Churches strengthen community through Stairstep

Belief Bowl participants on the Twin Cities PBS TV set.
Photo courtesy of Facebook

Faith and the stone and wooden walls of the church have often been a source of Black strength. Since 1992, a network of dozens of Black churches have combined their strength to form the Stairstep Foundation. The foundation empowers the Black community through community-building events and business initiatives that bring jobs and investment dollars.  

In July, the Stairstep Foundation and over 30 churches from throughout the metro hosted the 16th Annual Stairstep Foundation/His Works United (HWU) Church Olympics and Family Fest. There was a three-on-three basketball tournament at Macalester College, and a track and field day at Patrick Henry High School that included the 50, 100 & 200-yard dashes, Senior Power Walk, Hula Hoop, Egg & Spoon, Softball Toss, and a three-legged race.

Participants taking a break at the high school were able to get important health screenings such as mammograms. 

“The Belief Bowl was a way of using the churches to impact the issue of education,” said Rev. Alfred Babington-Johnson, founder and CEO of Stairstep Foundation. For the statewide quiz bowl, testing competitors in math, grammar and other subjects, each Belief Bowl participating church can have a team for one of three age categories: third and fourth graders, fifth and sixth-graders, and seventh and eighth-graders. 

In 2016, the Belief Bowl final aired on Twin Cities PBS. Along the way, competing youngsters honed their studying skills. 

Building Black capital 

Photo courtesy of Facebook Rev. Alfred Babington-Johnson

The Church Olympics and Belief Bowl are annual events celebrating the consistent work Stairstep has done in the Twin Cities Black community for nearly three decades. “We convene the African American churches once a month by coming together with pastors to talk about issues and to create collaborations that will allow us to go forth and serve the community,” said Babington-Johnson. 

“If you want to get real community transformation, you need to reinforce institutions,” said Babington-Johnson. African American churches have great potential to implement positive and empowering responses to the community’s challenges, he said. 

The Stairstep Initiative has two components: Stairstep Incorporated and the Stairstep Foundation.

“Stairstep Incorporated was designed to be a mechanism to show that it is possible for African Americans to invest in and with one another,” said Babington-Johnson. In 1993, Stairstep opened a Dairy Queen and a Tires Plus franchise. While the CEO thought this was a success, he also saw room for improvement.

“Our project was too small. We needed a larger scope,” said Babington-Johnson. That larger scope was inner-city manufacturing. General Mills brass agreed, investing $1 million in 1996. Stairstep committed $100,000.

While visiting his mother in Knoxville, Tennessee, Babington-Johnson had been introduced to Glory Foods Inc., an African American-owned company. After his mother cooked a meal with Glory Foods Inc. greens, Babington-Johnson was inspired to work with the company for a manufacturing project in Minnesota.

When he returned to Minnesota, Babington-Johnson had his staff try the greens. When they approved, he reached out to Glory Food Inc.’s co-founder and president Bill Williams. 

The collaboration of General Mills, Stairstep Inc., and Glory Foods gave birth to Siyeza, a co-packed line for Glory Foods. The line featured a variety of frozen entrees and sides such as macaroni and cheese, jambalaya, and turkey in cornbread dressing. 

The project began on Martin Luther King Day 1998, ran for about eight years, generated $12 million in payroll, and employed 400 people at a manufacturing plant in North Minneapolis.

Stairstep has still more Black community-boosting business initiatives up its faith-based sleeve. Babington-Johnson said upcoming programs center on GED assistance, including financial assistance for the exam and job training. 

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