Battle Creek, Michigan Case Study


By 2007, Battle Creek was a community that was stuck, according to residents. People felt their concerns routinely went unheard. They were frustrated with large-scale change efforts that seemed to come and go. There was a lack of trust in the community. The narrative of Battle Creek was clear: “We already tried that (fill in the blank) and “Change isn’t really possible here.”

Funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a growing cross-sector group of individuals and organizations started working with The Harwood Institute to improve conditions for vulnerable children and families and shift the civic culture of the community. Not only did they want to produce better results for kids, but they also wanted a community with the conditions to sustain change – more trusted leaders, better norms for working together in real ways and a community narrative that says change is possible. This work and the partners involved have expanded greatly over the years.

Their Journey

None of these improvements have been automatic or easy. They have unfolded as a series of ripples that were catalyzed by community leaders leveraging the Institute’s approach to change.

In 2009, six individuals from different community organizations formed an ad hoc steering group that worked over two years to engage the community and spur collaborative action – all in an effort to demonstrate that people could come together and work toward the common good and make progress.  These individuals were part of a Harwood Institute-led effort, funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

These leaders received training in the Institute’s practices at a Harwood Public Innovators Lab and then received ongoing coaching over two years. One key decision they made coming out of the Lab was to work as an ad hoc group as opposed to starting a new initiative, forming a new nonprofit, or making grand promises and touting themselves. This was a major departure from the way business was normally done.

By using Harwood’s community conversation approach, they learned that a large population of Burmese in the community felt isolated, disconnected and had several health challenges, especially around childbirth. The steering group reached out to Regional Health Alliance (RHA) to share with it what it had been learning from the community, which spurred a whole set of ripples:

  • RHA translated its brochures on general health care and neo-natal care into Burmese.
  • RHA reached out to Family Health Center, a primary care provider, which reached out to Community Health Care Connections to help under-insured Burmese get healthcare coverage.
  • A mobile clinic began providing basic screening services at an apartment complex where many Burmese lived.
  • Upon learning that the Burmese travel in groups, the local hospital changed its visitation policy so more people could see patients.
  • Kellogg Community College had separate health care and translation programs; the college brought the two programs together to train healthcare interpreters who speak Burmese.
  • Great Start Collaborative, an early childhood initiative, translated materials into Burmese and added culturally competent family coaches so Burmese families could get better support. Said one Burmese resident, “They [the family coaches] really learn from us, not to fix us. That is one of the main reasons that I don’t have the desire to run away from Battle Creek anymore.”
  • The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department realized that Burmese families were unfamiliar with car seat safety, and so started new training with support from a local car dealer recruited by the Sheriff’s Department that provided staffing and a local toy store owner who provided car seats at a steep discount.
  • The Battle Creek Public School District educated teachers about the Burmese culture to create a better learning environment, which led to a cultural exchange dinner for the community and also a local middle school teaming up with the Burmese to provide water to irrigate a new Burmese community garden. There are now three community gardens operated by 125 Burmese residents, which received a grant from the Fair Food Network to create a food security collaborative so that groups could work together to fill gaps in the local food system.
  • A new Burma community center was created and now provides support and a sense of community to Burmese residents.
  • Unstoppable Noodle, a start-up noodle delivery service that also provides job training for Burmese youth began. It is a joint effort of the new Burma Center, a local church, a local farm, and the Burmese community gardens where fruits and vegetables are collected.

Learning through community conversations that parents in the Calhoun County School District felt disconnected from schools and unsure how to support their kids in reading, the United Way of Battle Creek and the Kalamazoo Region (which was part of the steering committee) began funding a three-year initiative to provide teachers with professional development training in reading approaches, mobilize volunteers to read with students, support at-home activities, protect against the loss of reading skills that tend to occur in summertime, and connect the school to additional community resources.

They focused on Verona Elementary, which was one of the district’s most underperforming schools. In the first year of the pilot reading initiative in Verona Elementary School, reading proficiency among kindergartners went from 5 to 71 percent. Half of those were reading above grade level, and those scores went up to 81 percent as they moved through first grade. Battle Creek’s Coburn Elementary and the neighboring Galesburg-Augusta School District replicated the approach because of its success.

An outgrowth of this work, another group of organizations (including some from the earlier work) came together in 2013 as part of a Harwood Institute “Beacon Community” initiative to identify a community-wide issue to address and to do it in a way that improved the civic culture of the community. The Kellogg Foundation also supported this work. It included the United Way, city government, the Chamber of Commerce, Kellogg Community Foundation, local planning and collective action groups, and others. These groups have since focused on middle school transition as a key stepping-stone to high school completion and have developed a new integrated system for connecting at-risk middle schoolers to mentors and promoting mentorship options.

Additionally, organizations in the Beacon Community initiative have also addressed how the community works together. For example, they sponsored an All Candidate Forum for City Commission that was structured around addressing the aspirations of the community that emerged through the community conversation. On top of this, when the city manager position became open, members of the Beacon Community team pushed to make sure the community was engaged in what kind of city manager people wanted and how the city manager could best address support meeting the community’s shared aspirations.

Moving Forward

Today, Battle Creek has growing productive norms for people working together to get things done, greater trust, and an emerging can-do narrative. Among the many changes:

  • Once invisible populations in the community, including a group of Burmese, have greater access to supports and have been integrated into the life of the community.
  • Vulnerable children in the community are getting stronger support not only through schools but also from the communities that surround them, the results of which are showing in increases in reading scores and other indicators.
  • People from across sectors – including local business leaders – are stepping up to support kids in new and creative ways.
  • The way business is conducted in the community is shifting because residents, that once felt pushed out of community life, are stepping up and demanding that their voices be part of important decisions.

The Beacon Community partners continue to work together to grow their middle school work and also to continue improving the productive norms in the community, demonstrating that change, in fact, is possible.