Southwest Solutions of Detroit
Romy interviews John Van Kamp of Southwest Solutions. John has been the leader and visionary of Southwest Solutions since 1973 and has successfully established a village of partners to address mental health issues. The incredible collaboration and partnering led initiatives into entrepreneurship and other related systemic change. This is an incredible story of community partnering and change!
Romy: We are here with John Van Kamp at Southwest Solutions in Detroit, welcome John.
John: Well, I’m very pleased to be here, thanks very much for coming here.
John: And for this interview, I really appreciate.
Romy: So, let's first give a feel of what Southwest solutions is.
John: Sure, at this point and time we would see that we are a family of agencies that are in partnerships with others, working in Detroit’s neighborhoods. Both at the people level and at the place level. But it probably takes a story from the beginning, because when we started we had ten staff and we now have about five hundred. So, it’s a story of the evolution that brings sense as to what we are.
Romy: Yeah, I really want to unpack this a little bit. Just real quick at a service level, you said you work with people and places in the neighborhoods, is it veterans mostly that you work with or all kinds, right?
John: Yeah, it’s with all kinds. I mean, we really started in 1972 as a small community mental health agency. It was not long after the Kennedy administration had created the concept of community mental health and it put together a funding model for community mental health, and Monsignor Clement Kern and Rev. Bill Moldwin and Rev. George Veneto, by Faustino Romero, Snoal and others, saw the concept of community mental health and saw the dollars available. They did a lot of work, and we opened our doors in 1972, with a staff of ten and a budget of two hundred thousand.
John: So that’s where we started. I shouldn’t say we because I didn’t start until 1973. I started as a grad student from Wayne State in the school of social work, community organizing and placed with the agency. But what attracted me and not only the clinicians but kind of some the community oriented people is that context of community mental health. It started with mental health rather than mental illness. So, the treatment of somebody’s mental illness is a key part of mental health but so is housing, so is healthcare.
John: So is a job, so is education. All of those things are a part of, if you will, my emotional well-being or my mental health.
Romy: Yeah, definitely.
John: But community mental health, what they realized is that because of the myths and the stereotypes and the stigma about mental illness, those community values are in a community and people either open them up or don’t.
John: So they divided the country into catchment areas to implant a community mental health agency in each. So you could work in a community context to have the community open up their values to their brothers and sisters who had a mental illness. So we started at the very beginning.
John: Creating a system of care for people with mental illness. What that meant is we came to the table, providing treatment services, but we had to find healthcare. We had to find housing; we had to find workforce development. And in that, some things we partnered, and some things we did ourselves. But when you realize you can create a system of care for a vulnerable population, you could do it for another population. And maybe that’s the first evolution of business thinking.
Romy: Yeah, right.
John: Right? Wow, we could create a system of care for people with mental illness. We can also do it for people who are homeless.
John: So we and our partners then created a pretty comprehensive array of services for people that are homeless. Well, then we realized when another opportunity came along, we could do it for kids in the juvenile justice system. So, you see kind of a business model?
John: You started one, but you see your line of business applies to others. So, for the last fifteen years in partnerships with the Down River guidance center, we have created a very comprehensive system for kids in the juvenile justice system. And then, about twenty years ago we started working with children, with parents, with very young children. So, we entered that space of early childhood development but what we saw there when we entered in, if you just work on the kids, you’ll go so far, but if you work with the whole family if you are as focused on the mom and the dad.
John: Or the aunt and the uncle, that impacts the child.
Romy: All right.
John: Okay, so, we created a system of care for families with young children.
John: How do we help mom? Maybe mom is working, for a company, and that company moves out of Detroit, and the skillset she has is not now, what's needed in the marketplace. So, how do we help her with her math skills or her English skills, or to get the next elevation of a job that she wants? So we started looking at things pretty comprehensively, does that makes sense how I’m trying to describe it?
Romy: Yeah, as I keep listening to you in those two or three scenarios, it’s like you are looking at all of the factors that are affecting, I guess what I would call the beneficiary you are trying to help.
Romy: And setting up an infrastructure around them and almost a village type way with these partners, right?
John: Yeah, yeah. We use the villages a lot.
John: We talk about, at some level, what are we trying to create? We believe that community is an intervention.
Romy: Yes, I believe that too.
John: Okay, and that village is an intervention.
John: Yeah, in other words, that village works. I don’t know if they talk about governmental structures or families, but that village works because everyone is centered on the success of everyone in that village.
John: Well, that’s a community.
John: But what we realize is, you can’t just focus on the person, you need also to focus on the place. In other words, what is the condition of housing, what’s happening in your neighborhood as well as with you as a Neighbor? So, we are vested in the success of the individuals and the success of neighborhoods, is that so?
John: Kind of the integrated wellness between the wellness of people and the wellness of place.
Romy: You’ve done something that many try to do, and you’ve done this well. You have partnered with these organizations and created stability.
Romy: Many tell me in the field, “Gosh, Romy, I’ve tried to do that but it’s unstable, I can’t depend on that partner’s thing.” You have so successfully built this infrastructure or partnerships and kept the community together.
John: Yeah, I mean, trust me, we’ve had a lot of lessons learned. We’ve probably had as many failures as we have success, but we learn from the failure. But let's take healthcare, okay. Very early on, we saw studies coming out of national institute of mental health that said, people with severe mental illness, die twenty-five years earlier than the general population.
John: Probably one of the largest health discrepancies, that there is, or health disparity. So we knew we had to address healthcare. We also knew that we weren’t, doctors and nurses. So, we looked for a provider who wanted to partner with us. It took us a while, quite frankly, there were some clients who said, “There is this free faith-based clinic called Covenant Community Care that is treating us with respect.”
John: so, wow, then I want to meet them.
John: And the first place you start is, is there alignment and mission, vision and values?
John: So you spend a lot of time at that.
John: Because when you are in a true partnership, you are probably equally, if not more vested in their success than your success, so when you can get to that point.
John: It’s like a marriage when you are more lets say …
John: You know, vested in your partner, it comes back to you, all right?
John: So, we were fortunate to have a covenant was at the time was a free clinic. So we worked with them, till now they have very significant funding. They have over a hundred staff, they are in seven locations around the city, but they started with us.
Romy: So they grew with you?
Romy: Your intention wasn’t just to take, it was to help them grow as well?
John: Oh, absolutely, they are totally independent and do things …
John: But they are in all of our buildings where we are working with our clients, they are in our buildings and an integrated kind of model. That’s an example of a partnership that works.
John: Because we are vested in their success, they are vested in ours.
John: But we are drawn together by a common mission, vision, and values.
Romy: Yes, yes, that’s great … I’m going to make sure I highlight that word on there for everybody.
John: (Chuckles), yeah.
John: So there are a couple of examples, of social entrepreneurship, that I think highlights again, another example of partnerships. A number of years ago I had a sabbatical from the McGregor Foundation.
John: And it allowed me to go around the country looking best practices.
John: And I asked people where I should go. So I asked Rip Rapson, from The Kresge Foundation where I should go. He said, “John, you ought to go to Minneapolis,” where he was a former deputy mayor.
John: And he said, “Look at neighborhood development corporation.” He said, “They have the best social entrepreneurship program in the country.
John: So I went there, and I was real, really impressed. I mean, for twenty years they worked a lot with immigrants. Okay, whereas here in Detroit we are working with Detroiters. Most of the minority and some, immigrants. How do you start somebody who has a passion for a concept, for an idea, who is going to be all in and their family will be all in, and they are going to work twenty-three seven, on that concept, and they are willing to go through some failures in order to get to the business model that they see. So, for twenty years, they perfected a model. And they were fortunate to bring evaluators on board from the very beginning
John: So they can now show the thousands of jobs created, the millions of dollars of property tax paid, and personal income tax. I mean, those are the measures you want to look at, right?
Romy: Yeah, oh yeah.
John: As a community to look at that. So, probably better than might go in there and seen it, is it Steve Tobocman, also when, on his own? So Steve brought them to Detroit and brought the foundation community to take a look at what the neighborhood development corporation had done. And they said, “We want to fund it.” see, Steve said, “Okay while you are at it, do it through Southwest.” But the model is one where we look for a community partner, that community partner could be a church.
It could be a non-profit organization; it could be a group, but they are known in their community. They are known in the Latino community or the Arab community or the monk community, or in East side Detroit or in Asb, they are known, they are trusted by the residents there. So then we partnered with them, we bring the skill sets, we bring the twenty hours of individual and group training. We bring the business model and the coaching and the TA, but then we do it with you, in your language.
John: By people who speak your language, by people who look like you in your community, to that trusted community partner. Prosper Us is the name of our business. A lot of people don’t even know that Southwest started it.
John: Because we have it allowed to be owned so much by our community partners.
John: But we’ve now had over four hundred and sixty graduates, from that in just three and a half years. People are now starting their own businesses, getting loans, we have a micro-lending program in there, character-based loans. So there is an example of, starting off being a mental health agency, gets into social entrepreneurialism which is a social enterprise I don’t know if itself.
Romy: It is, and you continue to keep solving and strengthening the ecosystem by bringing in all of these connection points.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Romy: That eventually lead to mental health if they are not solved, right?
John: Yeah. We are now about the mental health of the community.
John: And I think overtime we have evolved into working in neighborhoods, around the city, with neighbors and neighborhoods. Our neighborhood with our partners is Southwest Detroit. It’s going to take us and our partners ten, fifteen, twenty years to make Southwest Detroit, the eighty thousand people who live here, intentionally a place that people want to live, work, play, pray and all of that.
John: It will take us a while, but some of what we do, the fact that we do mortgage lending, the fact that we do workforce development and prosperous, we can do in your community, we can do in other communities around the city. So in fact, we probably are in more neighborhoods, around the city than just about any other NGO.
Romy: So, for us, that’s relatable when you are outside of the US, but Southwest solutions are so well known, they even know it in other parts of the state and other parts of the Midwest.
John: Mmm-hmm (affirmative).
Romy: It’s really viewed as an anchor organization and a model that others would like to achieve and follow.
John: Well, a number of years, I didn’t know how to describe our agency, community mental health didn’t seem, when you are into housing, you, are mortgage lending, or workforce development and early childhood, it didn’t seem to lend itself to a label, but I went to a Whitehouse conference. Fairly small but it was, how do you turn distressed neighborhoods into neighborhoods of opportunity. One of the panels was phenomenal. There were assistant secretaries of state of HOD, HHS, education, justice, treasury.
John: And seniors leaders from the Whitehouse, all in the same panel. But that wasn’t the best part, the best part as they admitted and this is only five years ago. They said. Finally, we are speaking from the same PowerPoint.
Romy: I understand that.
John: In other words, before that, education would say, “Here is what we are doing in this, you know, distressed community.” And what they realized, that it took an integrated approach among all of what they did, to work it. And they were talking about forty blocks in Baltimore or sixteen in Cleveland or two hundred in Chicago. In Detroit we are talking, many, many neighborhoods surround, around the city. So, what it takes is a comprehensive human development approach, which is an education in early childhood and healthcare and workforce development, financial coaching and all, a comprehensive human development approach.
At the same time a comprehensive community economic development approach, which is housing and commercial development and banking and entrepreneurship in small business. And at the same time you have to have that resident voice from those neighborhoods, guiding what they want to have and the changes and the opportunities created. So, you see, there is no governmental entity that does all of that. There is no NGO that does all of that. It’s kind of a collective impact model of how do you get all of those aligned in a neighborhood to create neighborhoods of opportunity.
Romy: It’s almost a combination of a cooperative, you had partnerships.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Romy: But the best of all of those is whats actually happening here.
John: Yeah, yeah. I mean…
Romy: Because ….
John: There is an economic development model that, during that sabbatical. And it came out of San Diego. Market Creek Plaza, and they’ve had some lessons learned and some challenges, but they were one of the first to do it.
John: There was the Jacobs family foundation in downtown San Diego. We are giving out about a million in a year. And they realized they weren’t, changing the world. So they decided to move to the most challenging part of San Diego and lead a resident led resident-driven economic development project. Well, so I went out there and I looked at what they did. I looked at the lessons learned. I got some guidance from them but then came back and with help from the Skillman Foundation, we found an area that would make all kinds of commercial sets.
Another instance where eighty thousand cars were traveling on the expressway, in a day and ten thousand, coming across from Canada. So, we knew that that was going to be developed but, that a CVS or gas station or Wendy’s would move in, and those are nice. But that’s not what neighbors want. So, The Skillman Foundation gave us enough money and we hired residents, and we did seven hundred face to face interviews.
Romy: That’s a lot.
John: Yeah, that is a lot.
Romy: That’s a lot.
John: Yeah, but the data that you gather when you do, especially when you hire residents to interview other residents, now that’s where they are spending their money. What businesses, you know, that they are going outside, that they would like to have here, what would keep them here?
John: So, they designed a survey, they implemented it. Now we are armed with, what they want regarding economic development in their neighborhood. Now we are looking for dollars to buy the property. And the create development opportunities, based on what residents want. Well, that’s an economic development model that ought to be replicated throughout the city and the state.
Romy: Right, there is so much of everyone having to submit to what everyone else …
Romy: Has decided it’s good for them, right?
John: Yes, isn’t it?
Romy: In that voice message, right?
John: Yeah, yeah.
John: So, yeah, that’s what I love about it. We are still working at it, it’s a work in progress.
John: But, I think one of the things we look to be is early adapters of other people’s best practices. In other words, we are non-innovators, we don’t conceptualize something.
John: But we look at, how can we learn from the best practices there and through partnerships created, in the neighborhoods that we are working?
Romy: Well, that stays with and honors your theme of community.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Romy: Because you by default become a bigger community when you are learning from each other.
John: Mmh, yeah.
Romy: In other locations.
John: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Romy: (Laughs), it’s networks here if you will, to other cities that are already doing some learning.
John: Another example, is one that united way and risk, brought to the community, just about ten years ago is called...