individuals and institutions so that we’re able to look at specific indicators within those organizations to then create a strategy that may reduce any racial inequities showing up in their system.”
The center, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, hosts learning labs in partnership with national diversity consulting firm White Men as Full Diversity partners twice a year at the local YMCA. To date, more than 100 people have attended the learning labs, which provide a safe, supportive space for participants to hold difficult conversations about race and deepen their understanding about institutional racism.
“What begins to happen is that folks are able to gain a deeper understanding of not only their individual experience, but also get a large picture of how these issues have really begun to impact our experience in the U.S.,” Zeballos said.
Coaching for Community Transformation is an extension of the center’s work. The three-day training sessions are led by consultants from national leadership training firm Leadership at Works, who teach participants to use reflective questioning to help others breakdown personal prejudices.
“It’s about asking questions that empower that individual to put them in a position that they feel they have the skill and they have the power to overcome that challenge,” said Zeballos, adding that about 100 people from the community have attended this training.
After attending this training, Dave Peterson, superintendent for Lakeview School District in Battle Creek, requested the center provide yearly diversity training for district administrators. The training is part of an ongoing effort by the district to address racial equity issues within its schools, such as the disproportionate disciplinary actions against students of color.
Peterson said the school trainings helped deepen staff’s understanding about racial equity as well as his own.
“It has been a huge transformation,” said Peterson. “I have an ability to look through a different lens and be very accepting and loving of all people.”
Zeballos said KCCCDI will examine education, health and economic indicators to measure the organization’s success in tackling institutional racism “to see if those numbers are better than they were 10 to 15 years ago, or are they worse,” referring to a reduction in the achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts or a decrease in infant mortality rates among African American children.
“You need that data, then you can begin to diagnose the problem with a treatment,” he said, citing a City of Seattle initiative, which more than tripled the amount of purchasing dollars to women and businesses owned by people of color and made progress in workforce equity from 2009 to 2011.
Zeballos said KCCCDI has the potential to do the same, if not more, to reform discriminatory policies.
“It’s about building foundational knowledge of these issues and that takes time,” he added. “We’re not going to change it in six months or a year, but hopefully we can begin to see markers of significant improvement.”
Kellogg Community College President Mark O’Connell said the center’s mission is just as critical on KCC’s campus as it is in Battle Creek at-large. Center staff has held several workshops for KCC staff to enhance their understanding of diversity and racism, including a workshop with the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington, a nationally-acclaimed diversity training expert and founder of the Washington Consulting Group.
“Our community’s changing, the demographics of our community are changing and we need to look at ways that we welcome those changes into our institution,” O’Connell said.