public policy

What it Really Means to Put Kids First

October 2, 2017 – Community leaders and advocates convened at Wayne State University for a community forum hosted by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development.

Dr. Herman Gray, CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, shared an experience from his time as president of Children’s Hospital of Michigan. A child was being treated for an ailment which was not very serious but required several weeks of antibiotics. After keeping the child in the hospital receiving the medication through an IV, it was time to discharge the family with a prescription. When given directions to refrigerate the antibiotic, the child’s parent surprised the staff:

The family did not have a refrigerator at home.

I took two important lessons from this story:

  1. Poverty is real, and its impacts are real. How healthy can a family be if they are unable to keep perishable items at home? And, if there is no refrigerator in the house, what else might they be missing?
  2. Important instructions are given to parents and families every day for the care of their children. With what assumptions are well-intentioned professionals delivering these instructions and advice?

Writer and radio host Stephen Henderson, who keynoted the event, shared his experience with the Tuxedo Project, which he started in an effort to improve the quality of life in his old neighborhood by repurposing the house he grew up in on the west side of Detroit’s Tuxedo Street. The home had been abandoned in the years after his family moved out.

Based in part on conversations had throughout the past year with current Tuxedo Street residents, such as an elderly man living without power or running water and around the debris where a fire caved his second floor into his first floor, Henderson argued that urban poverty has become increasingly like rural poverty, characterized by isolation.

These stories stayed with me until later in the day, when an attendee shared information about a program run by her agency to benefit young children who have experienced trauma. When her team members began planning for the program’s implementation, they took a step back to think through and identify desired outcomes. Then, they determined what would be needed to achieve those intended outcomes for the children and families who would be enrolling in the program. It was then that I realized something I do not often hear in public discourse relating to social policy. We often hear about what the government’s role should be, how much funding should be allocated, and which programs and services should be prioritized. What I do not remember hearing much of, however, at least in bipartisan conversations, is what we actually want to see for all Michigan children.

Maybe we should start there. What do we want for kids? This is the conversation we need to be having. What do we want to see for Michigan’s children, and what do we need to do to get there? What do kids need to get to that point, and what policies, funding levels, and services will take them there? If we can start there – and truly prioritize those outcomes – we can begin to make long-term, positive improvements for Michigan’s children.

And, in a society where very few decision-makers have personally experienced poverty and its effects, it is critical that we think carefully about which voices are at the table when discussing solutions to these issues.

If we fail to include the voices of those most impacted, we risk wasting time and resources providing solutions which will not address the complete problems and therefore fail to be impactful – or, in other terms, we risk continuing to provide medications needing refrigeration to people without refrigerators.

Kayla Roney-Smith, Executive Director of the Hazel Park Promise Zone and College Access Network, attended the “Families First for 100 Years” community forum at Wayne State in Detroit. Here, Roney-Smith shares what major lessons she took from the event.

What Do We Expect For Our Vote? Round 2

July 25, 2017 – Here we are again, getting much less out of our elected officials than we deserve.  This time it is with our members of Congress, but similar thoughts run true to what I’d blogged about back in May related to our state Legislature.  My earlier list of what we expect and need to demand for our vote for those who represent our best interests in Lansing or Washington, DC included:  1. An ability to share our thoughts and concerns; 2. A path to understand the actions of our elected officials; and 3. A voice in important decisions about priorities.  In other words: hear us, share with us, and include us.

For the past several weeks, I’ve found myself needing to articulate a few more expectations that honestly, I didn’t think needed articulation.  We expect and deserve representation that knows the impact of a piece of legislation before voting on it, and that will share that information publicly in time for some constituent response.  In other words:  know exactly what you are voting on, and talk to us about it before you act.

So many of the discussions around repealing or replacing the Affordable Care Act, and those about some of the most significant cuts that the Medicaid program has seen since its inception, have demonstrated that neither knowledge of the legislation up for debate, nor communication about its details are required. The U.S. House of Representatives voted through a bill before the Congressional Budget Office had a chance to fully analyze its impact, and today the U.S. Senate has voted to proceed with a bill process without knowing the final details that vote will represent.

Our members of Congress, like our state Legislators, are still scheduled to be home in their districts during most of the month of August.  While they are here, we need to make sure that they better understand what we expect of them.  We can demonstrate that we understand our responsibility too – that we are here to help.  For those members of our delegation who have done what we expect, we need to make sure they know how much that matters to us.  Find out who they are and how to contact them here.

It is our votes that compel the kind of understanding, communication and partnership that we expect from those who represent us, not any other legal mandate.  As always, it is up to us to make sure that our representatives are aware of what it takes to win those votes and keep them.

– Michele Corey

What Do We Expect For Our Vote?

May 12, 2017 – We live in a representative democracy — a republic.  We put a few things up to a full vote of the people, but those things are few and far between, and typically only happen if proposed change requires that we adjust our State Constitution.  Otherwise, we vote for people to represent our best interests, and as I’ve said so very many times before, we then work to make sure that they understand what is in our best interest and how their actions support or fail to support those things.

I’m not entirely sure why this year’s state budget process has been more frustrating to me than in year’s past.  Some of the things that have been happening that severely limit the public’s opportunity (and even the full Legislature’s opportunity) to weigh in on these most important decisions are not new and have been moving in this direction for several years now.  I think that part of my frustration has been how the Legislators themselves have been talking about it.

Chairs of several Appropriations Subcommittees, where the real nuts and bolts of budget decision making is done, have publicly talked about how their work is not the “end” of the budget process, that many of these issues are still “being discussed.”  They have also expressed frustration with the current process.  While they may feel that way, they did not take steps to continue that discussion among anyone but the very small, and rapidly decreasing, number of legislators who will be serving on budget conference committees to hash out the differences between the House and Senate versions of how we spend the billions of dollars under our control.

So, I for one don’t think that what has happened in the budget process so far is worthy of our votes.  Here’s what we expect and yes, what we must demand, for our support:

  1. An ability to share our thoughts and concerns.
  2. A path to understand the actions of our elected officials.
  3. A voice in important decisions about priorities.

If those who represent us, at the state and federal level, are not working hard to make sure that we have all three of those things, they are not worthy of our vote.  Of course, if we aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities that they are providing, then that is on us.

This state budget process provided virtually no opportunity for the public to comment on proposed spending priorities other than the Governor’s recommendations.  The House and Senate revealed their versions of the budget in subcommittees and voted them out of those committees in the very same meetings.  During the full appropriations committee meetings and on the floor of the chambers, steps were taken to limit amendments and discussion, even amongst the Legislators themselves.

This is not what we expect from those who we’ve elected to represent us.  We need to demand better.   There is still some time to express your state investment priorities to your elected officials.  But, keep in mind that the messaging now has to be how all legislators must champion their constituents’ priorities with the small number of their colleagues who will finish those decisions in the next month.  There is always time to express your expectations to your elected officials, and make sure they are well aware of what it takes to win your vote and the votes of many others in their communities.

– Michele Corey

Volunteer Your Time and Your Voice for Action

April 24, 2017 – National Volunteer Week is being acknowledged this week to celebrate the people who volunteer their time to make their communities better places to live.  Primarily, when people think about volunteering, they are thinking about connecting directly with someone or something – reading to a 3rd grader, mentoring a teen.  These things are important, and I do these things in my volunteer time too.  They change the circumstances of individual children, youth, families and communities – critically important work.

However, everyone who has done these things, read to a 3rd grader or mentored a teen, has also reflected on the barriers faced by the children and youth they are helping, barriers beyond what is possible to impact by doing those things alone.

What circumstances led to the 3rd grader not reading at their grade level?  It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access Early On services for a developmental delay that was then not caught or treated until the child was in kindergarten.  It may be that their family’s literacy levels are not adequate to help their children excel, and with limited language spoken or read to the 3rd grader as a young child, they began school behind.  It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access quality afterschool and summer learning programs, leaving the 3rd grader either home by themselves or without educational supports outside the school day.

What circumstances led to the youth needing mentoring?  It may be because the young person is in the foster care system, and has yet to find a home that lasts for more than a few months.  It may be that the young person’s parents had untreated mental health or substance abuse issues that resulted in the removal of the child from their family in the first place, and preclude their return.  It may have been that the adverse experiences (or ACEs) that the young person had in their earlier years exhibited in behaviors that proved difficult to teachers, social workers and foster parents, resulting school suspension or expulsion or multiple placements in care.

The volunteer actions taken in both of these situations are powerful for individual children and youth, improving their skills and giving them someone to count on and offer guidance toward success.  But, both of these stories lead us to wonder about the many others in similar circumstances.  What might be done to improve the odds for all children youth in these situations?  What might be done to prevent the 3rd grader from getting behind in school?  What might be done to prevent the family from losing custody of their child?

In both of these examples, there are evidenced investments that could have helped these two young people and many more like them.  In Michigan, often, there are great programs and initiatives that used to be funded, but aren’t any more; or that are funded for some, but aren’t available to every family around the state.  Elected officials at the state and federal level can change that situation.

Right now, discussions are taking place determining how we are investing our state and federal tax dollars.  Now is the time to invest a little more of our volunteer time to share what we know with the people having those discussions.  We are willing to take the time to volunteer our time to make individual life outcomes better.  Policymakers need to know that we are also willing to volunteer our time to let them know how to improve life outcomes for more children, youth and families in our communities.

Read more about Michigan’s Children’s budget advocacy, and commit some volunteer time this week to take action.

– Michele Corey

Reading and Parenting in March

Wow, I have rarely seen so many legislators embracing March as National Reading Month as I have this year. I have seen lots of their newsletters highlighting their trips to their communities’ pre-schools and elementary schools to take the time to read to young children. At Michigan’s Children, we are thrilled with the focus on making sure every child can read, and are glad that so many members of our legislature are having direct, impactful experiences with their constituents focused on this issue.

Appropriately, March is also Parenting Awareness Month – what an amazing intersection. Parents continue to be children’s first and best teachers and their ability to consistently read to their children has certainly been proven over time to make a huge difference in educational outcomes. Along with the classroom scenes, legislators could have had other experiences with parents during Reading Month as well, maybe looking something like this:

  • A mother who had to give up her children to the foster care system was provided the parenting skills, substance abuse treatment, mental health or domestic violence services that allowed her to regain custody of her children. She was then able to read to her children, possibly even for the first time.
  • A parent who was not ever able to read to his or her children before because of low literacy levels themselves was provided adult basic education or services for English Language Learners (ELL) that allowed them to read to their children.
  • A young parent who was struggling with their own educational challenges was given support through an alternative education program that connected their need for a quality early education program opportunity for their child and a quality high school completion program for themselves. Because the services were co-located, the parent could take time to read to their child during their own school breaks.
  • A parent who had been unable to effectively reach their young child with a developmental delay, like speech and hearing, was given skill-building and support through Early On to adjust their strategies and learn how work on their child’s literacy skill-building.
  • A foster or adoptive parent who had not been able to access support for a child with significant trauma was able to access training for themselves and appropriate mental health services for their child and could then employ the parenting skills that they used with other children in their home to read consistently.

All of these parents (and all of their child readers) are impacted by decisions being made over the next few months in the state budget process. Providing adequate funding for those pre-school and elementary school classrooms is, of course, necessary. As are providing resources for family reunification services and all that is necessary to support that work; for adult and alternative education opportunities; for expanded learning; for Early On; for speedy and appropriate mental health services; and for trauma training in all arenas.

Legislators will be spending time with their constituents over the next couple of weeks while they are on their own spring break. It is up to us to make sure that they have a good understanding of parents, families, children and youth in their communities, and the programs that help them.

Find out who they are. Find out where they will be. Find out what Michigan’s Children is talking with them about. Lend your voice to the work of building better investments so that all families can thrive.

– Michele Corey

Democracy is not a one-way street. Unhappy? Start talking about it.

The Center for Michigan released their most recent community conversation report this week, which evidenced some pretty extreme distrust of the public sector and public systems intended to work for the people of Michigan. Of course, this result is heightened, and should be, by the tragedy in Flint, where there was such a horrendous failure of local, state and federal public systems that thousands of people were poisoned – the ramifications of which we will not truly know for many years to come. And, we just lived through the kind of election season that I hope we don’t live through again, with hateful, divisive rhetoric intended to divide the nation on economic, gender, racial and geographic lines.

Fortunately, the report also highlighted a need to help fix what we believe is wrong. Well, that’s the crux of it. We live in a democracy, a democracy where people are elected (or NOT), where laws are made (and laws are CHANGED) based on the will of the people. Yes, the people. This democracy is our privilege and our (you’ve all heard me say it before…) RESPONSIBILITY. We don’t have the luxury to just sit back, our system requires participation. ALL policy makers, including those who we like or dislike, trust or don’t trust, decide things based on what they have heard, from their friends, from their constituents, from the people who take the time (yes, and effort and resources) to talk with them about the things that concern them – not just once, but many times.

Yes, investments made with our hard earned tax dollars are not always made in the best interest of children, youth and families. That is true at the federal level, where we rely more significantly than MANY other states. That is true at the state level, the county level, municipal level, yes. And, our system requires that we do something about that.

Almost every elected official offers consistent opportunities to talk with them publicly. AND, there are endless opportunities to share with them via phone, email, snail mail, their social media feeds, etc. If you sign up for your elected officials’ electronic newsletters, you will get notice of their coffee hours – those times when they are at a local business or church, or somewhere else in their district just waiting to hear from their constituents. If the people we elect don’t know what we know and what we think they should do differently, how can we really blame them for decisions that we disagree with? How can we not trust them if we haven’t even talked with them?

We all need to make sure that we have done all that we can to make sure that our elected officials are well informed, understand that their constituents are paying attention to what they are doing and that those same constituents are going to hold them accountable for those actions: in the media (read: letters to the editor); at the ballot box (read: attend candidate forums and VOTE); and elsewhere. Now is the time, when we feel the most frustrated about it, TO ACT.

Okay, I know, you have jobs, you have kids, you have LIVES. It is easy for me to say, take time to talk with your elected officials. But, really, take time to talk with your elected officials. Michigan’s Children can help. We can work with you to bring policymakers, youth and families together; we can help you with contact information and talking points.

We can all agree that our elected officials need help – they need help to earn back our trust, and they need help to make the kinds of decisions that we can be proud of. Let’s commit to helping them, and making things better for children, youth and families in Michigan.

– Michele Corey

This blog was originally published in Bridge Magazine.

Keeping the Momentum Going After the March

January 26, 2017 – On Saturday, millions of people participated in either the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. or one of hundreds of sister marches or rallies across the globe. In Michigan alone, there were sister marches in Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Traverse City, Marquette and other communities. By targeting the day after President Trump was sworn into Office, the message was loud and clear. Marchers were standing up in solidarity to protect the fundamental rights and safety of individuals, families and communities across the country – a message that was starkly opposite of this during the election season.

And there was appropriately controversy about the lack of diversity in the marches, that other marginalized groups were not a part of the initial planning of the Women’s March, and that the millions of people marching on Saturday were noticeably absent when it came to other previously organized grassroots efforts around the significant societal problems other populations face like people of color. And this is all true. As a woman of color and social worker with my own personal and professional values and ethics rooted in the fundamental importance of equity and inclusion, this was something that I struggled with. At the same time, as a policy advocate always looking to get more people civically engaged, this Women’s March was a momentous occasion to get millions of individuals active in ways that they weren’t previously.

At Michigan’s Children, we often talk about voting being only one component of policy advocacy. That after voting, people must stay engaged by communicating to their elected officials about the issues that they care most about and what they want their elected officials to do about these issues. And we know that people often only enter into policy conversations when they feel strongly and passionately about an issue that personally affects them. The Women’s March did just that. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the sheer magnitude of political activism should be exciting. It was an amazing starting point to get millions of women and men in the U.S. and thousands of Michigan residents who are concerned about the direction of the country and their rights being stripped away engaged in civic action. Now is the time to harness that energy and passion and keep the momentum going.

The challenge for the marchers and for those of us that want to see more people active in policy decision-making is sustaining the focus and commitment of those that participated and providing them with opportunities to continue their advocacy work. For meaningful change to result from these efforts, it cannot be about a one-time action. Rather, a long-term commitment is needed to raise our voices with each other and with folks who may not have traditionally been our active and engaged allies. And, direct communication with policymakers is essential to help them work toward public policies that can serve in the best interest of individuals and families who face the most significant structural barriers to success in our state and in our country.

Learn more about the federal challenges lying ahead that will impact Michigan children and families.

Learn how your concerns might align with Michigan’s Children’s policy priorities, and think about how we might work better together on issues that matter across the state and nation.

Learn how you can bolster your advocacy skills and continue with the activism coming out of last week’s marches.

-Mina Hong

Connecting My Brother’s Keeper to Policy

October 30, 2015 – Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the launch convening of the Washtenaw County’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative.   My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama to focus on specific solutions to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.  Washtenaw County joins a dozen or so other Michigan communities who are part of the MBK initiative, demonstrating that many communities across our state are committed to reversing the trend we see in decades of data  suggesting that  our attempts to reduce disparities by race continue to fall short for boys of color.

The goals of the MBK initiative are to ensure that all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready and read at grade level by 3rd grade; that all young people graduate from high school, complete post-secondary education or training and remain safe from violent crime; and that all youth out of school are employed.  Michigan is far from those outcomes now.

All of these areas are of great importance to Michigan’s Children, and as a Washtenaw County resident, I’d love to help connect the dots between these localized efforts in my community and public policy priorities.  I was very pleased to see a handful of policymakers in attendance, ranging from local city council to U.S. Congress and everyone in between.  However, the locally-focused conversation felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to connect the great ideas generated at the convening and the role of public policy to help implement or remove policy barriers to them.  As Michigan communities continue to roll out MBK action plans, a few thoughts.

First, the challenges of boys and men of color are important to everyone.  The prosperity of our state relies on the success of all of our future workers.  If data and evidence demonstrate that a significant portion of our child population is falling behind, it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that programs and services are providing equitable opportunities for all children to succeed.  We can’t rely solely on localized efforts, but rather, statewide public will and policies must support these efforts to ensure that all children and youth – including children and youth of color – can succeed for the future prosperity of our state.

Second, the state department that was represented, and who represents the MBK initiative in Lansing, is the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC).  While I am glad to see that there is state-level connection to these localized efforts, the role of the MCSC is to connect its programs like AmeriCorps, Mentor Michigan and other volunteerism initiatives to MBK efforts.  This is an essential piece, but to really impact outcomes, we need other state departments to be part of the conversation like the Education, Health and Human Services, Workforce Development, Civil Rights, Corrections, and others whose investment strategies and everyday decisions impact the lives of boys and men of color.  These departments can help design better investment, policies, rules and programs that can best support MBK efforts.

And finally, along those same lines, we know that public policies and investment strategies have contributed to the  “pipeline” that we see too often play out in the lives of boys of color, and that changes to those policies and investments can and should play a vital role to prevent and mitigate its continuation.  Public policy must support efforts to improve access to high quality early childhood education for the children who are most at-risk of starting kindergarten behind, expanding afterschool and summer learning programs for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these equity-promoting programs, connecting students and families to wraparound needs through integrated school services, or connecting the dots between community-based initiatives and state department efforts’ to expand trauma-informed practices across all sectors.  As MBK initiatives across our state continue to develop and implement plans, and local communities take responsibility for improved outcomes for boys of color, Michigan’s Children will stay connected to those efforts to help connect the dots between local innovation and the policy and investment required to support them.

-Mina Hong

Giving for Michigan’s Children

November 25, 2014 – In America, Thanksgiving’s arrival for most people ushers in a month-long holiday season filled with merriment. But for too many Michigan families, the holiday season is a stark reminder of the challenges they struggle with day-to-day.

As politicians boast of a Michigan comeback, we know that family poverty is on the rise as half of all Michigan children are born into poverty and one in four Michigan children live in poverty. Child safety is a constant concern as confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect grew in the double-digits in recent years. Educational achievement eludes many as two-thirds of Michigan 3rd graders aren’t proficient readers and one-quarter of all high school freshmen don’t graduate four years later. For children of color, these woeful statistics are worse than for the rest.

Unless we seek solutions to the systemic failings of public policies that contribute to these serious problems, undermining support and success for children and families, a Michigan comeback won’t mean much. That’s why we are appealing to you to help us carry on the good fight to ensure that our state’s children and families have a better future where opportunities for success in school and life don’t leave anyone behind.

We know it can be done – and that’s why we’re asking for your support during this season. For over 20 years we’ve served as a nonpartisan voice for public policy improvements to ensure that all children have an equitable chance to thrive from cradle to career. And we’ve done it without government funding to maintain our independence; instead, we’ve relied on the generosity of people like you. Please consider donating to Michigan’s Children this season.

If all Michigan families are to have the same outcomes as the most fortunate of us, we need to dig in and create policies that level the playing field. The good news is that we’ve made strides in doing just that. Working with other committed advocates in Michigan, we’ve made some important successes, among them the expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program that resulted in $130 million more to cover all eligible 4-year-olds in state-supported preschool.

Next, we must build on this accomplishment in other meaningful ways that address improving school readiness, ensuring child safety at home, and improving college and career readiness while prioritizing strategies that take a two-generation approach that serves children and their parents simultaneously.

Change is coming to Michigan. Be part of it by supporting us with your financial contributions but also with your voice. Sign up for one of our Action Networks and be informed of the work we must do to give all Michigan families something to be thankful for.

We can’t do it without you!

-Matt Gillard

The Importance of Two-Generation Programming

October 24, 2014 – Last week, Michigan’s Children, in partnership with the Policy Committee of the Black Child Development Institute – Detroit, organized a FamilySpeak forum focusing on two-generation strategies.  This FamilySpeak featured organizations in Detroit and Wayne County that serve families with children in a holistic manner and included the following organizations:

The Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS);

Families on the Move, which supports foster and adoptive caregivers;

Stand Up Parents! Great Start Wayne County Parent Coalition; and

Wayne Children’s Healthcare Access Program (WCHAP).

These organizations brought parents to talk about the challenges they have faced and how these programs have assisted them.  We heard from parents who discussed challenges being in domestic violence situations, parents with diagnosed mental illnesses and the challenges they faced parenting, parents who have struggled with their children’s health issues, former foster care kids who are now adoptive and foster care parents themselves, and more.

This FamilySpeak forum made clear some opportunities to better support more of Michigan’s challenged families through better investment in two-generation approaches.  What the families told us is that traditional programs serving them are essential, but in many instances may not be enough.  Existing two-generation programs that Michigan’s Children has advocated for a long time include Head Start and Early Head Start, evidence-based home visiting, high quality child care, and adult literacy and education.  What families shared at our FamilySpeak forum was that the programs they were connected to went above those traditional two-generation programs by also addressing a particular struggle they were facing.

For example, several women discussed being in domestic violence situations and their challenge with leaving that unsafe environment included being financially dependent on their abuser.  One of the women spoke about the program that she was connected to giving her the opportunity to leave that unsafe environment by connecting her to basic needs like shelter, clothing and food.  Additionally, her children were able to attend a high quality child care while she worked to stabilize her mental health struggles, secure permanent housing, and obtain family-supporting income.  She epitomized a success story coming out of a two-generation program.  Unfortunately, too many other families do not have access to these types of programs due to insufficient programmatic resources for the two-generation strategies that exist, and limited connectivity between those strategies and other needs that families may have.

All of the programs at our FamilySpeak forum exemplified two-generation approaches that help children thrive while parents move ahead.  We are so thankful to the organizations that assisted us in recruiting families, and to the adults who were brave enough to share their very personal stories to ensure a successful FamilySpeak.  Fortunately we weren’t the only one’s hearing the information.  The families were speaking to a listening panel of local, county, and state-level policymakers.  Michigan’s Children is committed to continuing to make family voices heard after the election, and we will all need to hold elected officials accountable for decisions to support two-generation strategies.

Read this brief recap of the FamilySpeak and the policy implications coming out of that forum.

-Mina Hong

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