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A Burgeoning Nonprofit

The leadership staff at Rootead includes, from left, Coco Marie, Vanessa Moon, Kama Mitchell, Heather Mitchell and Carmen James.
Adaptability, tenacity and advocacy fuel Rootead’s growth

The seeds that Kama Mitchell sowed in 2016 to create Rootead have not only taken root in the last eight years, but truly bloomed.

The scope and depth of this nonprofit organization that provides youth enrichment, community healing and birth justice for Black, Indigenous and other people of color have expanded greatly since its beginning, but the drive to help the BIPOC community has stayed the same.

“I would describe (Rootead) as a forward-thinking organization that makes decisions based on the greater good and adapts to what the community needs with a very anti-racist, anti-injustice lens,” says Mitchell, Rootead’s executive director.

Mitchell and her cousin Heather Mitchell created Rootead based on their shared experiences of being biracial women in a predominantly white community and the inequity they were exposed to.

“We would go to yoga classes and African dance classes and sometimes be the brownest people in the room,” recalls Kama Mitchell. “We were both biracial, (so) that was a little shocking. The climate, the environment, it’s like a Dutch Bible belt.

“I’ve traveled a lot around the country and lived in a lot of places, and when you start to notice the significant disparity between Black and white in your own city, it becomes a little bit jarring. When you notice and understand redlining, statistics, social determinants of health, it becomes activating. But for us to have so many billionaires in the community and then for 51 percent of black women and their families to be on or below poverty level, it irritates me, so I was, like, ‘I have to do something.’”

Mitchell’s own two sons were also among the catalysts for her to start Rootead. “I’m raising Black children in the community, so I want my boys to have a better experience,” she says

Small start, big expansion

Rootead started very small, with an equally low-key mission. “We wrote a tiny little grant to the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to host a six-week program called Rootead Queens, to at least give women nervous-system regulation by offering them dance and yoga to deal with the world out here,” says Mitchell.

Rootead kept writing grants and building relationships in the community, but its growth was slow until May 2020.

“When George Floyd passed away the summer of 2020, we started just getting money thrown at us because our organization centers on the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color and we have a focus on healing and a focus on justice,” she says.

At the same time, a grant request by the organization to the Stryker Johnston Foundation resulted in an award of $500,000, which Mitchell says further fueled the organization’s growth.

Rootead hired new employees and expanded its scope.The organization now has 14 employees and a three-pronged focus.

Youth, healing, justice

The first focus is youth enrichment, headed by Heather Mitchell, an area that emphasizes African roots and culture through drum and dance, mindfulness, social-emotional learning, Indigenous history and community support. A key element in this area is the Youth Rootead Drum and Dance Ensemble for kids ages 13 through 18, which, in addition to giving training in African drumming and dance, provides free transportation and meals.

Coco Marie oversees a second branch of the organization — community healing. “Anything ‘healing-esque’ that’s requested from the community goes through Coco, and we figure out if we have the capacity to do it,” explains Kama Mitchell. “For instance, United Way just contracted with us to do some healing arts work with their staff for their wellness. We do retreats, trainings and workshops in the community that mimic our ethos around regulating the nervous system and building relationships, understanding, cultural humility and sensitivity.”

Rootead’s healing focus also includes a newer initiative to help the BIPOC community access mental health care.

“We’re coming up on three years for the Black and Brown Therapy Collective, which is very well funded and well used by our community. Any Black or brown person in the community can reach out, sign up and be paired with a Black or brown therapist and get up to $1,000 of therapy paid for,” says Mitchell.

“All they have to do is sign up and say they want it.”

The third prong of Rootead’s work is its birth-justice efforts, which include doula training and certification. Since it began in 2016, the organization has trained more than 40 doulas to provide mentoring and assistance to pregnant BIPOC women to help reduce the high infant mortality rates in the BIPOC community. According to 2021 Michigan Department of Community Health statistics, the mortality rate for Black babies in the state is more than three times higher than for white babies (15.5 deaths per 1,000 live births vs. 4.2 deaths per 1,000 live births).

“The way the Red Birth Green doula collective (of Rootead) and I approach birth is that it’s very much a physiological act, and we should treat it as such with a whole lot of support, a whole lot of knowledge and less medical interventions,” Mitchell says.

Pride in job creation

While Rootead’s growth and increasing impact on the community are admirable, those are not what Mitchell says she is most proud of.

“I’m most proud of the fact that I have created 14 family-friendly, living-wage, anti-racist jobs. I think everybody who works here has the same intention for the community: They’re all in to change the narrative, move the needle.”

But most grant-funding organizations don’t recognize the people it takes to make these programs happen, Mitchell says.

“I’m pushing back on how they want to fund the program and not the people,” she says. “There would be no programs without the people, so when you look at our finances, you would balk because 68 percent of our funds go to the people working. The programming comes from us. It’s not materials. It’s not paper. If I don’t have the people, how do we do the thing?”

While Mitchell praises the Rootead team for the organization’s success, there’s no doubt Mitchell’s own characteristics deserve credit as well.

“I’ve just been tenacious,” she admits. “And authentic. I’m authentic to a point where I make people feel uncomfortable sometimes, but life’s too short. I’ve been able to build really awesome relationships. Even before I started this, I went to the nonprofits that people thought were similar and checked in with those executive directors because we’re stronger together. And I’ve been able to share my lived experience in a way that has people calling me for consults. We’ve been invited to many things based on our consistently showing up for the youth, for the people, for the pregnant people.

“Being transparent, authentic, tenacious has helped.”

Jarret Whitenack

An intern at Encore, Jarret hails from Oregon, where he recently graduated from Portland State University with a degree in history.

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