Member Spotlight: Rev. Mike Major, Called to Serve CDC

Called to Serve CDC in North Philadelphia has secured over $1 million in funding for the creation of The Reverend Leon H. Sullivan Community Impact Center, which will occupy the annex at Zion Baptist Church of Philadelphia. A significant milestone in this project’s development, we wanted to shine a spotlight on Rev Mike Major, Founder and Board President of Called to Serve, on their efforts to secure this funding, and their plans to garner an additional $4M in support.

Tell us about the origins of Called to Serve and the role it plays for the Nicetown-Tioga community.

The origins of Called to Serve (CTS) are deeply rooted in my personal story. Born to parents who had a passion for education, even though neither completed high school. They moved north from South Carolina during the great migration of the 1940s and ’50s in search of a better life. I greatly benefited from the ministry and programs of the civil rights leader, Rev. Leon H. Sullivan and the members of Zion Baptist Church who served with him. I view Called To Serve’s work through two particular lenses. As a Christian and a minister of Jesus Christ, I believe that the love of Christ must be seen and measured in practical and observable ways. Second, I see this as a way to say “thank you” to the myriad of people who helped me get to where I am today. Where is that? I am a husband, a father, Sr. Technology Business Analyst for a leading Wall Street firm and associate minister at the historic Zion Baptist Church located in North Philadelphia.

CTS is a socioeconomic community development entity dedicated to the complete renewal, restoration and revitalization of underserved neighborhoods in Philadelphia. With a primary focus on the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood of North Philadelphia, we envision a wholesome Philadelphia urban ecosystem with intact neighborhoods, thriving businesses with access to capital, and reformed schools that produce academically competent students.

CTS’ mission is to serve as an anchor for community renewal and to support endeavors that break intergenerational poverty, primarily in the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood. We fulfill this mission by developing innovative solutions that strengthen and sustain Nicetown-Tioga in all its community manifestations

Rendering of the conference center/event space to be developed in the Annex.

What do you love most about community development?

Community development provides the opportunity to work on solving problems that impact people. As an organization, Jeffrey Harley, Amelia Price, our staff, board and partners, measure our work based on whether or not we are changing lives. Buildings look nice, but our collective work has to benefit people in tangible and measurable ways. Second, is the opportunity to meet and subsequently lock arms with diverse people and organizations to solve those problems. CTS works with many partners throughout the neighborhood and city and, as an individual and organization, I consider it a privilege, honor, and tremendous blessing to work alongside a host of people who show how much they care about people through their tireless efforts.

The Zion Annex Restoration Project has been in the making since 2018. What does this $1 Million investment milestone mean to you and Called to Serve?

I will say at the outset that it is very humbling to receive this kind of support.

By nature, I like getting things done, but I do not need or seek the limelight. At the same time, I realize that if no one knows what you’re doing regarding fundraising, they cannot support you. This investment provides an opportunity to shine a light on the collective efforts of many working with us in the Nicetown-Tioga community, not just me or Called To Serve. For our organization, it shows that someone believes in what we are doing, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. The investment also serves as encouragement to say, “this is doable.” You start with an idea or a vision, others join with you as partners, but then something like this happens, and you say, hmmm, this might really be possible!

I am also hoping that it encourages others to join us. No one likes being the first person in what seems like a large pool. These initial investments relay it is okay for other like-minded individuals and potential partners to jump in. It says, “the water is safe.”

Rendering of the technology center, set up as a 60-station intergenerational computer lab.
Rendering of the technology center, set up for e-sports viewing.

What advice would you give to someone from a CDC who is working on a major fundraising campaign right now?

I need first to make it crystal clear that I am by no means an expert. Asking me for advice implies that I know what I am talking about, which I consider to be far from the truth. I can offer a couple of personal observations and lessons learned, but I do not want to present them as advice. I am comfortable in saying that a lesson that I have learned from my day job is to surround myself with intelligent, compassionate, and knowledgeable people. We are very fortunate to have a great team.

One of the paradoxes that I have learned is that you need a certain amount of money to fund an effective fundraising campaign. You may find intelligent and compassionate people, but expertise and knowledge require cash.

Another lesson is that you need a well-written story with pictures. The amount of traction that this project received early on, due to the initial Sacred Places/Civic Spaces plan, was invaluable. Even though I told people that they were just concepts, referring to a concrete document gave the effort credibility. On more than one occasion, someone said, “This is real. It is not just a concept.”

What’s next for Called to Serve?

In many ways, it is to keep doing what we are already doing in regard to the Annex project as well as all of the other work we continue to do in the community. On February 25th, we held an Opportunities Fair at Zion Baptist Church, our headquarters, which will include the following opportunities for those seeking employment.

We have a partnership with PennDot, which has contracts from the Federal Infrastructure Bill to do local and State Heavy Highway Construction. These on-the-job training positions pay $28/hour and provide 1,000 hours of OJT, leading to eligibility to join the Union. Also, representatives from Shift Capital and the Lenfest Center, who are both doing construction projects on our business corridor, will be attending. We have already helped 13 people obtain jobs doing demo work for $30/hour for Shift’s project.

We will also be including three organizations that train people for OSHA 10 & 30 Certifications and other exams leading to a career path for the skilled construction trades.

We also have an exciting, innovative effort underway with Kenderton Elementary School to honor the life and legacy of Rev. Leon H. Sullivan. A team is working on an essay project and developing a children’s book from the essays and illustrations. The teacher we are working with has plans to have the 8th graders create a video montage through the school’s partnership with WHYY video department. The theme for the student essays is “How do I aspire to be like Rev. Sullivan?”

We also continue to support the small businesses and revitalization of the Broad, Germantown, and Erie commercial corridor. And, of course, securing additional partners to join us in raising the additional $4 million in philanthropic support to complete the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan Community Impact Center. One of CTS’s programs, which will be housed in the Center, is our BriDDge Career Pathways Program “Bridging the Digital Divide,” which leverages the booming interest in Esports as a gateway to developing 21st-century career skills. “Come for the games, leaves with a Career” is the theme.

Called to Serve CDC is working with Mosaic Development Partners as the development partner on the Zion Annex Restoration Project. Maria Sourbeer, Senior Vice President of Development, on what bringing this project to life has been like so far: 

“Mosaic has a long history of inclusive equitable development and we’re proud to be working for Called to Serve to help bring this project to fruition. The vision behind the creation of the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan Community Impact Center focuses on benefiting the current, predominantly Black and Brown residents, and has the potential to drive economic development, job opportunities, and be a critical piece in the larger strategy for North Broad Street. We’re utilizing our expertise toward the goals outlined by the community including securing community-based tenants such as a co-op coffee shop/bookstore, arts program, and event space that will provide goods and services to the community, as well as securing the financing needed for the successful revitalization of this historic community icon.”