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Kalamazoo nonprofit leader gets creative to overcome generational poverty

December 5, 2021

As the new leader of Kalamazoo-based Urban Alliance, Chris Pompey wants to take more creative approaches to overcoming generational poverty. Pompey, who’s been with the organization in various roles since 2018 and was named permanent executive director last month, sees opportunities to lead more social enterprises that help people find meaningful work. In addition to substance use treatment, employment and housing services Urban Alliance has provided since 1999, Pompey also believes there’s room to support entrepreneurship and minority-owned businesses. In a recent interview with MiBiz, Pompey discussed his priorities after serving as interim executive director for five months, his background as a small business owner, and his outlook on the hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic giving flowing into the community.

What’s been your role at Urban Alliance since joining in 2018?

I came in as a support coordinator, or the equivalent of what you’d call a case manager. My first role was to support individuals going through our Momentum life skills program that runs every six to nine weeks. My job was to meet individuals going through the program to help them navigate crises such as housing, substance abuse, transportation or child care. Then I moved on to a supervisor position and eventually as director of programming. 

Then the pandemic hit. We went into a lot of conversations about what we thought the city would look like coming out of it. My background is in substance abuse and mental health. For me, I felt that once we came out of COVID, there were going to be a lot of individuals suffering from substance abuse. Our job is to step in, fill that gap and get our friends and students the help they need. I saw a need not to reduplicate services, but to develop programming based around substance abuse and trauma, and came back to launch the recovery side of Urban Alliance.

We have since brought on new services around how we can really focus on helping individuals in households in a holistic approach to really combat generational poverty. Most people would say it’s a job, but it’s bigger than that. It’s financial literacy and how to handle the money coming in. We’re also paying a little bit more attention to how individuals are getting to housing.

You’ve talked about the need to get creative to help people because what has worked in the past isn’t working today. What did you mean by that?

A lot of times, we assume individuals just need a job. But what does that really mean? The climate now is that there are a lot of jobs out there. Employers are saying: ‘Where are the employees?’ We are starting to develop and launch some programming so we can be an organization that also has social enterprises that get individuals back to work. We have partnerships in the community looking at construction trades, automotive trades, and we’re looking at digging into entrepreneurship. 

Do you see challenges that are unique to Kalamazoo?

We still have a shortage of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses. If you look at the entrepreneurs throughout Kalamazoo, there’s some disparities there. On affordable housing and the housing shortage: You come into these urban communities and there’s not a lot of homeownership.

One of the things I’m focused on is construction trades. When you think about minorities and construction, they’re the labor. How do we go from labor to licensed contractor? How do we change the narrative? We have a lot of individuals we work with who want to start their own business but they don’t know how. What can we do to help with not only starting a business but to make sure it’s sustainable?

This year alone, Kalamazoo has seen hundreds of millions of dollars come in through philanthropic giving. How optimistic are you that the funding will trickle through the community to those who need it most?

I am kind of optimistic, but there’s also a little concern about the funding trickling down to the individuals who are doing the work. It’s great we have that type of funding, but we have to make sure it lands in the right places. Historically, the money gets apportioned and sent to places it’s normally sent to. 

The key with this money coming in is that the voices that need to be heard are the voices where the money is directed — leading listening sessions with the people most affected. It’s a great thing it’s coming in, however, we have to be sure the money is benchmarked properly.

You were previously a small business owner involved in retail footwear. How did that experience translate to the nonprofit world?

Are you listening to the consumers? That’s the lesson I take from being an entrepreneur and bringing it into the nonprofit world. Are we listening to our population? What is the population saying? Compare that to retail, where your customer really dictates your business. If you’re not listening to your customer, you have no business.

Read the article on MiBiz.

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