Carrying the Legacy Forward: Michele Corey Personified Active Democratic Participation
(March 31, 2022) In the past two pandemic years we’ve all seen the ubiquitous signs around schools, medical facilities and other public spaces proclaiming, “Heroes Work Here.” Heroes can be ordinary people working in extraordinary times – child care professionals risking their health to ensure that the children of essential medical workers are cared for even in times of pandemic surges. They can be unlikely heroes; for example, former entertainer turned President and hero, Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who today inspires his people and the entire Western world to stand up to a tyrant and defend democracy. A year ago at Michigan’s Children, we lost our greatest hero for kids and families, public policy advocate Michele Corey. Through the incredible events of the past year – an attack on the nation’s capital by a frenzied mob, the state-by-state political erosion of voting rights, and Putin’s war against democracy in Europe – I have painfully missed office talks on current events with my friend and colleague Michele.
Michele would have been speaking out, and writing vigorously about these events, and urging others with the strength of her convictions and soundness of her arguments to take our responsibilities seriously as citizens in a representative democracy. She would have implored advocates and others to reach out to their elected leaders, urge them to act in ways that raise up the most vulnerable and marginalized in society, and press the public to hold office holders accountable. What I loved about Michele was that she was a true American patriot in this way. She believed in the often fragile values of a democratic republic and she was never more glorious than when she was bringing ordinary people with real-world experiences to address state leaders and policy makers at the state Capitol. These were youth and young adults with experiences with homelessness and the child welfare and foster care systems, parents seeking adult education and career training to improve their children’s educational journeys and family security, and kinship caregivers wanting state assistance to meet the physical and mental health needs of the traumatized children they unexpectedly came to care for. When you saw Michele with her people at the state Capitol, or before a listening panel of state bureaucrats, or at the center of a candidate forum, she was easy to spot: A tall woman above the crowd, ever-moving, ever-smiling, advising, cajoling, leaning in with her strong shoulders, and infusing them with her confidence in the rightness of their mission. Michele liked to use the adage, you can’t march on Washington with a pie chart. She knew the importance of passion and commitment for a cause. Her energy was infectious. She loved people and cared deeply for the human experience.
Following her death on March 30, 2021, many state and national advocates beautifully summarized the impact she had over three decades of advocacy on policy issues benefiting Michigan’s children, youth and families. At just 54 and across a three-decade career, she had been at the forefront of significant improvements in the lives of ordinary Michigan people in policy priorities such as education, child welfare, adult learning. Aiding her was the fact that she had the rare ability to access both sides of her brain functions with equal success. She could spend countless poring over data reports to identify how homeless youth were doing in their high school achievement. She was knowledgeable and a strategic thinker, working alone or with dozens of partners, to take apart public systems to learn where they could work better for people. And she could engage her warm heart in a personal connection with a young person or parent. She knew her mind and wasn’t shy about expressing an opinion. When she blundered as we all do, she laughed it off, and would dive back to work undeterred.
Approaching the anniversary of her passing, I’ve reread some of Michele’s blogs on the importance of “Voting with Pride and Confidence,” “Protest is Advocacy, Advocacy is Essential,” and “Vote like Our Future Depends on it.” More than looking back, her words have helped me think forward about the elections ahead that will change players and influence-leaders in Lansing and perhaps Washington. Her written words remind us that elections are like job interviews. We need to pay attention to what candidates are saying, and make sure that they are being asked important questions. We are the ones hiring our elected leaders, and it is incredibly important that we choose wisely, starting by educating ourselves on the issues and holding elected leaders accountable. As Michigan’s Children moves ahead with a new election season and election advocacy, please join us in getting involved. Engage with us at candidate forums, learn how to reach out to candidates, and when they are elected, build a relationship with your elected officials. Your engagement is what elevates and protects this democratic experiment called America.
Michele’s legacy remains in our hearts, in the work of this organization, and in the actions of so many partners and advocates she’s inspired and touched over the decades. At Michigan’s Children, we plan to honor that legacy moving forward by continuing the work that inspired countless people and advocates. In April 2023, plan to join us as we launch the Michele Corey Children’s Champions Summit, a day-long conference and embodiment of Michele’s force for good for the children and families of Michigan. It will focus on a wide breadth of advocacy concerns focused on connecting policy decisions to programs, and will be open to veteran and budding child advocates across the state. In this way, her inspiration will carry on as the foundation of a new and growing generation of advocates for Michigan’s Children.
Teri Banas is the Director of Programs and Communications for Michigan’s Children, and a proud Friend of Michele. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org