Grassroots Advocates Link Arms, Find Inspiration at First Michele Corey Child Advocacy Summit

You are not waiting for the cavalry to come. You are the cavalry. You, if no one else. Will right the wrongs you see.

– Angelique Power, President & CEO, Skillman Foundation, citing Tino Villaneuva’s poem, ‘You, if no one else’

(April 27, 2023) – In a fast-paced day of networking, camaraderie and skill-building, hundreds of child and family advocates from across Michigan came together for the first Michele Corey Child Advocacy Summit. The Michigan’s Children’s-sponsored event was a rare moment for grassroots advocates to reset the spirit, renew a shared purpose, and lift up a common voice for the state’s most vulnerable kids and families.

“The best thing about today’s event? Networking with other advocates,” said one attendee. “It was great to see people in person who I am usually only emailing with. And it was a great reminder of things we need to partner on.”  Another said the simple act of being together with other like-minded people, all focused on improving the lives of Michigan’s children, made the day.

“The workshops were amazing and gave me so much to bring back to my community and make me a better advocate for families,” said another guest.

Three dozen of the top advocates for kids and families from across Michigan – including youth leaders – shared their strategies and expertise with audiences in several multi-panel conversations. Topics included: How child and family advocates can run for office, navigating the legislative process and talking to lawmakers, working with the media and building effective messages and talking points, and empowering youth to influence advocacy groups with their experiences.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a champion for children’s causes in her long career, was represented by top aide Kali Fox who brought a recorded message from the retiring senator and praised the summit’s namesake, Michele Corey. Corey’s legacy as a nationally recognized policy expert and advocate for improving public systems that touch children’s lives – foster care, afterschool, juvenile justice, adult/alternative education and early childhood – was highlighted throughout the day. Corey passed away in 2021 after spending over two decades helping to lead Michigan’s Children.

A stirring keynote address delivered by Angelique Power, the President & CEO of The Skillman Foundation in Detroit, was a call to action to champion the talents of the rising Gen Z generation (anyone born after 1997) and their fierce advocacy for issues of justice – in education, climate, criminal justice and health care reform. Power spoke of Gen Z’s growing demands for an equitable educational system that supports development of career-ready skills and independent thinking.  And she called on everyone in the room who knows what’s best for children and youth to link arms and have a say in education policy in Detroit, a major thrust of Skillman’s work today. Power’s talk fittingly preceded an award ceremony in which four youth and young adults (under 26) were honored by Michigan’s Children as Emerging and Rising Stars in Michigan’s advocacy landscape. (See related story.)

“This generation of young people is different. Their lives have been marked by a pandemic and heightened political and social unrest, and yet, they are hopeful and activated,” she said.

Calling these champions and their allies “ground builders,” Power said ground builders must move into positions of power to affect change. “That entails helping ground builders get seats at the tables of power – on committees and in rooms where policy is shaped; at public forums where policy is parsed; and in media outlets where policy is amplified,” she said.  “On issues that impact young people, there is no honest discussion nor sensible solutions without the powerful presence of youth and their closest allies.”

The term resonated with attendees who remarked afterward that the focus on the emerging young leaders hit a sweet spot with them. “Nothing about us without us,” said Brina Williams, a youth leader from foster care, and panelist for the session, Hear Me, See Me, Learn from Me: Empowering the Authentic Youth Voice. Another wrote in a summit feedback response, Ms. Power was absolutely inspiring and so warm and caring. My biggest takeaway was utilizing ground builders to champion change before outsiders create that change.”

Corey believed in the power of ground builders, and was a passionate ally for youth with experiences forged in the most challenging circumstances. She regularly fought to have their voices brought into discussions for changes to various systems and programs, most notably child welfare.  She had a strong hand in shaping Michigan’s Children’s policy and advocacy initiatives over the years, elevating KidSpeak, FamilySpeak and youth-led candidate forums to explore public solutions through community conversations. Her advocacy style, accomplishments and inspiration were movingly discussed in a tribute by former colleagues Sharon Claytor Peters, Mina Hong, Michele Strasz and Maddie Day during the “FriendSpeak: The Legacy of Child Advocate Michele Corey” portion of the program.

“It was an amazing presentation,” said an attendee. “This inspired me to continue to do the work that I do and increase my efforts.”

By Teri Banas, Michigan’s Children’s Director of Programs and Communications