Emma Garcia navigated through a period of upheaval at Access of West Michigan to emerge with a mission to create holistic solutions to poverty through education and collaboration. Photo by 616 Media
Emma Garcia said she’s witnessed too many nonprofits sink into a hierarchical bog that ends up compromising their overall mission.
“I became really disillusioned with this nonprofit structure that is supposed to help with equity,” said Garcia. “All nonprofits say they believe in equity, but if you look internally at their structure, they’re got a president/CEO who makes $100,000 more than the next staff, and then you have this chain of command that’s really hierarchy. So, their internal structure is not equitable, but they say they value equity in the community.”
Garcia speaks from first-hand experience. Access of West Michigan had its own ship to turn around before she became the nonprofit’s co-executive director in 2016. Earlier roles she’s held at the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit include program director and hunger response director.
A longtime executive director had resigned in 2013, unleashing a “really tough two years” that included an interim director, and then a director, both of which didn’t work out, leaving Access of West Michigan void of a leader for about one year.
Throughout this challenging time, Garcia worked as Access of West Michigan’s program director, but was eventually asked to step into a leadership role for which she felt unprepared.
“I was expected to provide leadership without, honestly, the right qualifications,” she said. “It was truly a difficult time of trying to navigate where we should be moving forward.
“What emerged from our staff was a shared leadership model. We have always valued collaboration in the past. We tried to reimagine what can a nonprofit structure look like if it was truly formed and led by every person on staff, that every person has a voice at the decision-making table. So that’s what our team did, and it helped strategize what equity could look like. We presented that to our board, and it took some convincing and a lot of discussion. But there were some other nonprofits that also had a co-director model and we were able to learn from them and other organizations around the country. That was a really pivotal time for our organization and for me, as well, because it had been a very hard two years.”
Garcia credits her faith and earning a master’s degree in ministry leadership from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary for giving her the necessary boldness and insight to chart a new leadership course for Access of West Michigan.
“At one point I had just caught this vision and, as a Christian, for me it was very much from God,” said Garcia. “I felt inspired with a new, fresh vision, kind of a new life for our organization, and we had a team at that time that was really willing to come around the concept of shared leadership and shared decision making and so we tried it, and four years later (after launching the co-executive model), it’s going really, really well.”
Equitable leadership has, in turn, become an essential ally to Access of West Michigan’s mission of creating holistic solutions to poverty through education and collaboration.
The faith-based Access of West Michigan was founded in 1981 following the federal government’s cutbacks on social service programs. A consortium of church and community leaders recognized the need for central coordination of services in order to prevent duplication and maximize resources, hence the genesis of Access of West Michigan. Key to Access of West Michigan’s purpose is connecting 200 churches in Kent County to collaborate with their benevolence ministries. Access of West Michigan coordinates their efforts and provides caseworkers who work with individuals who have sought help from these places of worship.
“A lot of people don’t know that churches invest a lot of money into assisting neighbors with utilities, rent, bills and preventing foreclosure of their homes,” said Garcia. “Last year, our churches helped with $200,000 in Kent County to support neighbors. That’s a big deal when we’re talking about housing issues and utilities being an indicator of a family’s fragility. If you are getting your water shut off that can actually lead to a lot of other crisis situations, so our churches do a lot to help. We also do community development, which works with churches to look at issues of anti-racism and community development strategy.”
Access of West Michigan’s other programs include its Poverty Education Initiative and Good Food Systems program, which grows a thriving local food system for all.
“We used to be a pretty typical food organization, putting up pantries and handing out food. But after I had been in that role coordinating food programs for five or six years, I started to really get bored and realized we did the same thing year in and year out,” said Garcia. “And every year, we’d see more people coming to the food pantry and more people needing food, and the demand is so high and there’s never a reduction. And so I stepped back and started looking across the nation to see what are communities doing to actually prevent food insecurity and issues of poverty?”
That soul-searching resulted in a more streamlined strategy.
“We completely overhauled our programming and now we focus on supporting a few targeted nonprofit organizations or clinics to do some in-depth food work that basically is focused on preventive actions,” said Garcia. “These are things that support the Michigan agricultural economy. One of our programs invested over $70,000 into the Michigan agricultural economy last year. We believe that creates jobs and helps to prevent poverty, helps prevent hospital visits because they’re getting good food, and helps with education. So, our food program is strongest when it’s helping nonprofits shift from typical hand-out models into having a retail food market that sells affordable food from local farms or a vegetable prescription program that connects long-term illness patients with good food and education. With that deeper level, it gets to the root causes of poverty and food insecurity.”
Garcia grew up in the Chicago suburb of Batavia where she was home schooled at a time when that educational option was not deemed as mainstream as it is today. She has no regrets for her parents’ choice of educating her — except maybe one.
“I’m extroverted and need to be around people, so playing with neighbors and finding friends in the neighborhood and just being able to play outside and just enjoy the summertime is what I remember growing up there,” she said.
Perhaps another element of her life that since has fallen out of the mainstream is she started babysitting kids when she was 10 years old.
“Now that seems like ‘wow,’” she said. “I think I learned while babysitting more about responsibility, nurturing and understanding people because, obviously, with kids, you need to understand and communicate well and make expectations clear. Adults are probably just as emotional as kids. It’s a lot of people management.”
Additional goals Garcia wants to fulfill in her life center on honing effectual leadership.
“I love leadership,” said Garcia. “I love talking about unpacking what leadership is. I think part of my goal is to help unpack how we accept some norms related to leadership and say, ‘No, actually, leadership isn’t about being recognized as a leader.’ So, if the people on my staff are recognized as leaders, then I’ve done my job well. I’m really passionate about growing leaders, cultivating leaders and leadership skills in people, and just challenging what’s accepted about leadership in nonprofit management.”