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Elizabeth Washington

Executive Director, Northside Association for Community Development

Elizabeth Washington’s foray into social justice began when she was just 9 and a friend was being picked on by a group of bigger fourth-graders at St. Augustine Cathedral School. Little Elizabeth stood up to one of the more muscular boys in the group and told him to stop. He pushed her.

“Since he touched me, I punched him in his stomach and ended up down in the principal’s office, who at the time was a nun, and she listened to my story,” the 54-year-old Kalamazoo native recalls. “I don’t remember the punishment — I may have had to do lunch duty or wipe tables — but I know I thought, ‘I would still do it again.'”

Now Washington is putting her social justice ethos to work at the Northside Association for Community Development, a nonprofit founded in 1981 to promote the health, financial stability and revitalization of a neighborhood that nearly 5,300 Kalamazoo residents call home. In 2023, 77 percent of the residents of the Northside neighborhood were Black, according to the W.E. Upjohn Research Institute for Employment Research, and it is an area that has a history of inequity on many fronts, from economic to environmental. Despite these challenges and the fact that Washington is relatively new to the field of urban and community planning, she is undaunted.

“The reality is that property builds wealth, so who has and owns the property matters,” says Washington. “We’re helping people right here in our neighborhood around housing, economic development, and health and fitness, and that’s what I’m here for, so if that means learning about urban development and asking a lot questions, I’m good with that.”

I graduated from Kalamazoo Central and Kalamazoo College, where my first degree was in human resources and relations and where I later earned a teaching certificate. I discovered I loved teaching eighth-graders because I was teaching them about U.S. history at the same time they were becoming their own persons, questioning our government, our government’s creation and its challenges. The idea of social justice was built into the way I taught and organized the classroom.

In 2013 I went to work for Derek Jeter’s Turn2 Foundation as the director of Jeter’s Leaders, a leadership development program for high school students. We took them all over the U.S. and did week-long social justice projects. The director of diversity and inclusion position at Bronson Healthcare became open, and I wondered, “What would it look like if I could impact a whole health care system, the largest employer in Southwest Michigan? What could that do in a social justice manner for our whole community?”

At Bronson, I implemented programs like language services to provide medical interpretation and translation, built community partnerships and worked internally to implement the American Hospital Association’s Equity of Care Pledge. I discovered how to push the organization to look at how well we were doing with regards to populations that were marginalized traditionally by health care and other systems. If we could collect data around race, ethnicity, language and other social demographic factors, we could see where disparities lie within our system and in comparison to the community around us.

That became bigger than anything I had ever done before.

Creating systemic change is a lot of work, and it tired me out. I resigned in 2022. My whole thing for a year was rest and reset.

Mattie Jordan Woods (former NACD director, who retired in December 2023) asked me to apply for her position. I don’t think I would have if she hadn’t, because how do you follow someone who was here for 36 years and created a neighborhood association unlike any others, based on the idea that the best way to impact housing, economic development and health and fitness in our neighborhood is to own property and build wealth? I think all of my experiences were needed for me to be able to say, “Yes, I can do this job.”

The event center that’s going in to our south and the Hard Rock venue going in to our northeast will have a big impact. We are creating the structures right now so that we can make sure that the properties around here stay with the community and don’t all become Airbnbs or short-term rentals. Right now, 80 percent of this neighborhood’s homes are residential rentals. I don’t want people to be priced out of living in their own neighborhood.

We know, with those venues going in, there will be a need for workers at those sites. The 2022 Kalamazoo Community Health Needs report shows that where we sit has the least labor force participation and the highest childhood poverty in Kalamazoo. How can we turn that tide? How can we help the people within this community get the skills and training to be able to participate in the economy that those venues will create? We have to have the infrastructure and the partnerships in place to get that moving.

Raising two amazing African American children who are successful in their definition of successful and happy in their definition of happy.

I would also say I’m proud of the work I was able to accomplish at Bronson. Not a lot of health care organizations were collecting patient data like race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation and gender identity and then using that data to pinpoint where to do community health work, but we were.

— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity

This story is part of Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative’s dedicated coverage of quality of life issues and community development. SWMJC is a group of 12 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. Visit swmichjournalism.com to learn more.

Marie Lee

Marie is the editor of Encore Magazine and vice president of Encore Publications, Inc. She’s been at the helm of Encore since October 2011. Marie’s background covers the gamut; she’s a former newspaper reporter and editor, a public relations and marketing communications professional, and book editor and collaborator. As Encore’s editor, she is dedicated to bringing the best things about the greater Kalamazoo community to the magazine’s readers.

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