Jones Is Voice For Voiceless

November 21, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — In 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, communications specialist, activist and one-time politician Joe Jones was swept up in an overwhelming sense of a "new beginning."

Four years earlier, Jones had come to Grand Rapids with his new wife, Jessie. The young couple and recent OaklandUniversity graduates had opted to put down roots in West Michigan over Jones' hometown, Detroit. He began working with his new brother-in-law, Roosevelt Tillman, in various marketing and communications roles at his construction, entertainment and staffing companies.

Back in Detroit, Jones had cut his teeth as a community organizer.

"I had the opportunity to serve as a voice for those who thought they were voiceless," Jones explained. "In areas of influence, I had an opportunity to speak on their behalf."

Growing up, Jones wanted to be mayor of Detroit. By his mid-20s, he was well on his way to making that dream, which had become a plan, a reality. He was going to land a seat on the city council and from there make his case for becoming Mayor Jones.

Working with the Warren Connor Development Coalition, he led grassroots community planning projects and was doing what elected officials were supposed to do — speak out for neighborhoods and get people involved in issues like housing and economic development.

In Grand Rapids, he picked up the plan unabated, running for city commission in the 3rd Ward. And it was fresh off that unsuccessful campaign that Jones chose his new beginning: as an entrepreneur.

"I really wanted to go into business," Jones said. "I had developed a tremendous amount of public and private support, and after the election, I took the opportunity to ask those individuals if they would support me in this."

Jones wanted to launch a public relations and communications firm specializing in access to communities of color. His campaign supporters — including Ginny Seyferth of Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson Inc., Grand Rapids Urban League President Walter Brame and many others — agreed to support him in his venture, and became valuable contacts and mentors.

On the first business day after the New Year, Jones took a $500 draw from his credit card, set up a second phone line, bought a computer, registered to do business with the state, and bought letterhead, envelopes and business cards.

"I was in business, and I haven't turned back since."

In a few months Jones' firm, E.E. Milestone & Associates Inc., which still exists today, outgrew his home office. He relocated to a small office suite in Eastown and then, a year later, to the WatersBuilding in downtown Grand Rapids with his newfound partner, Joe Gavan.

The new firm, Jones & Gavan, quickly found its niche — providing access to the minority community, as Jones originally intended — and further capitalized on the pair's access to elected officials. The latter grew in 2003 with the addition of another partner, John Helmholdt.

"When other companies and other industries were feeling the pinch during the economic crisis, we didn't skip a beat," Jones said. "We were very successful in developing a niche, a communications firm that recognizes the true importance of building relationships across the board."

Through his two firms, Jones has become a key figure guiding private and public entities alike through the market's emerging demographics. Companies are beginning to recognize the changing times, he said. In many regions, the Latino community will someday be the majority ethnicity. In West Michigan and elsewhere, the buying power of the African American, Asian and Latino communities is increasing sharply.

"If a company wants to be relevant, they'll prepare themselves to be culturally competent," Jones said. "They might not see the value immediately, but they will. You can't mess with demographics."

With the background of Jones, Gavan & Helmholdt, both from an ethnic and skill standpoint, the firm is positioned in a way unlike any other in the region. And with its work in the political arena, Jones has again found himself working as an advocate for social justice.

"That's one of the things that keep me waking up and going into the office," Jones said. "We have a moral compass. We will only be involved with issues or individuals who have concern for the issues we have a concern for, to align ourselves with a client base with common values.

"… There are still a ton of folks who feel that what they say is not important, especially when it pertains to communities of color."

Jones' firm is tackling initiatives associated with economic and business development, education, health care and neighborhood issues.

One project he is particularly proud of is Strong Beginnings, a federally funded initiative aimed at reducing Grand Rapids' state-leading African-American infant mortality rate.

The firm also is spearheading the region's hottest political debate in years, as the voice of anti-gaming lobby 23 Is Enough!

On a personal level, Jones currently serves on eight boards, including that of Kent County Aeronautics, Grand Rapids NAACP and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. He plans to reduce that number in the near future.

Jones is also a minister in training. He received his calling two years ago and has been pursuing those efforts through non-denominational Brown Hutcherson Ministries in Grand Rapids

"The Lord prepares you, and I've been prepared for a number of things," Jones said. "I believe that's part of why He has me in business, because of my ability to communicate, and my philosophy, which I constantly push, is to give.

"And in the business world, sometimes the idea is to receive, receive, receive."    

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