At a November meeting of the Fort Wayne Rotary Club, held both in-person at Parkview Field and on Zoom, about 50 members heard from the week’s featured speaker: Ty Simmons, a 46-year-old Black man, born, raised, and giving back in Southeast Fort Wayne.
Simmons is a driving force behind multiple projects that have taken the city by storm this year—from the Utopian Community Grocery store on Oxford Street, to the Human Agriculture Cooperative’s urban farming initiatives and food distribution programs to fight food deserts, to the ongoing Family & Friends Fund for Southeast, raising $1 million to invest in the city's once-redlined Southeast quadrant.
He speaks to the Rotary club in a tone that is passionate and unapologetically frank.
“A lot of people in this city turn their eyes from the systemic, institutional racism that plagues not only our city, but pretty much every major city in the U.S.,” Simmons says. “If you look at demographics of most South sides, it’s usually Black people on the South side with no property, no access to fresh food, no access to land ownership due to most likely systemic injustices in education, poverty, and race.”
A November Zoom meeting of the Fort Wayne Rotary Club featuring guest speaker Ty Simmons.
Rotary International and the Fort Wayne Rotary Club have long been involved in many humanitarian issues, notes Barb Wachtman, Chair of the club’s Public Relations Committee. So in 2020—a year when norms are being upended in nearly every segment of society and a year when systemic racism is being called out in cities across the U.S. —legacy organizations, like Rotary, are finding new ways to grow and adapt.
Earlier this year, Rotary International published a statement on racism and injustice.
“Rotary will do our part to listen, learn and take action to ensure that we continue to contribute to making positive change,” it says, in part.
While the statement is vague, and members of the Fort Wayne Rotary Club are still primarily white, they’re working on tangible ways to advance these goals locally and diversify, Wachtman says. One of those ways is by giving a platform to speakers who are part of a new generation of grassroots leadership, like Simmons, rising up in the City of Fort Wayne. They’re also encouraging new Rotary Club members to join, making accommodations for young professionals to host meetings at times that fit their schedules, for example.
In recent years, working with the Anthony Wayne Rotary Club, the Fort Wayne Rotary Club has even spawned the creation of a third club: the Summit City South Rotary Club, to grow the organization’s membership and impact in formerly redlined and underserved parts of the city.
In addition to adapting to the climate of 2020, these changes are also part of Rotary adapting to survive, says Michelle Chambers, At-Large City Councilwoman in Fort Wayne. Chambers
“For a lot of service organizations that are more than 100-years-old, the reality of it is, they are experiencing the aging out,” she says. “So they’re having to create diversity for sustainability.”
Chambers was one of about 20 founding members and the first President of the Summit City South Rotary Club, where she is currently Membership Chair. She was initially inspired to join the group based on her experience as a Rotarian in her former California residence.
“It was so in alignment with my compassion to be part of club that serves others,” she says. “I thought Southeast Fort Wayne could really benefit from having a Rotary club because there are so many passionate service leaders there—so many people who live with purpose.”
Members from any Rotary club can attend each other’s meetings for free, so there is a cross-pollination of contacts and ideas among Fort Wayne’s many clubs. One collaborative event that stands out to Chambers was a community-wide college job fair Rotary hosted a few years ago.
“All the local clubs came together, and that was a great success,” she says.
That’s been one big benefit of the Fort Wayne Rotary Club since its founding in 1915, says Fort Wayne Rotary Club President Jeff Peat. It has been an effective way for local leaders to network and collaborate, creating the types of connections that move cities forward. It’s also introduced more established city leaders to grassroots changemakers. Speakers at its weekly lunch meetings (now Zoom meetings) range from neighborhood leaders, like Simmons, to nationally acclaimed business leaders, like Chuck Surack. Peat
A third, and perhaps most important aspect, of any Rotary club is service–locally and internationally. In 2020, this work at the Fort Wayne Rotary Club has ranged from their long-term partnership with Washington Elementary School, to a joint fundraiser with Sangam Charitable Foundation to purchase PPE for Fort Wayne essential workers during the pandemic, to funding free children’s hospitals in India.
“Leveraging local gifts, gifts from India, and the match funds from the Rotary Foundation, we have raised more than $3 million to help children receive cardiac surgeries in India,” says Holli Seabury, the club’s immediate past President.
“As soon as COVID is over, I’ll be in India for three weeks, touching base with our partner clubs and visiting hospital project sites there,” Seabury says.
In addition to the value of its global network, Seabury sees value in Rotary helping connect emerging talent to world-class opportunities in Fort Wayne, so residents want to stay and grow their careers here.
“It gets people enmeshed in the community to change that perception that Fort Wayne is a steppingstone on your way to a bigger market,” she says.
To date, the Fort Wayne Rotary Club alone has about 136 members, and it's looking to grow its membership, primarily in age, race, and background, Wachtman says. About five years ago, the club began this growth strategy by launching a corporate membership program, where employers can sponsor participants among their employees. This has opened the door for people who might not consider themselves traditional “Rotarians” to join, Seabury explains. Seabury
She herself was first recruited to join the club by her former employer, McMillen Health, as part of her job. While she respected the organization’s legacy, she was also not initially inclined to be part of it.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is my grandfather’s thing; I don’t have time for this,’” she says, laughing. “But once I joined, I realized it’s not just old guys, and it’s really cool. Turns out, the old guys in the club are pretty cool, too.”
Today, Seabury lives in Fort Wayne and works remotely in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. She says Rotary is still her primary connection to “all the people who are doing interesting things” in the city. It’s also helped her recruit talent for projects and collaborations at work.
That speaks to another benefit of Rotary membership, particularly for young professionals, Seabury says. It offers them a direct connection to the area’s business leaders.
“It’s good to know people who have the ability to make the decisions in corporations,” she says. “By having a membership that skews on the older side, Rotary Club members are the people who can hire you.”
Chambers says that the emerging Summit City South Rotary Club offers similar benefits of connection to local thought leaders and people making a difference on the South side. The Club is about 25 members strong, including area business leaders, residents, public servants, and corporate members.
“With Rotary, you’re going to have a mix of people,” she says.
She also notes that the South side club is more diverse than other clubs in the city in terms of race, ethnicity, and age demographics. Its members’ ages range from 30-to-50-years-old.
Since the Club was founded, it’s been collaborating with the Oxford Community Association on projects, like adding a mural, benches, and planters to the Oxford Corridor, where the city’s only Black-owned grocery store, Brownlee’s Supermarket, is located.
It’s also been hosting its own weekly Zoom meetings on timely topics, like racial tension and grief.
“We’re small, but mighty,” Chambers says. “If you’re looking for an opportunity to serve others and network with professionals, then Rotary is the ideal organization for you.”
Rotary Clubs in Fort Wayne
Fort Wayne Rotary Club
Learn more on the Club’s website or Facebook page.
Summit City South Rotary Club
For more information, contact the group on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SCSRotary.
Anthony Wayne Rotary Club
For more information, visit www.anthonywaynerotary.com.