The Founding Director of 540WMain Inc., Calvin Eaton, has made his life’s work in what he describes as a community organization that intersects with the community and the university model: a community-based university.
Before Eaton started his non-profit business, he was the owner of a gluten-free bakery. However, he felt like he wanted to fulfill a greater purpose: what he really wanted was to teach people and spread awareness on wellness and antiracism.
540WMain started out as an afterschool program geared towards sustainability and wellness, and largely focused on urban agriculture.
As the program ended, 540WMain shifted its gears to workforce development and entrepreneurship. 540WMain came out with internships that helped its interns build a resume and personal brand. Test prep and networking also went along with it.
Eaton had bigger plans for these individual programs. He said he wanted something that was bigger than just a few dispersed programs but didn’t know where to start. This was until he was offered a space to build his project and he implemented low-cost classes, ranging from $10 -$15, that educated others on real-life skills, such as farming, cooking, and personal growth in terms of self-confidence.
The personal growth aspect is one that is personal for Eaton. Regarding the antiracism programs he started, he said, “Experiencing life under the system of white supremacy and racism in this country, has always been a part of my identity, so we began to have intentional discussions around race and intersectionality.”
The spotlight in the discussions weren’t only on race, but also misogyny and other forms of discrimination. The Black Women ROC! program came from the desire of women, specifically black women and women of color, to have a safe space for growth. Eaton recalled his initial hesitance to begin the program, as he said he’d wanted to keep 540WMain politically neutral. Eaton said he began to feel as if a lot of these conversations were impacting the lives of people everyday and needed to be at the forefront of the conversation.
Since then, the discussions haven’t solely focused on antiracism or misogyny but also on all forms of injustice that plague the world, like environmental injustice.
“Talking about sustainability or environmental justice, the voices in the conversation can’t just be certain people,” Eaton said. “It has to include people who have been impacted so we can understand the history of that in our country and how these issues have impacted people in different ways.”
Eaton hopes that people come with an open mind, and has strived to foster such an environment.
“Creating a safe space for people to make mistakes, to come with ignorance, and say ‘Maybe unintentionally, I have been oppressive. How do I begin to change that?’ and not making them so uncomfortable that they close down and shut down,” he said.
Aside from the illuminating discussions on equality and wellness, 540WMain Inc. is known for its art and culture. The Featured Artist Program highlights artists in the area that are willing to show any of their media, for 20 percent of their earnings in the gallery. This program lets artists gain exposure and create a brand for themselves. 540WMain also holds book discussions and art walking tours, the latter being held in the summer.
Some of UR’s students volunteered at 540WMain during Wilson Day, and so have other organizations on campus, but volunteering once doesn’t create a big enough impact. Organizations like 540WMain are run by volunteers, and there is always room to do better. If you’re interested, Eaton suggests that you, as an individual or group, inquire about volunteering so 540WMain can keep growing.