When Mattie Jordan-Woods started her job as the executive director of the Northside Association for Community Development, she told herself she’d be at the job for two years. That was in 1987.
Now, some 32 years later, the fiery, feisty advocate for one of Kalamazoo’s most economically challenged neighborhoods is still at it, working behind the scenes and in the public eye — sometimes up to 70 hours a week — to better the lives of the approximately 6,000 people who call the Northside neighborhood home.
“I fell in love with the Northside,” says Jordan-Woods, now 63. “It’s as if I am married to this community. And I’m still in love.”
Jordan-Woods comes from a Chicago family of nine brothers and sisters. The family moved to Three Rivers when she was 12 years old. Often homesick that first year, she would take the bus to Chicago every Friday and stay with relatives there before begrudgingly returning home Sunday evening.
Jordan-Woods, who still lives with her husband in a home she built in the Northside neighborhood in 1996, describes herself as “the runt” of her family. She was a small, skinny girl who would have to stand up for herself and not back down from anyone in order to survive.
“I was always told, ‘You are going to have to stick up for yourself,’” she says. “Mama said, ‘I can’t make you love yourself. You gotta look in the mirror and tell yourself you love yourself.’”
Mama was Eva Rodgers, and her advice has come in handy throughout Jordan-Woods’ life.
After seeing television footage of busing programs that sought to desegregate the city’s schools, she had thought there were a lot of black folks in Kalamazoo. But when she arrived at Kalamazoo Central High School in 1972, after her mother moved the family here, she was hit with a different reality.
“I was the only black person in most of my classes,” she says. “Talk about culture shock.”
When she told her mother that she was struggling with a teacher who was prejudiced toward African-Americans, the solution her mother offered was straightforward and simple.
“She said, ‘Mattie, then make her mad and get an “A” in the class.’ I would think, ‘Don’t call on me because you think I don’t know the answer and try and make me look foolish, because I know the answer — and some extra information too.’”
Her mother kept anyone who might have a negative influence on her children out of their home. Transgressions by the children were met with swift consequences, not because Rodgers was mean, but because she wanted her children not to stray from the path that would lead them to realizing their full potential. In many ways, the attitude of toughness in the face of adversity that shaped her mother also molded Jordan-Woods into the woman she is today.
“I had a mother who was stern but loved me to death,” she says. “I am who I am because of her.”
She made Jordan-Woods volunteer so she wouldn’t be ashamed of being poor. When they were still in Chicago, she’d take her children to black neighborhoods where well-cared-for homes were surrounded by manicured lawns, and she’d tell her children, “Just because you’re black don’t mean you gotta be poor,” Jordan-Woods recalls.
“Mama always said, ‘Focus on your education. It’s the most important thing. Once you get it, it can’t be taken away from you.’”
After Jordan-Woods graduated from Western Michigan University in the late 1970s, she began working at the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home, where she attended to children from all races, many of whom had suffered intense forms of abuse and trauma prior to being lodged in the facility.
“I saw such misery in that home,” she says. It was hard to work there, she adds, but “the experience was one of many that made me want to advocate for those in need.”
When her mother died in 2009 after a decade-long bout with cancer, Jordan-Woods was shaken but resolute.
“My mother brought me to this community and this neighborhood,” she says. “I am not going anywhere, which means my mama hasn’t left.”
Good deeds for those in need
Jordan-Woods’ accomplishments over the years have been many.
Along with a diverse group of individuals, government entities and nonprofit groups, she was instrumental in building a space to house a grocery store and other retail enterprises on the Northside in 2003, after the area had lived through years of being a food desert. The building, at 215 N. Park St., had been the home of a couple of chain grocery stores that closed. Since 2010, it has housed the Park Street Market.
The Northside Association for Community Development owns the $3.7 million building and collects $100,000 in rent annually from the grocery store, Jordan-Woods says. The money that remains after taxes and other expenses are deducted fills the association’s coffers, to be used for development and programming in the neighborhood.
Jordan-Woods made sure there was a clause in the store’s lease that requires employees at the store to be hired from the neighborhood.
“That was probably one of our biggest accomplishments,” she says of her work at the NACD. “You can’t have a community without a store where people can buy food.”
The building also serves as an economic stimulus to the neighborhood, where she says $10 million of development occurred from 2003 to 2008, including the opening of a new $4.2 million Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety station.
In recent years, she helped prevent several vacant lots in the neighborhood from being developed into a liquor store, instead securing funding to build affordable housing for seniors.
Her decades-long advocacy for the neighborhood and her tireless, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude mean she is on a first-name basis with the city’s power brokers and high-level municipal officials. Of her ability to get things done, she is not exactly a paragon of humility.
“If I want to do something, I am going to do it and nothing is getting in my way. Period.”
“She’s been such an example of tenacity,” says former Kalamazoo mayor Bobby Hopewell. “At times, that can rub people the wrong way and challenge their ability to work with her, but it has driven her to breathe new life into the Northside neighborhood.”
Hopewell remembers a time he was in Jordan-Woods’ “crosshairs” when he was younger and the two of them served on the Northside Association for Community Development’s board of directors. Hopewell used an expletive at her after a meeting where they had a disagreement. That was a mistake, he says.
“She said, passionately, ‘Don’t you be swearing at me, boy.’ I deserved that,” he says. “But I would stand beside her, behind her, in front of her. She’s become one of my biggest champions and biggest challengers, but it made me a better mayor. With so many issues to attend to, she kept me focused on the Northside, on the neighborhood she loves.”
Controlling the land
Some of Jordan-Woods’ proudest accomplishments have not been aimed at catching the public’s eye.
Quietly over the years she has helped several individuals and families negotiate the often-complicated process of purchasing a home. She has brought together teachers and parents whose children were struggling in school to organize new efforts to ensure the children’s success.
“Those of us who know better should do better,” she says. “I am a human being, and I have made mistakes. Sure, there are some things I shouldn’t have said along the way, but I am not going to cower. I am not going to stop fighting for what I believe in.”
She does display humility, though, in recognizing the cooperative spirit that exists in Kalamazoo, as well as the payoffs that can come only from hard work.
“People tell me sometimes, ‘Oh, Mattie, you’re so powerful.’ Excuse me? I work 70 hours a week sometimes. Gimme a break,” she says. “Plus, it’s not just me. One of my favorite aspects of this city is how we work together, how we can cooperate when we see a problem that needs addressing.”
That cooperative spirit is going to be needed if the Northside neighborhood is to retain its identity and burgeon into a thriving community, Jordan-Woods says.
“Some people think this area is crime-ridden because it’s black. Those people — I can’t help them,” she says. “Come up here and see all the good people who live here, work here, go to church here. Have an open mind.”
Yet Jordan-Woods is concerned about a relatively unspoken trend taking place in and around the Northside: the slow creep of gentrification, with large, well-funded firms developing land near the neighborhood and building residential developments that are priced for a demographic different from the folks who live in the neighborhood.
A project at 508 Harrison St., near Kalamazoo’s riverfront, in which 120 apartments and mixed-use commercial space were planned for this year, is an example of this, she says. The project has since been delayed.
Jordan-Woods knows the best way to retain the soul of the Northside and ensure that the neighborhood has a stake in its future is for residents to own their own homes and land and develop businesses themselves.
“We’re focused on securing land that will allow residents to own businesses and live and work in the neighborhood,” she says, because “those that own land control what happens.”
She cites as an example a commercial property on the Northside that had been on the market for more than the association could afford. The owners had built their businesses in the Northside community and “they wanted their property to stay with this community,” so they told her to make an offer, she says.
She did, for nearly half the asking price, and now that property is the site of affordable housing for seniors, developed and managed by the Northside Association for Community Development. A one-bedroom there rents for about $400.
Ensuring a legacy
One thing Jordan-Woods can’t stand is people coming in from outside the neighborhood who, even with their good intentions and generous gifts, wind up taking the reins and telling neighborhood leaders and residents how best to utilize resources meant to better the lives of community members.
“We know how best to utilize resources,” she says.
An example of the neighborhood planning to use resources wisely is an old 16,000-square-foot warehouse at 1505 N. Burdick St. Jordan-Woods says it is the perfect place to house a host of ventures, including a year-round hydroponic vegetable farm and space to recycle old materials into usable, sellable items.
“Poor folks can do things to help stave off the effects of climate change too,” she says.
Another example is a planned print shop to be housed in a former funeral home across the street from the NACD.
“My No. 1 goal is supporting the opening of more minority and low-income businesses,” Jordan-Woods says. “When people run their own show, they have a stake in the community. When they have a stake in the community, it grows and strengthens from the inside out.”
She sees herself working as the executive director of the NACD for perhaps two more years, then starting a for-profit business to make enough money to be able to donate to the association or starting some other venture that seeks to achieve the goals she has worked more than three decades to achieve.
No matter what, she’s not going anywhere.
“Somebody has to drive this forward,” she says. “God has put me here and put people around me. Call it what you want, but we are going to keep moving and growing this neighborhood. I’m not foolin’ around.”