KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations is partnering with the BLOCKS Club Initiative of Kalamazoo to support efforts to empower local youth. They will co-host Dine 4 Justice, a fundraising event for the Walker Institute's Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows, on Sunday, April 23, from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Bernhard Center on Western's Main Campus.
The fundraiser will feature a light meal as well as a keynote address from Eric Thomas, motivational speaker and best-selling author known as the Hip-Hop Preacher. His message will focus on his latest book, "You Owe You," which focuses on overcoming obstacles and finding inspiration to succeed from within.
"Our goal is to encourage fellows and guests to reach their full potential by igniting their purpose, their power and their why," says Dr. Luchara Wallace, director of the Lewis Walker Institute.
The deadline to purchase tickets for Dine 4 Justice is Friday, April 15. Proceeds from the event will support the development of youth advocates in the community as well as a vision to create an alternative to youth incarceration in Kalamazoo. One source of inspiration for this is Café Momentum, which is a restaurant operated by youth who have been involved in the justice system—directly or indirectly—who receive a transformative experience through a paid internship program.
"Our work connected to poverty reduction, the impact of mass incarceration and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline has always included a juvenile justice lens," says Wallace. "Incorporating juvenile justice into this portion of the institute's work has allowed us to be more responsive to current issues and events and to also develop programming that is more inclusive to the needs of our community."
The Lewis Walker Institute launched its first cohort of the Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows in 2021. The second cohort of fellows is wrapping up its work this spring. Supported by a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation, the transformative yearlong program aims to empower youth and families who have had direct or indirect involvement in the justice system with tools to become advocates for justice.
"WMU President Edward Montgomery charged us to make meaningful contributions in our own backyard. This work is in direct response to needs that have been articulated by youth who have been impacted by the juvenile justice system and need the opportunity and outlet to work for change," Wallace says. "It is also a response to youth who have a heart to serve their communities, are committed to social justice and need training and outlets to make their voices heard in the policy realm."
Dontray Hemphill, BLOCKS Club lead and director, is a parent member of the Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows. He feels the program is essential to the community because "it teaches people how to advocate for themselves and others." The program also has a similar vision to BLOCKS Club, which plays an active role in community organizing and creating programs to actively revitalize and root out violence in Kalamazoo neighborhoods.
"It's important to me because this is our community, and if we don't care about it, no one will," Hemphill says.
He and other Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows have had a number of opportunities to see policy in action, visiting the Michigan State Capitol to advocate for reforms as well as traveling to Café Momentum in Dallas, Texas. Wallace hopes to draw inspiration from that program to start a food truck in Kalamazoo.
"Knowing how Kalamazoo has an affinity for food trucks, we would like to use that modality to operate a restaurant and also partner with local social services, mental health providers and education agencies to provide the support students need who are transitioning out of the juvenile justice system," Wallace says.
Currently a grant-funded program, the Dine 4 Justice fundraiser will allow the Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows to become more self-sustaining as it pursues future programming.
"Our goal is to continue to develop youth social justice advocates who can recognize the unique ways their voices can be used to impact system reforms and empower them to organize their communities and be vessels for change," says Wallace.
ABOUT THE LEWIS WALKER INSTITUTE
The Lewis Walker Institute, founded in 1989 as the Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations, was renamed in 2000 in honor of Dr. Lewis Walker, Western Michigan University's first African American Ph.D. faculty member. Walker devoted his career to teaching and research about race and ethnic relations and worked for social justice through many applied research and community service projects. The Lewis Walker Institute is committed to engaging in research, teaching and service to promote the understanding of race and ethnic relations, appreciation of diverse peoples and cultures of the United States, and more equitable and inclusive communities and institutions.
ABOUT THE BLOCKS CLUB INITIATIVE
The Kalamazoo BLOCKS Club Initiative is “Building Leadership and Organizing Communities for Keys to Succeed.” BLOCKS Club believes in meeting people where they are but refusing to leave them there. The focus is building leadership, neighborhood revitalization, economic justice, building an equitable community and, most of all, togetherness. It teaches underserved youth from the Greater Kalamazoo community how to advocate for their communities and others using a hip-hop-influenced approach to lifting up social, economic and juvenile issues.
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