Can-Do Kitchen pursues diversity, equity, and inclusion from the inside out

As a food business incubator that provides workshops and classes for food business education, and a commercial kitchen space, Can-Do Kitchen aims to remove barriers to food business ownership. To meet this goal, non-profit founder and Executive Director Lucy Dilley says that diversity, equity and inclusion has to be a fundamental part of her organization from the inside out. Photo credit Julie Arch.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Can-Do Kitchen stayed open. To adapt to the changing times, they transformed their kitchen to meet new safety guidelines. They used stronger bleach for disinfecting, placed hand wiping stations at the doors, and covered walls with signs explaining how to spot the spread of germs. 

 

Like many other organizations, there was a learning curve for adapting to the pandemic.

 

And when social unrest increased after George Floyd’s murder, more businesses and organizations began to incorporate equity, diversity and inclusion into their plans. Can-Do Kitchen found themselves ahead of this curve. 

 

As a food business incubator that provides workshops and classes for food business education, and a commercial kitchen space, Can-Do Kitchen aims to remove barriers to food business ownership. To meet this goal, non-profit founder and Executive Director Lucy Dilley says that diversity, equity and inclusion has to be a fundamental part of her organization from the inside out. 

 

Can-Do camp graduates

These food entrepreneurs graduated from Can-Do camp in 2019.

 

“We have been on a path and we are just continuing on the path,” Dilley said, “For me, this year reinforced that we were going in a good direction, in a helpful direction. We need everyone to work on it too.”

 

According to Dilley, it is hard to run a successful food business. It becomes even harder for those that come from excluded communities.  This could be for a number of reasons; language barriers, lack of transportation or lack of financial and networking resources. 

 

“Systems that are in place that give white people a lot of resources, are the exact systems that are preventing the same from being true for people of color,” Dilley said.

 

Generational wealth, or assets passed from one generation to the next, is one area where these disparities are glaringly oblivious. The average white family has a net worth ten times greater than that of a typical Black family, according to the Brookings Institution. Financial backing is essential for those who want to start a business, but for excluded communities it is harder to secure. 

 

Women face their own slew of challenges in the business world, since most business and financial networks are made-up by men. This can be discouraging for a woman trying to get her foot in the door.

 

The Can-Do Kitchen works to eliminate these barriers in a variety of ways. 

 

They bypass language barriers by organizing translation for their members at meetings. They remove financial barriers by offering reduced rates and scholarships for their resources. Can-Do Kitchen also plans to offer a micro-lending program starting early this year, to help entrepreneurs get their business off the ground with loans of $2,500 or less. 

 

“These loans are to help people that are just not able to get any financing at all, who just really need something to get that idea off the ground,” Dilley said.

 

Can-Do offers classes to break down educational barriers surrounding food ownership. Chris Flowers, owner of an Ice Cream sandwich business called Koolio Jetz, said that Can-Do Kitchen gave him the information and resources to get his family business off the ground. From information about proper food licensing to having a place to store their products, Can-Do helped with each.

 

All of these programs help, but Can-Do staffers agree that around half the work to increase resource accessibility, happens internally. 

 

“Underlying all the tangible things that we do, is a commitment to doing our own internal analysis and figuring out who we are, our own identities," said Sheena Foster, Director of Operations.

 

None of their external resources would matter without Can-Do Kitchen taking the time to figure out how to create an environment that welcomes everybody. Can-Do staffers say this requires an understanding of how their own identities affect their members. 

 

“It comes down to how we show up in interactions when someone walks through our front door,” Dilley said. “Are we able to quickly understand how our own identity might get in the way or help someone move along on their pathway.”

 

Susma Mohato

Susma Mahato

 

One former staff member, Susma Mahato, who just recently vacated the position of facility and volunteer coordinator, found that her presence at the Can-Do Kitchen set members at ease. 

 

Mahato is from Nepal, and came to Kalamazoo to obtain her bachelors and masters from Western Michigan University. 

 

“Members have expressed that they feel comfortable just by seeing me working here trying to help them,” Mahato said. “It feels really good to see a person of color.”

 

Creating a diverse and inclusive space does a lot to increase comfortability for members. That’s why Can-Do Kitchen created a diverse mentor network to provide connections and insight to new members. During group tours, which is often the first time new members are in communication with the organization outside of phone calls, Can-Do has the mentor network there. 

 

Comfort also comes from meeting people where they’re at. Email is the most comfortable form of communication for Foster, but she knows that might not be the case for her members. She is willing to step outside her comfort zone to reach people.

 

Though Can-Do kitchen wants their members to be comfortable walking through the door, Dilley acknowledges that there are times when they can’t and shouldn’t be comfortable.

 

“The white people we support are going to be uncomfortable at times in conversations we have surrounding race,” Dilley said. “We don’t want people to be unchallenged.”

 

Can-Do Kitchen is happy to say it’s continuing to head in the right direction regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. Over the last 10 years, equity work had become essential to this non-profit’s work, however it didn’t start off that way, Dilley says. She remembers people talking about anti-racism back when she first founded Can-Do Kitchen in 2008, however she wasn’t yet participating in the work. 

 

“Later, we all started to realize what was really going on in terms of all the systems that were holding people down,” Dilley said. “We realized that the Can-Do kitchen needed to be an organization that was working against these systems.” 

 

When most organizations and businesses were coming out with messages of support to the Black Lives Matter movement, Can-Do Kitchen wanted to make sure they were communicating and acting authentically. This past year, they began working with a racial equity consultant to keep driving towards their mission. 

 

Can-Do Kitchen is looking to move into a bigger facility by the end of the year, providing more space and more opportunities for the communities it serves.