- people on the move
Inside Track: Saying 'yes' to people work
Jamon Alexander chooses career of service to offer stability and success to adults in transition.
Jamon Alexander said he chose the path he is on to help individuals whose stories contain echoes of his own.
Growing up in a mostly Black neighborhood in southeast Grand Rapids, Alexander said he didn’t realize Grand Rapids was not a predominantly Black metro area until he moved to rural Allendale to attend Grand Valley State University at the age of 17.
The transition from attending urban public school to living in close quarters at Grand Valley with students who had never gone to school with a single Black person sparked a fair amount of “culture shock,” he said.
Alexander was raised by his grandparents from the age of 5 while his father was not present, and his mother was “in and out” of his life struggling with addiction during the drug crisis of the 1980s.
Tired of the battle, one rainy night she knocked on the door of Our Hope Association, a rehab center in Grand Rapids, where the woman who answered welcomed her in out of the cold despite the facility already being at capacity.
Alexander’s mother has been clean for many years now, and he said he has a healthy relationship with her.
“My mother is always available. She’s a wonderful grandmother to my children,” Alexander said.
The experience of coming of age while facing significant challenges motivated Alexander to major in public and nonprofit administration. He wanted to serve people facing systemic barriers to success because of family, race, socioeconomic status or the neighborhood into which they were born.
“There’s always been a part of me subconsciously that wanted to be for others what I feel like I didn’t have or what I feel like I wanted growing up,” Alexander said. “I entered into the nonprofit arena wanting to have a career of service.”
Not long after college, the adviser of his campus American Humanics service chapter told him about an open position at Heart of West Michigan United Way, where she was a volunteer. He got the job and worked for about two years as a fund developer to raise money for the United Way annual fund through workplace campaigns at organizations such as Amway, Autocam and Grand Valley.
To gain a broader fundraising strategy and development experience, he then worked for the Spectrum Health Foundation and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation before taking on the role of annual fund director at the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, where he worked for three years.
While enrolled in the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Leadership Grand Rapids training and development program during his time at the YMCA, Alexander met Kim Dabbs, then executive director of the West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology (WMCAT).
She recruited Alexander to be the next director of workforce development at WMCAT.
Alexander said: “I’ve got nine years of fundraising experience. I’ve never done — directly — program development, and I know very little, if anything, about workforce development. Why do you want me?” And Dabbs said, “Simply put, you care. The rest of it, you can learn, I can teach you, we can connect you to mentors — but you care about this work, and that’s what I’m looking for on my team.”
Alexander is celebrating five years in the role this month.
Through the medical billing, medical coding and pharmacy tech career training programs supported by Spectrum Health, Mercy Health and Meijer, WMCAT’s workforce development model provides unemployed and underemployed adults a pathway to income security through education and career preparation.
Alexander said Dabbs’ instincts were spot on, in that transitioning from fundraising — where he was telling people’s stories secondhand — to directly working with clients allowed him to get “closer to the impact” and use his talents to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I have people who come here, and their stories, some of them are like my mom’s, some of them are perhaps even a little bit less extreme, but I am now in a position where I’m on the other side of that door, and I get to say ‘Yes’ to adults who are looking for a new career, looking for stability, looking for long-term, sustained economic security, not only for them but their families, and to actively contribute to their neighborhoods,” he said.
“So, I’m now the (one) on the other side of the door in the same way that that woman was there for my mom.”
Alexander said WMCAT’s workforce development model is committed to viewing students in a holistic way by acknowledging the many obstacles an adult may have coming into the program, such as low income; utilities shutoffs; and transportation, child care or mental health challenges.
A Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) case manager is on-site to provide support for many of those challenges, and WMCAT also has a partnership with Arbor Circle for those with mental and emotional health needs.
In partnership with Leanne Rhoads, WMCAT director of program development, Alexander developed the Leadership by Design experience as the two-week kickoff to WMCAT’s career training programs. Created to “flatten the power structure” in the programs, Leadership by Design takes participants off-site to do team activities such as the DiSC personality assessment and emotional intelligence- and trust-building exercises to set students up for success. They also focus on the power of each person’s story and how that “lived experience” can be an asset in the workplace.
Alexander said he has long been interested in the role environmental factors play in a person’s life outcomes, which is why he works hard at WMCAT to take a “two-generation approach” to career development, recognizing students’ life challenges in relationship to their parents and their children, and supporting them around that.
He said data has shown environment plays a huge role in career outcomes in Grand Rapids, noting a recent “Neighborhoods of Focus” study of 17 census tracks in Grand Rapids revealed a huge swathe of the southeast and west sides — covering a population of 62,000 — had 50% unemployment and 40% poverty rates for Black and Hispanic residents despite the only 3% unemployment rate for the general population in Grand Rapids.
“It was like a city within a city,” Alexander said. “We saw that a third on up to 40% of our students were coming from these ‘Neighborhoods of Focus.’ That’s an equity issue. That’s an environmental problem. It’s not a people problem. You can’t pay me to believe that 62,000 people are just making bad decisions, and they all just happen to live in the same spot.”
Alexander said he is thankful for people in his life like Bonita Jasper at United Way, who mentored him in adapting to professional and workplace norms as he was navigating the post-culture shock years of young adulthood.
He also is thankful for his Grand Valley classmate Janean Couch, with whom he founded Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions (BL2END) in 2006, for recognizing the need for support and mentoring for young professionals of color and working to create space for it.
Looking to the future, Alexander said he plans to go deeper into workforce development with a new initiative called Workforce University in partnership with Spectrum Health Healthier Communities’ Strong Beginnings program. Workforce University is designed to help people discover more about themselves so they can decide what career path to take.
“I’m really excited about refining (it) over the next couple of years,” Alexander said.