Grand Rapids Breakfast Honors Martin Luther King Jr., Raises Funds for Urban League

How would Martin Luther King, Jr., address social justice and racial inequality issues today?

That was the overarching question posed to West Michigan business leaders who gathered Monday morning at the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. corporate breakfast. Close to 600 people attended the event, which was held at the Steelcase Town Hall, and served as a fundraiser for the Grand Rapids Urban League. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan was a sponsor of the breakfast.

Steelcase President and CEO James Keane kicked off the event. From recent events in Ferguson, Miss., to Paris, France, Keane said “freedom has never felt so fragile.”

He encouraged business leaders in attendance to not give in to apathy due to a sense that problems are too large for individuals to solve. While “we can’t change the world,” Keane said businesses and their leaders can absolutely ensure that principles of equality and inclusion are upheld and that diversity is respected and celebrated in the business world.

Joseph Jones moderates a panel discussion with Mark Murray, Andre Perry, Lee Nelson-Weber, and Teresa Branson.
Joseph Jones moderates a panel discussion with Mark Murray, Andre Perry, Lee Nelson-Weber, and Teresa Branson.

A fireside chat was moderated by Urban League President Joseph Jones. Jones asked four business leaders for their take on each of four of the Urban League’s main missions: employment, education, health, and housing/community development, as they relate to African American and minority communities. Jones led each question with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., which follow each topic below.

Employment: “We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that black people and poor people, generally, are confronting.”

Meijer Co-Chief Executive Officer Mark Murray said unemployment diminishes individuals because it doesn’t allow them to be fully engaged in society. It also diminishes society as a whole, Murray said, because the collective community isn’t enjoying the fruits of that individual’s labor. He called on employers to keep the “portals open” when it comes to diversity in hiring and implementing training and development programs to support diverse candidates when they are hired.

Murray also said tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of West Michigan is a vital pathway for African Americans seeking worthwhile career options. Strengthening the support systems and networking opportunities for minority-owned businesses would go a long way in helping more people open their own sustainable businesses.

Education: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be … the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremism.”

Dr. Andre Perry is Dean of the College of Urban Education at Davenport University. He said there’s nothing more innovative in education than the basic fundamental principle of caring. Perry explained that the aim of education should be to use schooling to improve the overall community.

Firing teachers, expelling students, and blaming parents for poor results isn’t working, Perry said. Building the capacity of our communities through education and training people in the schools to be leaders, is a more community-centric approach to education and one that Perry believes would yield more positive results.

Health: “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.”

Eliminating health disparities for minority populations will take work, but needs to happen, said Teresa Branson, Deputy Health Officer for the Kent County Health Department.

She focused on issues relating to higher incidences of infant mortality in the African American community, access to health care, and unique environmental challenges that impact health, such as access to fresh food and other health-focused facilities.

Branson said looking upstream at the root causes of health inequality is important in bettering outcomes. Food, transportation, and housing have a direct impact on health and Branson said it’s important for providers to understand the interconnectedness in the community.

Housing/Community Development: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Lee Nelson-Weber is Program Director for the Dyer-Ives Foundation. She urged people in attendance to think of community development with a “small c and a small d” and to take an active role in how their neighborhoods are developed.

With developers moving farther into the central city of Grand Rapids, Nelson-Weber said impacted minority communities need to mobilize now and chart their own visions and expectations for what is needed in the neighborhoods. Then, when developers do come, a plan is ready to be implemented together.

“I wouldn’t advise waiting,” she said.

Learn more about the mission of the Grand Rapids Urban League here. Donations can be made at grurbanleague.org/donate.

Photo credit: Ron Cogswell/Urban League

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