Jerry Norris started The Fledge, a Lansing community center that provides all sorts of services, to give back to the city that “raised him.” He heads many on-the-ground charitable efforts, whether that’s supplying food to those in need, helping those suffering from substance abuse or distributing small grants to local aspiring entrepreneurs. The Fledge has also become a buzzing hive for young creatives to host art shows and concerts, and Norris, 54, is to thank for providing them a space to grow.
What inspired you to create a DIY community center with so many different services and operations?
Lansing raised me. I wanted to give back after I sold my last software company. I have always had the thought, it’s a quote that I love: “Genius is lost in poverty.” And there are so many people living in poverty in Lansing. So, why would I move anywhere else and do something else? Why would I start another business to try to hoard wealth, when I could do something that had more meaning?
The other thing is, I’ve seen so many things that were exclusive, that inclusion became a word and my theme that I really wanted to do. We always wanted to be radically inclusive. We believe that everybody needs a chance, because chances are hidden by that poverty. And nature does the same thing. If you look at any pond, you’ll rarely see a net over it. Whatever seeds fall in, whatever animals fall in, whatever birds land there, they accept it all and they deal with it. They might eat it. They might let it grow and thrive, but we shouldn’t exclude, because inclusion brings diversity and diversity brings strength and resilience.
You’ve helped kickstart small businesses. Not many community centers go that far. Why is this fundraising/incubation aspect so important to The Fledge?
Poverty can be eliminated with three key points. The first is competency and education. The second is connection to a marketplace, and the third point is a little bit of funding. We can get entrepreneurs that already exist, but they’re wrapped up in flipping Percocet, or they’re flipping guns and they’re shooting at each other. If you look at the skill that it takes to do all of those things, they’re very entrepreneurial skills. But the input that people have sometimes is so limited and the opportunities they can see are limited. The opportunities we tell them that are there are unrealistic. They’re not believable.
If I can get an entrepreneur to get an organization growing, that can solve a problem in our community. Then we can make our community stronger, and if our community gets stronger, then we won’t have to lean on the government and other institutions to help us out. We can help ourselves. If we can help ourselves, then we can basically climb out of poverty.
What has kept you here in Lansing?
I was born in the ’60s. I was a child in the ’70s. I was a young adult in the ’80s. And throughout that entire time, I had teachers and mentors and coaches that were cheering for me, that were helping me. We call this white privilege sometimes, but it was Lansing that raised me. And I owe Lansing a debt because of that.
Tell me about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the charitable work The Fledge is doing as a result.
Whenever you get into a drastic situation like the pandemic, the first thing to do is to protect your people or protect your things. And the community is our people. So, we had to go into protection mode and we had the capacity and the competency to move food. That was very much number one. Then we discovered we had a bunch of equipment that people could use, like sewing machines or 3D printers to make masks.
We had to keep people connected, and we had to beef up our safe-use supplies. People suffering from substance abuse need connection to not use or to use less. And the shutdowns and quarantine were going to take away that connection. So, we loaded up with Narcan and safe needles. We also converted our studios to help people that are going to arraignments and made them available for people that don’t have the Internet or a camera with the right audio equipment. And then, ultimately, we created a connection point to help people get back together with Refuge Recovery or Narcotics Anonymous, or whichever group they need to get by.
(This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Skyler Ashley.)