What would it look like if neighborhood organizations were guided by some of the very people they set out to serve? Meet Seeds of Promise leader Floyd Willis, whose own vibrant spirit, palpable belief in the idea that everyone has something worthwhile to say, and conviction that everyone deserves to have a place where they feel comfortable saying it has transformed an organization that began with a focus on neighborhood beautification into a network with deep roots in Grand Rapids' neighborhoods.
Throughout his lifetime, baby boomer Floyd Willis has found himself playing a lot of different roles — a son, the leader of a Southside Chicago gang, a member of the Black Panthers, a prison inmate, a husband, a handyman, and a volunteer, just to name a few.
And though his past may be somewhat storied, it is that lifetime of perspective that informs the work he does now, acting as treasurer for the nonprofit organization Seeds of Promise, chair of its Host Neighborhood Leadership Council, and driving force behind the Seeds Housing Impact Team.
"When (the work of) Seeds of Promise was brought to my attention, I just grasped it," says Willis, who connected with the organization through a fellow congregation member while volunteering with the Madison Square Church food pantry a little over two years ago.
"It seemed like, 'Oh yeah, that is the way things should be done. That's different. I think that's what needs to be done because I know that's what's missing,'" he says. "The neighborhood and neighbors very seldom get a choice about what goes on around them, so it struck me as a good thing."
Founded in 2005, Seeds of Promise began as a youth initiative by area churches in the Dickinson Elementary School neighborhood, which geographically covers the blocks between Hall and Jefferson and Burton and Eastern avenues.
In its early days, the organization focused primarily on addressing the 36 percent of its 2,000 total residents living below the poverty line, 66 percent of those single-parent households with 75 percent of Dickinson Elementary students qualifying for Michigan’s free or reduced lunch program.
However, the nonprofit began to evolve into something greater in 2012 after it was awarded a $305,000, multiyear grant to kickstart a new grassroots community self-governance structure. The money was allocated for training the 40 initial host neighbors whose leadership roles as neighborhood advocates have, as of March 2014, evolved into and entirely resident-led board of directors.
Project Manager and Community Governance Coach Eric Foster helped host neighbors craft the guidelines for the impact team areas identified by residents as important.
The five original impact teams have evolved into a more nuanced eight, which include job creation, entrepreneurship, health and nutrition, housing, safe communities, safe ministerial, Empowering Individuals for Success through Education and Learning (EISEL), and finally, the Host Neighborhood Leadership Council, for which Willis serves as chairman.
Foster says it is a direct result of leadership such as Willis’ that more and more residents are seeking roles within the organization’s programming, stepping up through impact teams to forge local partnerships and craft new programing that work in service of increasing quality of life in the community at large.
“I’ve been so encouraged that in this town, we can talk to resident leaders who are just coming into the game of leadership and who did not back down from seeing systems and social problems in their neighborhood connected to social and racial inequality," he says. "They gravitated to us and now they’re growing in number.”
A different approach
With over 70 endorsing partners from local community businesses, organizations and agencies, it’s not hard to see the kind of inherent value Seeds of Promise holds in both its innovative governing style and subsequent programming — it’s a renewed sense of ownership on the part of business owners and residents alike that finds strength in numbers, driving the larger community in search for something better.
Through the Housing Impact Team, Willis has led a number of solo and collaborative initiatives that range from straight-forward home improvement projects to a community-wide clean up day, both alike in the way they’re able to double as jumping off points for many residents who otherwise may not have felt comfortable stepping up into civic engagement.
He says there are a lot of reasons for hesitating involvement with a community governance program like Seeds, and though they’re each unique to the individual or family, there is one prevailing kind of skepticism that much of the reluctance stems from — a feeling he is all-too-familiar with, and as a result, uniquely equipped to address.
“A lot of people are now coming out that have seen enough and are starting to demand changes,” Willis says. “Because now they know there’s a better way to seek help instead of going through politicians and the old system.”
“I think it’s important to have the feeling that it’s someone approachable, someone who you can relate to in helping make a difference,” he says. “Because so many people are used to being brushed off and that was the basis for my own revolutionary time in life….I didn’t really feel like I could speak to anybody that heard me. A great deal lies in being able to relate.”
Willis admits that it’s a gradual kind of change, but that doesn’t mean the organization’s host neighbor impact teams haven’t been working hard behind the scenes to forge new partnerships with other local businesses and agencies working to create sustainable redevelopment in the area.
For example, it was the Seeds Job Creation Impact Team that overhauled a 2012 job skills training program to include a guaranteed post-employment opportunity for individuals who completed training, made possible by commitments from four local business owners who are just a few of the continuously growing partners working alongside Seeds of Promise; and it was the organization’s Entrepreneurial Impact Team that spearheaded local business competition in collaboration with Fifth Third Bank and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, with $10,000 of investment monies awarded the competition’s winner.
Willis would argue that there seems to a force perhaps more potent than the programing and the partnerships bubbling up from underneath the neighborhood’s surface. It may not be something you can hold in your hands like, say, a $10,000 check, but it arguably has a greater potential to lead the community toward transformative change simply because without it, transformative change isn’t possible.
“I’m talking about the spirit and people opening themselves up, knowing that there’s something on their level, you know, and that is making a lot of difference,” says Willis, whose strength lies not only in his ability to relate to disenfranchised or more closed-off community members, but in the underlying belief that defines perhaps the most palpable piece of his character — a very genuine belief in the idea that everyone has something worthwhile to say, and that everyone deserves to have a place where they feel comfortable saying it.
“Each person is different, so you need a different approach for just about everybody according to where their doubts lie, or where their weaknesses and strength are,” he says. “It really does take a village, that’s what I see. It takes everybody and the areas they’re strongest because ain’t none of us going to have all the strengths — you just can’t cover everything alone.”
To learn more about the Host Neighborhood Leadership Council or for more information about Seeds of Promise and its impact teams, visit www.seedsofpromise.net.
This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.
Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Photography by Adam Bird