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:
- 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?
- 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.