Building Healthy Communities: A Conversation with Jeron Ravin and Emmet Pierson Jr.

hawkins@growyourgiving.org Individual & Family Giving

NaTika Rowles, Executive Director of the Black Community Fund, sits down with two Kansas City leaders to discuss how Black-led organizations continue to serve the Black community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeron Ravin, CEO of Swope Health, and Emmet Pierson, Jr., President and CEO of Community Builders of Kansas City share how their organizations have partnered to address the disparities that have been heightened among communities of color because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Black Community Fund, an affiliate of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, was established by the Hall Family Foundation in 1983. Its mission is to provide support and leadership to enhance socio-economic aspects of African-American communities in the Greater Kansas City area.

The Black Community Fund has awarded more than $4.5 million to more than 200 nonprofit organizations addressing critical community needs. In 2010, the Black Community Fund launched an academic scholarship program. Students receive a minimum of $5,000 and commit to 16 hours of community service. 84 students make up the Black Community Fund’s college-going pipeline, and they have a presence in 33 U.S. institutions from HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) to Ivy Leagues.

Listen to the conversation online or wherever you find podcasts. A transcription of this episode can be found below.

All episodes of the Grow Your Giving podcast can be found at growyourgiving.org/podcast.

Authored by: Ashley Hawkins, Content Specialist


Episode Transcription

Introduction:
Welcome to the Grow Your Giving podcast, powered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, and our national entity, Greater Horizons. We aim to make giving convenient and efficient for our donors, through donor-advised funds, and other charitable giving tools. The Grow Your Giving podcast, discusses philanthropic topics to help you enjoy giving more. Find us online at growyourgiving.org.

NaTika Rowles:
Hi. I’m NaTika Rowles, your host for today’s episode of the Grow Your Giving podcast. I serve as the Executive Director for the Black Community Fund, which is a community affiliate of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. I’m looking forward to this conversation today because we’re going to focus on how Black-led organizations are focusing on the needs of the Black community during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a critical conversation to have because Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll talk about how philanthropy plays a role in this response, and what donors and funders can do now, and more importantly, what they can do in the future when the pandemic is over. Today, we have two community leaders on the podcast, Emmet Pierson Jr, and Jeron Ravin. Emmet is the president and CEO of Community Builders, as well as the board chair of the Black Community Fund. And Jeron is the CEO of Swope Health. Emmet and Jeron, Thank you for joining me today. I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to have a conversation.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
Thank you for having me and thanks to the Black Community Fund.

NaTika Rowles:
All right.

Jeron Ravin:
Absolutely. Thank you. Happy to be here.

NaTika Rowles:
Great. Great. We’re happy to have you. Can you each just share a little bit about yourselves, your background, the roles in the organizations that you serve?

Jeron Ravin:
All right. Jeron Ravin, president CEO of Swope Health. I’ve been in community health/activism/kind of political advocacy work for the last 10 to 15 years, advocating for underserved marginalized communities, took over at Swope Health at the helm, September 2019, several months before the pandemic, and what a ride it’s been. But as you know, I’ve inherited a 52-year old organization that’s been serving Kansas City for a half-century and serving the community and just happy and blessed to continue to do great work in partnering with folks like Emmet and the Community Builders.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And so, I’m Emmet Pierson Jr. President CEO of Community Builders of Kansas City. We are celebrating our 30th anniversary. We actually started as an outgrowth of Swope Parkway Health Center at that time, now known as Swope Health Services. So our two organizations have been really transforming and building healthy communities for a very, very long time. I’m a Kansas City kid. I grew up in the Blue Hills neighborhoods, so shout out to Blue Hills neighborhood where my mom was president and still lives there at 87. I’m also a public transportation kid. So I took three buses to school every morning in the third grade. So I know the challenges of public transportation, particularly in urban Kansas City.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
I attended through hard work and my mom’s dedication and hard work, some of the top prep schools and high schools around. So I bring a unique perspective. I get to see how… what’s going on in the urban community, but also get to see what’s going on in Mission Hills. It goes on in Prairie Village. It goes on some of the more wealthy zip codes. And so I’ve had that as part of my upbringing DNA as well. I lead an organization that does community economic development, where quite simply our vision is, “Community Builders Kansas strengthens families and transforms communities.” And so we take that to heart every day, we run the gambit of development activities, but we’re just as passionate about those other services that make community whole and healthy. So thank you again for having me.

NaTika Rowles:
Thank you. I appreciate that. I appreciate the work that both of your organizations do. Between the two of you, you have 80 years, almost a century of work in Kansas City. Can you tell our listeners about the partnership that Swope Health and Community Builders have?

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
I’ll go first because it’s funny because this is my second time with the organization. I was here about some 12 years ago. And so I think at the beginning you heard Jeron talk about, he came in 2019 and I came in June 2019. And so within the first couple of months of us getting our respective jobs, we reached out to each other and we start talking back then how we can begin to affect change in this community. And so we get together at least once a quarter, but it’s always picking up the phone. So this was just an outgrowth of, as I said earlier, what we’ve been doing together for some 30 years. It was a nexus on coming together with Swope Health Services, particularly around how are we going to challenge this pandemic and it’s issues that face Black and brown community. So it was natural.

Jeron Ravin:
So kind of going back to 30 years ago, to Emmet’s point about an outgrowth. I mean, even the office that I sit in right now, the opposite end it sits in, was many people know it’s floodplain land not that long ago. And it was so felt in Community Builders that literally built a whole section of Kansas City, the whole, an entire block. And so I’ve had close relationships since then. And then thereafter, during the pandemic, we recognize that not only are people having housing challenges, but all the social determinants of health that are wrapped around COVID-19, food insecurity, obviously joblessness and unemployment, transportation. I mean, there’s a number of things.

Jeron Ravin:
And so we started getting together to do these first Saturday events. I believe, and I could be challenged on this, but I’m thinking I’m right. We have, certainly, I think the second largest and most successful COVID-19 event in this city, which was at the Kansas City Zoo, vaccinated over 2,000 people and had Harvesters and a number of other institutions there, and even have the Chiefs players show up. So I think we… this is an outgrowth of the history of the organizations and the history of, frankly, African-American leaders in Kansas City responding to the disproportionate health outcomes that a lot of our communities face.

NaTika Rowles:
Yeah. I was fortunate to be at that huge event at the zoo. I laid eyes on Tyreek Hill as he was leaving, but didn’t get a chance to talk, but there was some good things that happened out of that event. So appreciative to both of you for putting that event on. And there was even some folks that just walked up that day. I remember helping the guy that was like, maybe having some food insecurity and was just waiting on the bus. So those events are important. And kind of a segue into my next question was, how your two organizations work together during the pandemic? And Jeron, you talked a little bit about that, and I know that you’ve done more than one event. So let’s talk about if you have anything that you’re currently planning, what those events are and what does it look like in the future?

Jeron Ravin:
Yeah. So I’ll jump in and you can fill in where I mess up at, as normal. But it really starts off with that large-scale event at the zoo. And since then, we’ve kind of shifted gears in my opinion, right? So what we saw after we realized that almost half of the United States is vaccinated and a good portion of Kansas City, is that, that vaccine hesitancy is still out there. And so we had to do more targeted events, right? At specific places and particularly trusted pillars that people in the community know and trust. Right? So we shifted from a 2,200 vaccine event to now smaller churches. So we shifted to smaller, more targeted events. And we’re going to continue to do that. I think, we are trying to get the last bit of vaccine hesitancy that’s out there in Black and brown communities and makes sure we find a way to get the vaccine and it’s going to have to be in targeted places.

NaTika Rowles:
Yeah.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
Yeah. I’m going to jump in, Jeron and say, it even started before our mega event at the zoo. It really started when this pandemic started, when at that time folk were struggling, particularly in our community to struggle just to get the test. And so our two organizations came together to do a summer event back in July, to where we have the same format. We have Swope Health Services there, as always doing their thing with their fantastic staff of clinicians and nurses and practitioners outside of the OSI and grow a Missionary Baptist church side along Parkway soon to be Martin Luther King Boulevard. Harvesters is there as always, the laborers. I was really touched at all the community partners that came out. Delta Sigma Theta, the laborers, the carpenter’s union, AFL, CIO. I mean, everyone came out to support that event, Congressman Cleaver.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And so it really started then, and we saw how successful it was. And then we went on from there to say, “Okay, how can we begin to, as Jero alluded to, begin to do our part?” Swope Health Services, we’re recipients of the vaccine. We actually had a spot in kind of a landmark here in the urban community that the shops on Blue Parkway and we had space there. And really the two staffs got together absent of both of us. I mean, so I think that speaks to Jeron’s leadership to where it didn’t come from us. It came from our staff’s coming to say, “Hey, look. We got the vaccine. Both of us have significant grassroots to the community. And we have a space that everybody knows. What about if we put a vaccination clinic that can reach people every day, Monday through Friday, roughly 8:00 to 5:00? Would that make it easier?”

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And so really that came together. And we’re known for these mega-events that we’ve had, we’ve had three or four of them, but really what’s making a huge impact quietly is the 400 people we vaccinate every day at the vaccination clinic, hosted by the staff of Swope Health Services here at the shops up the Parkway.

NaTika Rowles:
That’s amazing. And I wasn’t aware of that either that it’s at least 400 folks every day. And we’re starting to see that. Jeron, you alluded to some of the things that you’ve been seeing as you and Emmet are collaborating in these events. One of those being hesitancy, this question for both of you, Emmet and Jeron, what other needs have you seen arise in the Black community as you’re putting on these events? I know that you addressed food security. Do housing issues come up? What have you been seeing as you’ve been being in proximity with the Black community to address the pandemic?

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
I’ll jump in here. I’m going to take it from the standpoint of, as a housing developer and as an economic development organization, this pandemic has really taken its toll on what was already a tough marketplace to find affordable housing. Folk are not able to meet their obligations. Yes, the Biden administration and the city of Kansas City, Missouri are making strides to help alleviate some of that pain, but some folk are still challenged to pay their rent, pay their utilities. We are not out of the food insecurity. Let’s remember that we were in pandemic conditions before. We had the 15% unemployment before COVID. We had the challenge to access to banks and credit and financial resources.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
We still have the challenges with evaluation on appraisals and home-ownership opportunities that weren’t there. What I’m now concerned about is, as we have not been able to, as a community, as a whole really take hold of the PPP, how do we begin to help our Black and brown run business begin to pivot to either strengthen reposition or start and create businesses that support the overall community? I mean, those are just some of the things that we are still seeing as we begin to kind of slowly move from this pandemic and it’s still there.

NaTika Rowles:
Right. Did you want to add anything, Jeron?

Jeron Ravin:
I do. I’m going to walk through the examples that I gave just a moment ago, because I want to kind of walk through it a little bit and share with you some of the things that him and I have seen on a personal level. So the average Swope Health patient is a Black woman between the ages of 29 and 34 years old with three or more kids. In the pandemic, a good deal of people were unemployed, laid off furloughed, particularly Black women were highly impacted by childcare issues if they had more than one kid. And so that then leads to a lack of employment, a lack of income that could then lead to more food insecurity. Particularly if you are in a community that doesn’t have healthy foods, and now you have healthy food options, less healthy food options and less income to pay for food if you in fact can get to healthy food options. You also don’t want to ride in public transportation, because you’re concerned about the Coronavirus. And on top of that, if you have any chronic conditions, you’re probably foregoing any health care, because you don’t want to be in spaces where sick people are. It’s a trickle-down effect, right? And so the pandemic caused that. We’re seeing it at every level, many of our patients, meaning people that both support Swope Health and Community Builders.

NaTika Rowles:
Yeah, that’s good. I appreciate you both pointing that out and even listing the average patient or average person that goes to Swope Health and how that trickles down and understanding that. And we see that as you both said that you’re not just providing services, but you’re addressing the issues that were already there in our community. So in the future, Emmet you kind of talked about that, what you plan to do and how you hope to pivot. What other things in the short term and in the long term, in your partnership, can you do together? Or if you have anything that’s on the cusp of beyond pandemic and still addressing needs, systemic issues that are in the Black communities?

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
Sure. I think the first thing is, is that on our campus that we both are so proud of, which is again, along Swope Parkway, Blue Parkway, and soon to be Martin Luther King Boulevard, our campus is growing. We’re providing housing opportunities. We broke ground on a housing development. I think the health center has some fantastic plans that I don’t know if they’re ready to share just yet, they have some plans as well on the same campus. So our campus is growing. And I know we’re talking about the pandemic, but it’s still a big issue is we’re still working to close the digital divide in this community. We are still a money order, cash-based community when everybody else at e-commerce and digital currency and all those things. So what we’re doing to address that is, just now we have a subcontractor on-site that is in fact, providing and putting in two gig, it will be the fastest wifi access available in the community, because we want to make sure that our patients, our tenants, our residents, that they have every opportunity to close that digital divide for their families.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And so that we’re not missing out on that. If we go back and look at what’s going on and what the study that McKinsey Company, one of the foremost authorities in consultant management worldwide. They put out an article that talked about how Black and brown, particularly African-American men are going to be left out of this AI artificial intelligence now affects so much of our society from facial recognition, which we still have challenges with that with Black and brown folk. With regards to… We typically hear about the automated cars, but it is more basic than that. We are going to be left out of the next decade. And so how do we begin to address that?

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
So those issues are still prevalent in our community, along with the basic issues, as Jeron talked about, health access to capital. When we say we’re building healthy communities in mind, body, and spirit, we take that literally and we do that collectively as well. So that’s some of the things that’s going on our campus and as a whole. And we have some plans, NaTika that we’re willing to share, and some we aren’t ready to share.

NaTika Rowles:
All right.

Jeron Ravin:
Emmet and Community Builders is helping Swope Health, engaged us in an endeavor right now to build a $15 million senior facility here on Blue Parkway that’ll open October of next year. We are incredibly proud of the program, it’s called the Pace Program, all intensive care for the elderly. It will provide integrative care teams to every senior that the pharmacist, social worker, occupational therapist, driver, dietician for each senior that is in the program. And Community Builders is helping us build that state-of-the-art facility and build this big out. So that’s one way. The other thing I’m particularly proud of is that we’re moving away from tracking social determinants and that’s the end all be all. What I mean by that is a patient comes in the door and we find out that that food insecurity, and we see if we can refer them to Harvesters and that’s nonsense, right?

Jeron Ravin:
That’s why Community Builders build a grocery store. They own a grocery store right in the middle of Blue Parkway to help with that food insecurity. In addition to that, Emmet doesn’t know this yet, but Emmet is going to help us go back to the old Swope Health and Community Builders 40 years ago, where we’re going to build housing and build generational wealth and find first time home buyers in the community, so they can have something that they own for their family. So that’s something that we’re looking forward to. It’s a big part of our strategic plan in the next three to five years and the Community Builders is going to be a part of that.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And NaTika, can I add to that? Because I think, if Jeron and I kind of gloss over these numbers, but I just want to go back. So in the middle of the urban core, and one of the most challenged zip codes in all of the state of Missouri, two African-American-led organizations are doing $28 million worth of development in the next six months. That is major. That’s amazing in itself, but to have two organizations come together in the same space, working together to provide for the larger community, that surely is newsworthy even beyond this podcast.

NaTika Rowles:
I totally agree.

Jeron Ravin:
Agree.

NaTika Rowles:
Agree. Agree. Yeah. So you have some exciting things going on. I’m glad that you shared them. And if you had not be on the phone after this saying, what’s going on? But as we see, before the pandemic, you had this great partnership, right? You both evolve together as two organizations that are central in the Black community. Pandemic hit, you addressed it. You face it head-on. You make an impact in it, in the community, a lasting impact, but you start to see that the issues that you were addressing before are still there, right? And now you have plans to even address those.

NaTika Rowles:
So donors want to get involved in this space, right? They want to help to address those systemic issues that have been brought to light during the pandemic. So I want to direct this toward Emmet, but Jeron, if you have anything to add to it, please go ahead. But Emmet, as the board chair of the Black Community Fund, can you tell us what BCF is doing from a philanthropic standpoint and how individual donors can also be funders at a higher level, how they can respond to this moment and beyond?

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
Sure. Today, I am wearing two hats, just as important and just as proud that I wear the hat of the chair of the Black Community Fund of Kansas City under the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. And so, what we’ve been doing is we have actually pivoted from our normal grant-making. In the past, we would make smaller grants, 20 to $10,000, and even smaller than that to organizations that were helping make African-American life and community better. Last year as a result of a couple of things, but the pandemic was one, but particularly around the murder of George Floyd, the board of directors, we really took a hard look at how we were given out our phones and made some priorities. The first being that we were going to support and prioritize Black and Black-led organizations.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And so particularly around first-time or younger organizations, we thought that was important because Swope Health Service has been around since 1968, the old model cities program for those that know what that is. We’ve been around for 30 years, but we have to begin to bring up the next generation of philanthropic leaders, the next generation of health professionals, masters in public health and PhDs. So those organizations have to start someplace. And typically in traditional philanthropy, one, they want to get into all the metrics of how long you’ve been doing this and who’s on your board. And let’s be very clear that there’s also some philanthropic redlining that has occurred as well.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
So at the Black community fund, we said, “How can we help begin to remove some of those barriers with our small limited funds?” And so we have been just so overwhelm literally in a good way with requests. And so, NaTika, I got to give you a shout out as our executive director that have helped us navigate through all the fantastic organization, young organizations, first-time organizations that were running the gambit from leadership to food and security, to daycare. We ran the gambit of who and how we funded, but with the lens and from the lens of Black-led organization. So we are extremely happy about that.

Jeron Ravin:
Emmet, that’s fantastic. I mean, I’ll just add, I think something from a, I guess, recipient perspective, not speaking for foundations and whatnot. I appreciate the moment we’re in whereby foundations are shifting to doing real work in equity and inclusion rewards in facing health disparities, but not just the work that we typically see, which is that I’m going to give you some money to fund this program. I am seeing foundations look to do something transformational with the dollars, right? I’ll give you a perfect example. Father Justin Matthews over at Reconciliation Services. He’s building a third-party logistics company, not to train people. That’s the old model. But they’ll put people in their community to work, right? At a livable wage to deal with all the different shipping and logistics that are taking place, particularly in the pandemic, right? So I appreciate that. I would like to see funders, foundations, continuously challenge their recipients to do something transformational. So we’re not just singing the same song 10 years from now about social determinants. I think we’re seeing that now.

NaTika Rowles:
Yeah.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And, NaTika I would also challenge the foundation world to look at and take the nod from what some of our national foundation is doing. The Ford Foundation, if you saw the 60 minutes, how they talked about, we want to start funding organizations like Community Builders of Kansas City, Swope Health Services, and so many others that are doing great things. Emmanuel Daycare Center, for example. We want to start funding them and fund them from an organizational capacity standpoint. Here the foundation world typically looked at the metrics, and we want to fund you to these metrics. Well, if I don’t have the staff to get me to those metrics, we can’t get to the metrics. And my everyday constituent doesn’t understand those metrics. What they understand is, I need to get my health care better.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
I need to get this baby formula. I need to make sure this roof is over my house. I need to be able to keep these water lights and gas on, because I know what it’s like to see the yellow slip in the KCPL, now Evergy. I know what that slip means and what it looks like. And so, we are struggling as organizations to be able to reach into philanthropy, to get those resources, to fund the growth of our operations. Typically, we are at the front line of what’s going on in our communities. We were at the front line. Swope Health was that the front line of this pandemic. And we are thankful for the resources that we got, but we still have a monumental challenge ahead of us. And so only in Kansas City, have I seen across my travels and I was in private consulting before I came back to this organization I love.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
Only in Kansas City do I see that if you’re a strong organization, nobody wants to readily jump out there to fund you to the transformative level that Jeron speaks about. While I’m thankful for the hundred thousand dollars, and let me just say, Community Builders, we only have one grant, one foundation has funded us; two. One is from the National Chase and the Kauffman Foundation. So let me just be very candid. We have got to start funding the Black-led organizations and funding them to fund their succession planning and their pipeline of professionals. We have to do that if we want to have other organizations that have the sustaining power that Swope Health and Community Builders has had. So I went off on my diatribe.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
But I think that’s important to note that, how we are doing this work with Black Community Fund is that we got a grant from the national foundation, Kellogg Foundation that allowed us to initially look at how do we grow the individual giving in the African-American community. They were so gracious to allow us to pivot and say, “No. Address whatever’s the pressing issue that’s going on in the Black and brown community with our money.” That’s what we need. And it was $400,000 over two years, roughly. Those are the type of transformation vows that Jeron is speaking about. We’re thankful for whatever, but we need the transformational resources to transform a community.

NaTika Rowles:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeron Ravin:
Not only is it important to give transformational dollars and funding to Black and brown organizations that are doing the work they’ve always done in the community. What is important to hold what I refer to as the network of organizations in Kansas City that has historically received funding to account for not having their focus on Black and brown communities and frankly, Black and brown talent, right? It’s not lost on me or Emmetett or a number of other community leaders of color in Kansas City that certain organizations during the death of George Floyd, during the protest last year, during the census killings of African Americans around the country during COVID-19, didn’t say anything. There are some organizations that never had a statement at all about any of these things.

Jeron Ravin:
And some of these organizations receive money from funders, from foundations. And so I am suggesting today that, as I do with the people that we contract with here ar Swope Health, I will call you and ask you about how many people you have that are Black and brown in your leadership and your staff and report to you. Right? And before we signed that contract, that’s believed that I had those, that data in front of me. So I’m making the point that some of these foundations may want to not only support Black and brown organizations, but may want to also hold organizations to account that are not supporting Black and brown.

NaTika Rowles:
Well, gentlemen, that’s been a rich conversation and lots to think about for our listeners, for our funders and donors. And even as you both alluded to those that are on the receiving end of those dollars. Did you have anything else you wanted to add to the conversation?

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
I’ll just jump in and say that, so much of our pandemic life was also filled with not only from a health perspective, but from a social unrest, racial equity, social justice conversation. And so that’s still prevalent. That’s still going on. The Derek Chauvin verdict did not stop it. That was a tiny, incremental piece of it. And so as we’ve seen on LinkedIn an explosion of diversity and inclusion and equity officers, and that’s fantastic, I also asked of those same officers and those folks that now have these jobs, that those companies empower them to really make change.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
And what I mean by that is, just don’t give them the title, give them the clout, give them the juice, give them the resources in your budget, in the budget to make that difference. Don’t just name me as the chief diversity inclusion officer, but I don’t have a budget with the overall organization. I mean, so I think that’s important as well. I mean, if we’re going to empower them, empower them fully to really be rich in their thought and have the foresight and an ability to really make change and really take that title and transcend it into helping a community, do what it needs to do.

NaTika Rowles:
Thank you, Emmet.

Jeron Ravin:
I don’t think I can top that. I’ll just say, I just want to thank you, you both given us the platform, the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation for giving us an opportunity to have a voice on this podcast. And yes, we did a little bit of ranting and raving, but it’s all to make Kansas City better. We appreciate the opportunity.

Emmet Pierson Jr.:
Thank you both.

NaTika Rowles:
Yeah. Thank you. And we appreciate you for just taking the time to have a conversation. Emmet and Jeron, thank you both for joining me today. The Kansas City community, especially the Black community is lucky to have you leading us through this time. Listeners interested in supporting this work through their philanthropy you can contact us. We’re happy to help. Thank you.

Conclusion:
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