Monday, May 16, 2016

It Takes a Village to Build a Village

It’s recited by many that it takes a village to raise a child. New Level Sports (NLS) is taking that mantra to heart, literally, with development of a three-year project that’s been envisioned for years. Now that it’s happening, time for the community to step up and residents to get off their sofas and step out.

              The vision? The Youth Village. It’s an ambitious, five-acre, multipurpose complex situated on the western edge of downtown. In its final form, the Youth Village takes up fully one-city block, and is chockfull of resource facilities to activate the mental, physical and spiritual (not religious) potential of boys and girls.

              The Youth Village gives Battle Creek youth not only hope, but also opportunity. And we’re not just talking jobs. The higher purpose of this ambitious project is to “define, manifest, live in, prosper in and pass on an ever evolving vision to succeeding generations,” according to NLS Director Chris McCoy, who’s also Pastor of Faith Assembly Christian Fellowship.

              For nearly 15 years New Level Sports, a nonprofit youth support service, has successfully served urban youth and their families across the region. More than 10,000 of them over the years, according to its website In that time, NLS has motivated countless kids to fruitful life, education and career success. And not just kids of color.

              Not one to rest on his laurels (nor shrink from social justice issues), McCoy launched into the Youth Village project with unbridled passion. A capital campaign kicks off with a weekend of programs and events Friday May 20 through Sunday May 22. The goal is to raise $3 million to support the project’s three-phase development plan.

              The Youth Village stands on five proverbial pillars: Education, Personal Growth, Arts, Enterprise, and Sports. The project seems to align well with the two-year-old BC Vision initiative currently happening. Indeed, it complements rather than competes with other existing systems (i.e., schools, service agencies, businesses). That’s because of its holistic approach to developing children; it reclaims a way of being we seem to have lost – at least in lower income communities that have been stripped of so many resources all in the name of economic austerity.

              The Youth Village is different. Think Boys & Girls Club on steroids.

              From an early childhood development center & 24/7 childcare facility (not all jobs are 9 to 5), a youth garden and youth-operated micro businesses (screen printing, embroidering, catering), to a “dream lounge” & career center, and multi sports complex – the Youth Village is a young person destination with purpose.

Youth will be trained by instructors in business, entrepreneurship, development, cultural and community planning and personal growth development. It’s amazing to watch kids who once felt hopeless begin to discover and unleash skills, abilities and talents previously untapped within them.

              Pie in the sky? No, a slow burn. I’ve been watching McCoy cobble together support for this vision for years. See, it takes a village to build a Youth Village. McCoy says the project provides a progressive, clean and actionable path to enact positive changes in the minds of our youth. For us, by us. Hallelujah.

              Anyone remember ice skating on the “duck pond” at Irving Park? Everyone chipping in to sweep off the snow in order to skate? It was a collective endeavor for the common good that brought a lot of folks together. The Village Project offers a seasonal outdoor rink for that purpose – and I’m referring to more than the sweeping part.

              Back to adult residents and living room couch politics. Armchair quarterbacking works well when it comes to watching sports. Backseat driving is effective if you’ve got a GPS ap on your phone. But experience has proven that marshalling social change from the sofa doesn’t work. Neither does merely writing charity checks from behind an office desk or at the kitchen table – no matter how many zeros there are behind that first numeral.

              Just like growing food, community change happens when we step out the front door, roll up our sleeves and dig in. And I don’t mean telling other folks what to do. Instead it comes from asking what needs to be done and joining it.

              McCoy believes every young person, despite their background, has the ability to achieve their goals and dreams. I do too, given the proper early childhood foundation and access to resources. Lakeview and other outer lying communities have those things. Working together, we can make them available on the Northside too. At the Youth Village.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stop Celebrating Violence and Focus Instead on Family

Back in April of this year, in less than a week, four public school systems in Calhoun County were hit by threats of mass violence. The culprits? Youth. Children. Our kids.
What in the hell is going on?

It’s tempting use the F word instead. The situation is that serious and makes me want to holler.

The “peaceful” Calhoun County school districts in Pennfield, Harper Creek, Lakeview and City of Marshall were each affected. Another threat was made a week earlier in neighboring Galesburg-Augusta schools.

Bomb threats? The specter of mass shootings in our schools? In mere a handful of days our local schools have been threatened with mass violence — by our children. The fact that none of the incidents led to injury or death is a blessing. The reality that a cluster event like this even occurred, though, is an omen.

So many superficial questions are being asked. Did schools systems do enough to prevent these threats? Did they respond appropriately? Was law enforcement response quick enough? Are appropriate consequences for the perpetrators being doled out? Are we over-reacting?

Hopefully folks will get around to asking the kind of questions that dig at the root of the matter. The sad fact is that what tends to happen when such events occur is we tiptoe around the issue. We source our “inner sitcom.” That is, we sit around “thinking” about causes and solutions that can be conceived, discussed and neatly wrapped up in half-an-hour.

It’s what most of us do when it comes to noodling on deeply complex, systems-related issues. Matters like poverty, sexism, racism, ableism, patriarchy — the list is long and infamous.

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook. What happens at these faraway schools quickly fades into the recesses of our minds, like hysterical amnesia. Hidden from our consciousness.

Yet these and other horrific events fester like a dormant virus inside us — incubating, until the next act of outbreak of violence occurs.

Then we parade the syrupy rhetoric — “Gosh what a tragedy” — pronounce tepid calls-to-action — “Somebody needs to do something” — and proclaim fear-based solutions —“We need more guns.”

Instead of plowing into our hearts for empathy when thinking about what’s happening, we instead poke about the barnyard, scratching at the surface, like intellectual chickens.

Makes me wanna holler.

Because what’s happening is that important. It’s a societal crisis of epidemic proportions. The stakes are high, and we were lucky this week. In this community, at least. Think an act of mass violence and destruction can’t happen here? Wake up. Time to invoke the F-word.

What in the family is going on?

Family, as in father, mother, children and relatives. Family as in close, connected friends swarming to love, comfort and support each other and our youth. Family as in closely knit neighbors watching out for each other and our kids.

Family as in parents, teachers and administrators coming together to seek insightful understanding. For the purpose of acting in the best interest of students — beyond reading, ’riting and ’rithmatic. With everyone doing their part — beyond the walls of our schools and into our collective community. Not just Pennfield, Marshall, Harper Creek and Lakeview. Everywhere.

It’s time to come together and think — really think — about our society and where it’s headed (or maybe where it’s arrived). Mayhem-driven television & movies, carnage-propelled video games and venomous social media. The wanton use of violence (from bullying to bombs) to address personal and societal woes has become celebrated doctrine.

And it’s no laughing matter. Even kids should know that.

Let’s find the courage to talk about what our babies are learning is acceptable in our so-called civilized society and why. Let’s get at the root cause of it all. It’s in everyone’s best interest and the human thing to do.

J.R. Reynolds is a Battle Creek-based nonprofit consultant, writer and leadership coach. Follow him on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Celebrate Jackie Robinson Day for the right reasons

Jackie Robinson swung for the fence in more ways than one
April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day. It’s an annual date I celebrate with reverence. Not because it honors the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB). Instead I recognize this day because it symbolizes a lot of the things that are right about America. And wrong.

              Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson became the first African American to play in the majors during the modern area. He shattered the baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947, when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This historic moment pivoted American sensibilities.

              Earlier this month, in an apparent effort to atone for the emotionally brutal treatment of Robinson during his visits to the City of Brotherly Love, the Philadelphia city council issued an apology. It came in the form of a resolution and delivered to the wife of the late MLB Hall of Fame player, Rachel Robinson.

Robinson possessed a fierce poise and demand for respect
              According to a Philly newspaper, the resolution stated in part that the City Council recognizes, honors and celebrates April 15, 2016, as a day honoring the lifetime achievements and lasting influence of Robinson. The resolution also speaks to the racism he faced as a player while visiting Philadelphia.

              Back in the sports world, Major League Baseball announced this week that it’s boosting its financial contributions to the Jackie Robinson Foundation and expanding its partnership with the organization.

              According to reports, the commitment includes funding 30 four-year Jackie RobinsonFoundation scholarships. That’s one scholarship representing each MLB team. A $1 million contribution is also being made to the Foundation’s Jackie Robinson Museum project.

              The gesture is a relatively small one in light of baseball’s foul treatment of black athletes in earlier years, but nevertheless commendable.

              The National Association of Baseball Players, the first organization governing American baseball, was formed in 1867. Black athletes were banned. Records are sketchy, but according to Negro League Baseball, several African-American players may have been active on the rosters of white minor league teams in the late 1870s.
Behind every successful man...
              In historical context, the possibility of black persons in baseball at some level is somewhat conceivable. Consider: just after slavery was abolished in 1865, the Reconstruction Era was witness to significant social and political revolution – when ideals associated with the American Dream included formerly enslaved black people.

              A significant number of African Americans were elected to local, state, and national offices. Some perspective: at the beginning of 1867, no African American in the South held political office. Within four years, around 15 percent of Southern lawmakers were black – a larger percentage than in 1990, according to author James M. McPherson in 1992’s Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution.

              In Southern states between 1870 and 1876, there were 633 black State Legislators, two black U.S. Senators (in Mississippi!) and 15 black U.S. Congressmen. This, according to author E. Foner (Reconstruction: America's unfinished revolution, 1863–1877).

              Then the walls came tumbling down. Hateful and murderous policies, sanctioned through government backed Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination, obliterated early reforms toward racial equality. So much for the American Dream.

              Two steps forward, one step back.

              This history lesson is important, to America and baseball, because it set the tone for what was in store for folks like Robinson - the first persons of color in their respective fields. Like many, he was mythologized (as was Dr. King) as a black man who passively turned the other cheek in the wake of racism. In reality, like Dr. King, Robinson was a fierce agent of social change who used his celebrity to speak out against discrimination.

              With the stroke of a pen Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger and first black man in Major League Baseball. That was just the beginning. He, along with his family endured a heinous racist gauntlet. Robinson’s middle passage to acceptance was pocked by unimaginable acts of loathing and prejudice and discrimination – all because of the color of his skin. Color many white people today insist they do not see.

              Instead of claiming to ignore a person’s distinctive attributes (like color), why not instead hold those differences close. Use it as a means to reclaim all the wonder and diversity of human beings. Ultimately, it’s what binds us together. The fear is what tears us apart.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Say it Loud: He’s Black and I’m Proud

Eye on the prize

Until my two-year-old son is old enough to self-identify racially, I’ve declared him black. I’m raising him African American. Socially and legally. This, despite him being half white. Why? It’s in his best interest. But it’s not without serious, sometimes deadly challenges.

              Being black in America has a bad rap. This, according to media, history books, government policy and even statistics. We’re the collective punching bag of mainstream society.
              It’s open season on black youth. It’s okay to shoot first and ask questions later. We’re guilty until proven innocent. We’re viewed as a physical threat if we raise our voices in anger. Or throw up our hands to surrender. There’s more.
              We’re subjected to suffocating inequities, racism and discrimination, then told by its very architects, “It’s not really that bad” or “It’s just your imagination.” The result: many of us internalize our ongoing subjugation. We enact verbal and physical expressions of self-loathing, borne through generations of being assaulted repeatedly by unbridled oppression.
              Then we’re blamed and shamed for not keeping up with the rest of society.
              Being a person of color in the United States – especially black – comes with many unearned and undeserved socioeconomic penalties. We all know the numbers. Or maybe we don’t.
              With respect to health and wellness indicators, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease are all statistically off the chart for African Americans, compared to whites. In primary education, scores trend lower than other races. And when it comes to jobs, guess who’s rates of unemployment eternally tops the charts? Black folks.
Everyone has skin in the game
              So why would a black father like me enthusiastically claim “African American” for his toddler – a moniker that’s historically stigmatized by so many? After all, my son’s mom is white so alternatives exist. Among them: “biracial”, “multiracial” and “other”.
              Anybody remember, “A Boy Named Sue”? The poem was written by Shel Silverstein and made popular by the hit Johnny Cash song in 1969. It tells the tale of a boy whose father named him “Sue” so that the youth would grow up tough. And like a boy named Sue, being black can instill grit in a place where “white is right”.
              There’s another, more important reason I declare my son African American. Pride. I’m proud to claim a racial identity that has survived the brutalities of yesterday’s slavery, Jim Crow and challenging today’s racist systems that include mass incarceration. Proud to associate him (and myself) with a culture that has withstood generations of physical and psychological violence, appropriation and other abuse perpetrated upon it, yet endure. Indomitably resilient and defiant. Bloodied but unbowed.
              Black actor Taye Diggs not too long ago proclaimed his half-white son to be “mixed race.” This, after penning a children’s book, “Mixed Me." Good for him. According to reports, Diggs hopes his book will help his son and other mixed race children realize they don’t have to choose black or white but embrace both races equally.
              That aspiration is reasonable. It’s vital to claim one’s entire identity (race, gender, orientation, abilities, etc.) in order to live in whole and complete ways, for reasons of mental as well as spiritual health. (I’m currently on my own personal journey to more fully embrace my African, Native American and Irish identities.)
All strapped in for the ride of his life
I also recognize there are governments, institutions and individuals in this country that systematically define blackness visually, often assigning economic, social and legal penalties along the way. This is America’s reality; one that must be reckoned with.
              Amid such enduring color bias, his mother and I are arming our brown-skinned son with a robust sense of racial and cultural self. An emphatic image to start; one rooted in reality but also acknowledges prevailing adverse illusions that present barriers for people of color. A sturdy platform on which to germinate and then evolve identity.
              When he’s older I will support, nurture and promote whatever way he chooses to identify. Until then I will say it loud: he’s black and I’m proud.
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at