Kevin Ford will tell you one of his strengths is that he’s a learner. That’s how he went from being kicked out of high school to spearheading efforts to reduce poverty in his hometown of Kalamazoo.
“I always loved to learn, but I hated school,” says the 46-year-old Ford, who finished high school in the Kalamazoo Public Schools’ adult education program and ultimately earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But he says he learned the most from his life experiences, and that learning set him on the path to becoming the coordinator of Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo, a 4-year-old initiative by the city to improve life for the nearly one-third of Kalamazoo residents who live in poverty.
How did you get to where you are today?
I had wanted to go in the military, but I acquired two felonies before the age of 21, which dissolved any military service aspirations. After being involved in the criminal justice system, it kind of settled on me that this wasn’t what I was meant to do. That’s one of those things where you are really all in or not, like “I was made to be in and out of jail and commit to some criminal lifestyle” or not. I chose not.
I began working third shift at Covance Research Products, which did animal drug development. My oldest daughter was entering her first day of preschool at the same time that a friend I grew up with died from alcoholism. The convergence of these made me reflect a lot on my life, and I realized, “I want to go back to school.”
When I was growing up on the Eastside, I never saw anyone jogging. My grandmother died from complications of diabetes, and I knew the bad health aspects of the Black community and thought I would get a degree in physical sciences and use that knowledge to help my community. I was at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and took two government classes and changed my mind. I still wanted to help my community but learned politics was the way to do that. It was natural to me: a lot of reading, writing and formulation of arguments. I transferred to Western Michigan University and completed a bachelor’s in political science with a public policy concentration and a minor in Spanish, all while working full time. (He is currently working on a master’s in public administration at WMU as well.)
I was hired by AmeriCorps to work one-on-one with low-income folks in Calhoun County, helping them to apply for state benefits. Because I was working with low-income folks, I was expecting — and this is to my detriment — to be working with Black people. But Calhoun County is more rural, and most of these folks are white.
That was eye-opening for me. It made me really check my assumptions and recraft how I interact and engage with folks.
After AmeriCorps, I worked as a 211 operator at Gryphon Place. 211 is a resource hotline to direct people to where they can get help with everything from food to shelter. I shared the room with those who worked the suicide hotline and learned from listening to them speak to callers about how to relate to people and to suspend judgment.
While I was working there, I went to a Man Cave event that talked about issues affecting Black men. Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema was there, and I introduced myself and asked if we could meet. He said yes, kept his word, and at the meeting his first question was, “So what are you into?” I answered, “Poverty reduction. That’s a passion of mine.” The city commission had recently established addressing poverty as one of the city’s five priorities, and he offered me a paid internship in his office to work on that effort.
When the Foundation for Excellence (which helps fund the goals of the City of Kalamazoo) emerged a couple of years later, I was hired as the coordinator for Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo.
What is SPK’s approach?
We focus on jobs, families and youth in tandem and on the three neighborhoods — Edison, Eastside and Northside — where the amount of concentrated poverty is 40 percent or more.
We have a two-generation approach that addresses the needs of adults and parents and children together. It sounds intuitive, but it’s not easy. This is a community problem, and, therefore, by definition, needs a community response. A lot of it is figuring out how the direct-service delivery organizations, each with their own dynamics and culture, can work together and partner smoothly to leverage resources.
For example, SPK provided seed funding for a CNA (certified nursing assistant) program at Northside Association for Community Development. It was successful in providing neighborhood-based workforce development training — where the participants live, so it was easy to access. They were able to leverage this funding to get other support, including medical equipment from Stryker (Corp.) and involvement by Bronson Healthcare. Some of those who got their CNA (certification) even got jobs at Bronson.
Another piece of this is leadership development within those neighborhoods. If SPK was to go away, those neighborhoods would still be there. We need to develop leaders in those communities that can advocate for their families and their neighborhoods, champion the changes they want to see, and have the skills to do it.
What do people say when you tell them what you do?
Honestly, I don’t even think my mother understands what I do. Or my wife. They know I work and where, but they don’t know the depth of it. Even my wife — with the pandemic, we’ve been working a floor apart from each other — has heard me on Zoom calls and said, “I don’t know what you do. What do you do? I know you talk a lot.”
“Well, I’m cultivating relationships one person at a time, woman,” (he says he told her, laughing), “changing the world, one cup of coffee at a time.”
— Interview by Marie Lee edited for length and clarity