Born and raised in Springfield, Lauren Kelley is rooted in the city and wants to see it thrive.
The founder of Leaders of Change, Kelley wants to be a part of a collaborative effort to improve racial equality throughout the community. And she’s using the platform created through her organization to help build the bridges to make that happen.
A 2007 graduate of the former North High School, Kelley started working for the Clark County Juvenile Court in 2011 in the Clerk’s Office. When she had the opportunity to become a corrections officer in the Juvenile Detention Center, she was excited for the chance, and she’s enjoyed her role there throughout the last seven years.
“I’ve always liked working with young people, and so I knew I would like having that captive audience and being able to work with them,” she says. “When I transferred to Detention, it was a blessing because I was able to work with them through Project Jericho, and I was able to do a lot of music and art projects with them.”
Outside of work, Kelley launched Leaders of Change in June 2020 in light of racial inequality protests nationwide following the death of George Floyd – a black man in Minnesota who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes.
“It was very, very troubling and hard to see. That side of me that says, ‘These individuals look like me. These are my brothers and sisters.’ I may not know them; we may not be blood-related, but to see what was going on, I just felt like I needed to figure out what I could do and how I could do my part,” Kelley says. “I want to do what I can do. I want to use what I know. I want to use my voice as much as I can to bring attention to these needs.”
Kelley says that even though there has thankfully not been a major issue in Springfield on the same scale as the deaths of George Floyd and others, that doesn’t mean racism isn’t an issue.
She spoke about the racism that people of color face that white people might not even realize happens on a daily basis – including differences in living options, healthcare options, education and more. She referenced racism that isn’t blatant – like someone using a slur – but racism that was built into our society many years ago and still affects black people today.
Shortly after starting Leaders of Change, Kelley says reached out to Springfield City Manager Bryan Heck.
“I wanted to connect our police officers with people of color and have a conversation,” she says. “It blossomed into a townhall meeting that took place in September that included the mayor and city and county commissioners and the NAACP and different leaders from around the community to have this conversation about what’s going on. We want that conversation to be ongoing.”
Kelley shared how important she feels it is to not only call out a problem, but also to have different groups of people hear each other and take active steps to make things better.
“We can’t fight with emotionalism. We must be strategic. I’m always thinking of who I can bring to the table who has that same kind of mindset to get things done,” says Kelley.
She says some small steps her organization has already taken include teaming with Springfield Police Division officers for to arrange Thanksgiving meals and Christmas gifts for families in need.
“I see Leaders of Change as somewhat of a bridge,” Kelley says. “Part of our mission statement is ‘bridging the gap of the racial divide,’ and that’s what we focus on is racial equality and bringing attention to different needs.”
In March, Leaders of Charge will be hosting another bridge-building event that will include officers and students from a local school sitting down together to have an open, honest conversation.
The students will be able to ask questions and share their feelings and perceptions about law enforcement. The goal, says Kelley, is to help the students feel more comfortable with local law enforcement and for the officers to have a better understanding of some emotions behind interactions with minorities in our community.
“With the police department, I feel like it’s all about building relationships,” she says. “It’s one thing to have a presence and another thing to have a relationship. A lot of times in the black community, we can feel like we’ll be in trouble even if you didn’t do anything wrong … If we can see officers and people of color coming together, we can see each other as humans.”
To continue growing those relationships, Kelley hopes to see more community events in the future that include law enforcement officers and minority groups. She says a major part of making that work will include hosting events not only Downtown or on the North side of town, but also within the communities on the Southside of Springfield.
Another step Kelley wants to take to address racial disparities is to find ways to support minority business owners.
This month, Leaders of Charge is teaming up with the Springfield Promise Neighborhood to host the Minority Business Network – a virtual event hosted on Zoom at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 18.
Presenters from Springfield’s Small Business Development Center will share information about business strategies.
“We want this to be the first of many of these events,” Kelley says. “Our desire is to have different people who have had success in the business realm share their strategies with marketing, advertising, their business plan, and more.”
Anyone interested in attending the free event can register through either organizations’ Facebook page or the Leaders of Change Instagram page. If you miss the event but are interested in the information, you can watch the replay on both Facebook pages.
Overall, forming Leaders of Change is something Kelley says just felt like the right thing to do, even through she shared that she was very shy growing up.
During high school, Kelley took vocational classes and joined an organization called Skills USA, in which she credits her advisor for pushing her to take steps to “do more.”
“He really encouraged me, and it really gave me a chance and opened a whole new world for me,” she says. “He encouraged me to believe in myself and from that experience, I always said I wanted to do that for someone else. I have always said I want to be that person in someone’s life and be able to encourage them.”
In both her work life as a corrections officer and through Leaders of Change, Kelley says she knows service is at the core of what drives everything she does.
“For me, I feel like I’m a servant,” she says. “I like to give my life to servitude – whether in church or life or community. I feel like my life was meant to serve people.
“Whatever I can do to help people respect each other and love each other’s differences, that’s what I’m going to do.”