Dr. Byron T. Brazier’s Mission: Investing in People, Not Buildings

The economic growth of most communities can come from local small businesses, but most growth stems from businesses that employ multiple residents from the area. During a period where Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods collectively had factories, distribution warehouses and major production plants fueled by the Midwest’s massive rail lines and river carriers—thousands of residents were employed within a few minutes of their homes. 

Dr. Byron T. Brazier, BSD LC3 Manufacturing Training Center

Over several decades much has changed with major businesses moving to the suburbs or overseas, leaving shadows of prosperous communities behind. But as technology has grown and the demand for a younger job force increases—major corporations are returning back to Chicago and to its neighborhoods. With the return of these companies, there is also more demand for an experienced job force to fill many of the jobs that require adequate training and technical skills. 

Chicago’s predominately African-American communities have suffered the most– from U.S. Steel in the once vibrant middle-class community of Roseland to the Westside’s Brach’s Candies in Austin. Today, the playing field has changed, and recognizing the need to be a part of these changes has led one of the community’s most recognizable names to step up to the plate. 

Dr. Byron T. Brazier is the pastor of Apostolic Church of God in the Woodlawn community. The son of the late Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Brazier, the family has become a solid and long-time presence on the South Side of Chicago—leading various community building efforts which has reshaped the Woodlawn community over the last four decades. 

BSD Industries L3C is one of the pastor’s community initiatives to build and invest in people. BSD stands for Building Self Determination and is a manufacturing company that produces high quality, sustainable, plastic products. Beyond its production goals—the company’s robotics training and career development program has partnered with various collegiate institutions and CHA to prepare people for the next level in the job force. 

An Idea Put Into Motion

The idea was put into motion after a particular Sunday when Brazier’s sermon focused on empowering people, not just buildings. He felt his family had invested and helped build enough buildings but investment in people is what matters. The sermon resonated with church member Trista Bonds, who has worked as an engineer for 20 years in the industry. 

Brazier remembers. “I said I’m not going to build another building. Our investment is going to be in people. She  [Bonds] heard that and came to me and said she had this idea about training community residents in robotics. I thought about it and I said let’s work on it,” Brazier said. 

In addition to the robotics training program, he thought about developing a product they can sell to create funds to invest back into the community. They began to work on the process in 2015. 

Throughout their search, space and location was important to maintain the program within the community that will benefit the most. 

“There were two things; one was available space; secondly, the kind of roofing and height. I talked with Alderman Michelle Harris [8th Ward] and when I explained our program to her, she was very interested.”

Harris applied $1 million TIFF to the workforce development program in helping to train individuals applying for the program. In sourcing out spaces, talks began with Chicago State University, which owned several warehouses that could accommodate BSD’s space requirements. 

“It made it really easy then to transition to actually have our classes on the campus of Chicago State and not in the plant itself because our curriculum is college accredited,” explained Brazier. 

Trista Bonds, VP of Engineering and Manufacturing Operations for BSD.

Bonds is VP of Engineering and Manufacturing Operations for BSD. Her vision and initial idea for the robotics training center stems from her love of science and childhood curiosity. “I watched my brothers take our radios apart in the house and make little devices on their bikes with the wheels that light up on their skates. I watched that growing up and I watched the innovation.  I paid attention because I cared growing up. I made my career choice engineering.” Bonds made the final career choice while in the army. In the daytime, she worked in finance and accounting and at night she attended college to acquire her engineering degree.

She says, “I’ve worked as an engineer for about 20 years. I was also coaching a robotics team and teaching some engineering workshops for a while when I had this idea. I’ve considered doing it for a few years, but I just didn’t have a way to do it. My idea was to train robotics technicians and to support the training with a manufacturing plant in it,” Bonds said. 

Bonds, a native of San Diego, Calif., relocated to Chicago with her husband after working in Michigan. 

“I worked at Ford Motor Company in Michigan. There was lots of exposure and really good opportunities to follow my dreams. I worked in R&D and that’s where I took hold to robotics, integrating how they all work together with the machines. So, I worked on a lot of robotics programs for Pilkington, which is a glass manufacturer that makes automotive glass, and I was traveling here for work.”

Bonds says once she saw the lakefront and visited the beach, it reminded her of her hometown of San Diego. 

“I just love the melting pot, the blend of cultures, the scenery and the life—it’s just kind of happened in Chicago, I love it here.”

Nikki Bravo, VP of Human Resources at BSD, said “We have a social enterprise with a clear mission to transform communities through building self-determination of its residents. We learn the driving force is really around the individuals that we’re serving. Sometimes, it’s less on the H.R. side and more on the workforce development end. We deal with training program recruitment and working with Trista on the supportive. This leads to ultimately job placement for individuals.”

Initially, JPMorgan Chase awarded the first grant of $50,000 grant and recently increased their commitment to $500,000 to BSD LC3 along with CHA’s $2 million investment. Brazier said CHA provided the largest seed money to help over a long period.

“They elected to put that into capital funding as opposed to programmatic funding that allowed us to build the plant and train the residents at no cost. BSD will train up to 90 residents per year for the next five years,” he said. “The math turns out to be $5,000 a year per resident.”

The plant is preparing production to fulfill its orders on plastic compostable and polypropylene utensils to clients such as the Hyatt Regency hotels.

“If you’re going to manufacture a product, in order for it to be profitable, it has to be sold in the open market. We have a product that is consumable, designed for ongoing use and we’re able to sell on the open market.”

Through the Arthur M. Brazier Foundation, an endowment fund is set up for profits from the manufacturing plant to fund safety and economic development programs in Woodlawn. In addition, the goal is to raise $250,00 for each of the six schools in the community from BSD LC3. 

Having experienced senior management on board is the key to building a successful operation. Nikki Bravo has worked for the city of Chicago in various departments since 2008. In her former role as Deputy Commissioner for Finance and Human Resources, she has interviewed a great deal of candidates and met challenges along the way. Her last position with the city was in the Dept. of Public Building Commission as the chief administrative officer. 

“We work with the city of Chicago, the Illinois Manufacturers Association and the City Colleges so individuals can earn college credit.  This work can lead towards an advanced manufacturing degree at Daley College if they want to pursue higher education. We also work with community organizations on the South Side of Chicago to make sure that we get our word out.” Bravo says this a viable model to duplicate for other communities of color throughout the city.  “It certainly takes work and that’s what we hope to do, to show this type of enterprise is working in a way with a clear mission of building individuals, providing skills and sustaining communities.”     

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