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Powerful Women: Let's Talk - 95: Alita Kelly

Alita Kelly
Alita Kelly
Alita Kelly

Alita Kelly joins Jennifer Moss on this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk

Alita Kelly is the founder of South East Market a sustainable, equitable people powered grocery store that sources first from BIPOC and women-led businesses and farms. She also advocates for policy reform to encourage food sovereignty in the area.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


>> Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.


Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. It's time for Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Thanks so much for joining us today, I’m Jennifer Moss and it's a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman, Alita Kelly. After getting her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan in environmental science and sustainable business, she shortly thereafter launched The Southeast Market in October of 2020 here in Grand Rapids. Southeast Market is a sustainable equitable, people powered grocery store that sources first from BIPOC, which is Black Indigenous and People of Color and women led businesses and farms. She also sits as the chair for the city of Grand Rapids, Urban Agriculture Committee where she advocates for policy reform to encourage food sovereignty in the area. Now, that's a lot of powerful stuff going on. I'm so glad to welcome you Alita to Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Alita Kelly: Thank you.

Jennifer Moss: So, a bit more about you just before we began our conversation, she's also a recipient of the Grand Rapids business Journal's 2021 40 under 40 award. She also helped co-found the West Michigan Farmers of Color land fund and she's the director and founder of the MLK freedom school in Grand Rapids making quite the impact in Grand Rapids and beyond. Again, we welcome you Alita and so again, thank you for joining us on Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Alita Kelly: So, we're going to talk.

Jennifer Moss: Let's start with why you co-founded the Southeast market. Did you see a need in our community that would really be answered by such a market?

Alita Kelly: Absolutely. So, I spent a lot of time in my younger years on the Southeast side and that's where both of my parents met and where a lot of my family still lives today. My mother's family specifically dealt with a lot of dietary related illness-- diabetes, heart disease and as I got older and started learning more about the connection between food, access to healthy food, and walkable neighborhoods and these diseases, I made the connection and saw that, you know, they didn't have the access that they needed to live vibrant full lives and as I found myself as a homeowner in that same space, I didn't have that access either and so I wanted to do something about it.

Jennifer Moss: So, food equity is important in your eyes, especially in neighborhoods like the 49507 and zip code area as well as beyond that.

Alita Kelly: Absolutely. So, it's a human right. Everyone deserves to have access to healthy food and even though we know these things and we've known that certain areas don't have access to healthy food, no one was doing anything about it and so I was compelled to start this market. So, once I finished at U of M, one of my last projects was to come up with this concept of a sustainable and equitable grocery store. Something that I've been thinking about for years prior, but with the support of my U of M professors and the university, I was able to put some more teeth to the idea. So, once I graduated, I decided to take a bet on my community and see if they would support this project and so I founded Southeast Market and then a few months later I met my business partner Karen Dewitt and I invited her

into partnership because she was so passionate about it and had other skill sets that I didn't have. She came with an accounting practice.

Jennifer Moss: and the Southeast market was born. Tell us what you provide or what's available for people in the community at Southeast Market.

Alita Kelly: Yes. So, we have a lot of whole foods which are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meat, dairy, bread, eggs. Some staples like tomato sauce, and peanut butter, jelly, things of that nature but, what's different about what we're providing is we're sourcing first from my priority vendors and I try to get away from the term minority and so we use priority to talk about the Black Indigenous and Latino farms that we work with and so all of our produce, as you know, the cost of food just keeps ticking up

Jennifer Moss: Skyrocketing.

Alita Kelly: What we've been able to do is provide all of our produce and our meat costs to all customers through our pay it forward program and so that is a community pot of funds that everybody is invited to donate to pitch back into but, we use those funds to provide all of our food at cost. All of our produce and meat at cost.

Jennifer Moss: So, people can contribute to this fund if they like to and it's like you said, pay it forward. So therefore, especially those who might not be in a position to, you know, meet the rising cost of food products, they're able to be helped through this program.

Alita Kelly: Well, everyone that purchases produce and meat at our store benefits from pay it forward so everyone benefits

Jennifer Moss: And everyone can give.

Alita Kelly: And everyone can give but, of course, we don't expect everyone to give because not everyone has the means. We are really putting it on the responsibility back into our communities hands, if you have the means, then throw back to the pot.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely and so you established the Southeast Market and you work to help children of Color, connect to opportunities in urban agriculture and healthy living. You made it under the 40 under 40 list for the business Journal, quite an accomplished create such a young age. Are you enjoying the journey?

Alita Kelly: I am and it's so fun to come up with these ideas and to see them come into fruition after hard work. So, I'm really enjoying this space right now.

Jennifer Moss: Tell me what you do with our youth because there's a couple of pockets that you really serve the youth in our community.

Alita Kelly: Absolutely. So even before Southeast Market got started. The MLK freedom school was born and that was it really came out of a my covid garden journey that a lot of us had and I have a very public visible yard and so I was doing all this stuff, I was tilling up my grass and the kids are like “Miss Alita, what are you doing in your yard? Can I help?” and so as we strengthened our bond as neighbors me and these children, I saw how they came to life and were so inspired by getting their hands dirty, which I feel that way too. I started coming up with this concept of freedom school, which is to encourage and give children the opportunity to experience urban agriculture and all that it brings, the mindfulness journey

that it brings the increased likelihood that these children will try different types of vegetables because they have an intimate journey with growing it and so that's evolved from my neighborhood, children growing in my yard to this program.

Jennifer Moss: It sounds like it provides a bit of joy as well.

Alita Kelly: Absolutely. You know, one of the key concepts of freedom school is rest as resistance and play enjoy as a form of just a valid way to spend your time. And so in doing all this hard work, especially in our capitalist society sometimes the productivity, we feel pressure to be so productive all the time and so just encouraging children to play and undressed and that not just children, but it encourages me and helps me to get to rest in and play and all of the different elders in our program to this program is just as beneficial for the adults that are assisting us. We call them elders and the children are students and so it's been just a really beautiful journey and if you speak with any of our kids or any of our elders, they'll be able to tell you how transformative it is for them. Even in the small amount of time that we have freedom school over the summer.

Jennifer Moss: That is awesome and wonderful there. So, as we talk about powerful women, have there been any barriers that you perhaps have faced as you travel along your careers path and the things that you're doing?

Alita Kelly: Oh, absolutely. Well, as a mother, there's so many other things that are on my plate. You know, while I'm carrying out all of this work and so making time and really centering my children has been a process because I'm pulled so many directions. When I come back to my what my soul encourages me to do, it's always to center my children and make sure that they’re first and that the work sort of surrounds my home life.

Jennifer Moss: Make sure they're in the center of all of that.

Alita Kelly: Exactly and including them. So, you'll often see my daughters with me when I'm carrying out this work and I'm watching how it's shaping them into powerful young women and so that's been really beautiful.

Jennifer Moss: Give me my next show, powerful young woman like or little women. So, for our listeners and viewers, you know what has it taken for you because you have a voice in our community. What does it take for you to become comfortable in your own skin? Kind of, you know, be comfortable with your voice because along the journey and as you mentioned, you encountered some of the obstacles. We talk about that but, to be comfortable, to be able to speak out in to speak your truth. How have you gotten to that point?

Alita Kelly: Yeah, haha, it's been a journey and I'm kind of going back into your last question too, the obstacles. Not everybody is going to understand the work that you do, not everyone's going to like the moves that you make and so in order to get into the space where I feel comfortable in myself and confident in my direction, sometimes it looks like making people upset and just being okay with that and that part of this journey, especially with how public a lot of my work is means that there's going to be people that are very vocal about their disagreements with how I’m moving and centering communities of Color and so that's been an obstacle but, staying steadfast in my values and just making sure that I take time to reflect and feel connected with who I am and taking time to develop that, whether it be, you know, taking a day at the beach so I can sit with my thoughts and meditate and cook for myself and

all of those things help me to be the confident woman that I am. So then I know I'm rooted in just the reality of who I want to be too.

Jennifer Moss: And that journey can take a minute to get there too, because again you’re still on it and you're always getting things thrown at you as well and so how you respond to that, that kind of helps in the journey and in formulating, getting more comfortable in your skin because you’re going to stand firm in your answers to that whatever's thrown at you right.

Alita Kelly: With grace.

Jennifer Moss: With grace, absolutely. So, I know you work with a lot of people as we were talking, you cross many paths. What kinds of leadership traits do you like to see in people, especially maybe those that are on the journey with you, that you mentor or people along those lines? Even the kids.

Alita Kelly: Leadership traits that I really appreciate is curiosity. So, coming from a place of curiosity. Instead of I know, you know what this is and also respecting your elders. I think that's a huge piece of leadership is understanding who came before us turning back and listening and really listening and then taking that wisdom and applying it to the society that we live in today.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So, as you deal with a lot of the day-to-day pressures and getting it all done, you have two daughters that you're modeling and showing and setting that example for how do you get it all done? You know, creating that work life balance? I know you said you take them with you a lot but, there's still a process in making sure you have that balance as a mom as a working mom.

Alita Kelly: Absolutely it means being careful with my yes’s so as I have taken on more work that really fulfills my spirit, that means saying no to other things that I wouldn’t have in my twenties and it's OK because at the end of the day, I feel I feel good about what I said no to what I said yes to. So, there's that and also before I did all this work, I was more of a neat freak and so my house was like really tidy, but sometimes it looks like,

Jennifer Moss: Like you had kids.

Alita Kelly: Yeah! My home really looks like we live and use our home. So, settling into a reality that you can't do everything and calling for help when you need to and again just being very careful about what I say yes to.

Jennifer Moss: It took me a long time to learn that it was OK to say no when somebody asked you to do something. It's like, it takes a while but, once you get it, once you figure it out, it's a little easier. So, tell me some of the ways to relax with your family and friends.

Alita Kelly: Absolutely. So gardening is definitely one, growing food together, cooking together camping, kayaking, biking, traveling is my love. I love exploring, I’m an explorer and something that not a lot of people know, but I really enjoy observing insects, which is easy to doing in gardening but, it's also because I have just this affinity for the color and the shapes that they make and how they move and I just feel like I get to play with nature when I'm as observing things like butterflies are ladybugs or caterpillars.

Jennifer Moss: They could be quite beautiful to look at. So, so much is happening in this world as we know that we live in today and people are often very often looking for that just that little word of

encouragement. Do you have any favorite quotes or thoughts or, you know, anything that you use as a motto to help yourself or others?

Alita Kelly: Absolutely. Earlier, I was talking about the pace, our capitalist society and it can be so draining and so my word of encouragement and what I hold to, to keep myself a level and experience ultimate joy is to not let other people's sense of urgency be your sense of urgency. So, to understand what's truly urgent for you and to live in that and not let people pressure you to have the anxiety and stress that they might push on you.

Jennifer Moss: Good word there. Alita Kelly, I really enjoyed this conversation and this opportunity to chat with you. We appreciate you being here with us and of course, we thank all of you for joining us for another edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss. Do enjoy your day. We'll see you next time.


>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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