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Antioch College

Kevin McGruder is seated at his desk at Antioch College, where he has been a history professor since 2012. (Photo by Jessica Thomas)

Building Community | McGruder brings expertise, experience to local orgs

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This is the eighth in a series examining the meaning of community through the eyes of residents working to build and shape it in Yellow Springs.

When asked about the meaning of community, Dr. Kevin McGruder said he believes community often comes from a personal need for connection — people build the community they need. In the spirit of that statement, McGruder, who has lived in Yellow Springs for 11 years, has spent his time in the village finding space for himself, and in turn, creating space for others.

After growing up in Toledo and graduating with a degree in economics from Harvard 1979, McGruder said he developed an interest in urban economics, particularly community development.

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“My first job out of college was with the city of Cleveland working with the Department of Development,” McGruder said. “It was fascinating.”

Part of McGruder’s job was to facilitate the 312 loan program, a Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, initiative that gave residents loans to renovate their homes. After working for several organizations in the Cleveland area, McGruder said he was faced with the reality of cuts in federal funding to HUD under the Reagan administration.

“The cuts rippled down to us, and I could see how it was affecting [our community development corporation],” McGruder said. “I decided to apply to graduate school.”

The decision to pursue a graduate degree led McGruder to Columbia University, where he studied business.

“I did the real estate finance program, which was very good for me in terms of the skills I needed to work in community development,” McGruder said. That’s how I ended up moving to New York in 1982.”

After graduate school, McGruder stayed in New York for work, but found a lack of community after graduating from university.

“It was difficult to get connected,” McGruder said. “Being in New York as a resident rather than a  student made it difficult to get grounded.”

To find that sense of community, McGruder joined a year-old organization called Gay Men of African Descent, or GMAD, in 1987. GMAD is an organization focused on promoting interconnectedness and support for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“It was an all-volunteer organization at the time,” McGruder said. “I went to their Friday Forums, and got more involved from there.”

McGruder would continue his involvement in GMAD, serving as Executive Director from 1997–2001, working on HIV prevention, health education and advocacy. 

At the same time that he began his involvement with GMAD, McGruder said he was also invited to join Abyssinian Baptist Church, a historic Black Baptist church in Harlem. Joining Abyssinian offered another anchor to the Harlem community, but also provided McGruder an opportunity to do community development work.

“They had a group of volunteers that was looking at starting a community development corporation and I was working at a foundation that funded them,” McGruder said. “Looking back, I realize I got anchored through Abysinnian and GMAD, so I stayed in New York.”

Along with his degrees in business and finance, McGruder said he had an ongoing interest in history and a love for teaching.

“When I lived in Boston [while attending Harvard], I was involved in the Drum and Bugle Corps,” McGruder said. “After moving to Cleveland [post-undergraduate], I helped teach high school and junior high school aged kids.”   

As McGruder settled into life in New York, he was offered the opportunity to adjunct, teaching a class called “Black Economic Development from 1860–present.”

“I taught that for probably two years or so, in the evenings after work, and I really enjoyed it,” McGruder said. “I started thinking about maybe I want to do this full time.”

After applying to several area schools, McGruder was accepted to The City University of New York.

“I was in my 40s, but it was perfect for me because there were a lot of other people who were my age, so I wasn’t an anomaly,” McGruder said. “I took, what I call, a practical approach to academic studies.” 

Focusing his research on Harlem, McGruder said he enjoyed the culture of the university as it avoided academic jargon and focused on making academic materials accessible for all audiences, a quality that reflected McGruder’s own approach to history, research and teaching.

After completing his doctoral degree, McGruder began searching for tenure track jobs, starting with schools in New York, but eventually broadening his search to Washington D.C. and Ohio.

“Antioch was the position that came through,” McGruder said. “That’s when I started thinking, ‘Do I really want to live there?’”

Reflecting on his experiences in Cleveland and New York, McGruder said he wanted to live somewhere with links to Black history and culture.

“Moving to Yellow Springs, I knew I needed to be anchored to some things here,” McGruder said.

He researched Black organizations in Yellow Springs and found the AME Baptist Church and The 365 Project.

“I thought ‘Oh, this is interesting,’ because I never lived in a small town and had not lived in a primarily white community and wasn’t sure that that’s something I wanted to do.”

McGruder accepted the position at Antioch College in 2012, joining a small faculty and large group of community members and alumni trying to re-launch the college.

“I didn’t find the Antioch situation daunting,” McGruder said. “I knew it wouldn’t be boring, and, if anything, I found it exciting.”

As a faculty member of a small college, McGruder has held several roles at Antioch, including vice president of academic affairs. He said that he wanted to replicate the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCU, model that focused on student experience and wellbeing.

“What I see [HBCUs] doing is  figuring out ways to welcome the students that they have and get them to where they need to go,” McGruder said. “The colleges are not framing that journey as one of overcoming deficiencies, but really helping [students] achieve what they want.”

The mission to give students what they need is reflected in McGruder’s involvement in other Yellow Springs organizations. That, coupled with his interest in history, is one aspect of The 365 Project that drew McGruder to the organization.

“I think in a way I’ve kind of exploited it,” McGruder said with a chuckle. 

All joking aside, McGruder said he has a vested interest in The 365 Project’s mission to teach Black children from Yellow Springs their history and help close the opportunity gap between Black and white children in the Yellow Springs school district. McGruder said he believes projects such as the “Blacks in Yellow Springs” encyclopedia and walking tours work towards those missions.

“The walking tour came from a ‘Growing Up Black in Yellow Springs’ panel that included high school students,” McGruder said. “They were saying that they were not getting much beyond Rosa Parks in terms of Black history.”

McGruder, who’d led walking tours in Harlem, suggested training students to guide the tours.

Along with guiding tours, McGruder said ideas for certain tours, such as the Black foods and Black athletes tours, came from students who were either guides for the tours or otherwise involved in The 365 Project.

“I just think that almost whatever [students] are interested in, there’s a history associated with it,” McGruder said.

Understanding the history of systems is a skill that McGruder offers to several organizations, such as Home, Inc. With his background in community development organizations, he has been an advocate for affordable housing, offering his financial expertise as the treasurer.

“I’d heard about Home, Inc. early on when I lived here, and I went to one or two annual meetings,” McGruder said. “I was recruited by Len Kramer, who encouraged me to consider joining the board and I appreciated that he thought there were some things I could contribute.”

In McGruder’s eyes, Home, Inc.’s growth has been, in part, due to its adherence to its missions and ability to show it can use donations and grant funding well. He also says the Yellow Springs community is unique in the way the whole community shows support for the organization.

“There are generous people, so our funding, some of that comes from private donations,” McGruder said. “In terms of our project funding, we have been able to raise capital campaigns to complete projects as well. I really appreciate that.”

McGruder’s other involvements include a trusteeship for Central Chapel AME church, the Antioch College representative on the YS Development Corporation, and the Antioch College representative on the board of 91.3 WYSO, the local public radio station. He said his work and involvement is based on a feeling of use.

“I want to be able to offer something,” McGruder said.

Looking at his time in Yellow Springs, McGruder said he has been able to draw on experiences from other places to support organizations that have helped him feel a part of the community he has now been a part of for 11 years.

“A healthy community is one where people are really welcomed and there’s a level of trust,” McGruder said. “And it’s not based on hope; it’s a feeling based on seeing how people are treated.”

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