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Long-time Children’s Advocate Embraces New Role

By, Allie Semperger
Published May 2014: Michigan Nightlight

As Matt Gillard takes the helm of Michigan’s Children, a statewide, nonpartisan advocacy group, he plans to move children’s issues up the priority list for elected officials.

How would Michigan look if the government prioritized the welfare of children above all else? Matt Gillard is championing that ideal as the recently appointed president and CEO of Michigan’s Children, a statewide, nonpartisan children’s advocacy organization fighting for strong public policy to protect vulnerable children and to make Michigan an excellent place to raise kids and be a kid.

Deeply committed to investing in children and families by improving public policy, Gillard has good chance of success with a career history of building bipartisan support. From 2002 to 2008, Gillard served in the Michigan House of Representatives for the 106th District and continued to do policy work in Lansing after his elected term.

Matt Gillard, CEO of Michigan's Children (Dave Trumpie)

Matt Gillard, CEO of Michigan’s Children (Dave Trumpie)

A primary objective of Michigan’s Children is to improve equity for children that are particularly vulnerable. The organization focuses specifically on children of color – a significant one-third of the state’s child population – and other underserved children in the state. “The return on those investments is most great in those areas when there aren’t a lot of opportunities provided by society,” Gillard says. He lists urban and rural communities as examples.

Michigan’s Children addresses early childhood, education, race equity, and budget and tax policy – issues that will be at the forefront of Michiganders’ minds throughout the year, from budget season to election season and beyond.

As an example, Michigan’s Children will continue to advocate for the expansion of the Healthy Kids Dental program to include Macomb and Kalamazoo counties. Once onboard, only three out of 83 counties in Michigan will not be participating (Wayne, Oakland, and Kent counties). “Access to quality dental care services can prevent larger health issues from surfacing,” Gillard says. This program contributes to the overall health of children who wouldn’t normally have access to this specialized kind of care.

With the upcoming 2014 elections, Gillard expects that support for investing in children will be declared by candidates across the political spectrum, regardless of party affiliation. However, the key will be for elected candidates to remember their words and follow through once they’re in office: to truly prioritize children in decision-making and create policies that benefit Michigan children.

When asked why all Michiganders – regardless of relationship status, age, and priorities – should care about improving the welfare of children in their state, Gillard says that there is both a moral obligation to protect this vulnerable population, as well as an economic imperative to create a self-sustaining society that benefits everyone.

“Investment in children, especially those most at risk, shows strong returns in our society in general, reducing costs of correction systems,” Gillard says. By prioritizing the welfare of children, Michigan’s government can provide resources that will allow children to be successful throughout life, in addition to decreasing the burden on the government to care for them in later years. These long-term rewards are crucial for a healthy future for the state.

Michigan's Children (Dave Trumpie)

Michigan’s Children (Dave Trumpie)

One of Gillard’s goals, in fact, is to help generate nonpartisan dialogue around children’s advocacy issues by involving nontraditional groups, like the business community, in children’s advocacy.

“The law enforcement community is also engaged,” he says. “Investment in childhood programs can lead to reductions in crime.”

As he starts a significant new step in his career, Gillard considers his goals and legacy. His dream for the children of Michigan is that their best interests will be the number one priority for the state and federal government. He believes that Michigan citizens want the government to think in those terms too; however, the political system is not necessarily set up to be responsive to what the general public thinks.

“What keeps me awake at night is simply knowing that we’re not doing enough,” Gillard says. “Even though I feel like we’re making steps toward making Michigan a better place to grow up and raise children, lots of families are struggling without resources they need to be successful.”

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2020 Girls: Empowering Future Leaders in Science and Math

By, Allie Semperger
Published February 2014: Michigan Nightlight

The 2020 Girls program develops a passion for STEM studies and careers in young girls in the Lansing area, engaging girls in traditionally male fields of study.

Girls will use technology to make their coolest ideas – robots, games, apps, and more – come alive in the new 2020 Girls program that begins this month.

2020 Girls

2020 Girls (Dave Trumpie)

Based in the Lansing area, 2020 Girls encourages interest in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields for young, at-risk girls and empowers them with the skills to succeed. Led by female instructors, girls will get the chance to geek out with friends and explore interests like programming, engineering, and design. Field trips and interactions with professional female role models in these fields will also reinforce the message that girls have a future equally as bright as boys in STEM careers.

The program was created through a partnership between the Information Technology Empowerment Center (ITEC) and the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT). In 2013, the partnership received the $26,000 Women’s Initiative Grant from the Women’s Leadership Council of the Capital Area United Way to support 2020 Girls.

ITEC Executive Director Kirk Riley spearheaded this program after previous efforts to increase the number of girls in ITEC classes. “There’s a real tendency for girls to not sign up because they think it’s for the boys,” Riley says, acknowledging that this perception can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This belief can also impact girls’ futures, as a National Council for Research on Women statistic states: “Women make up just 11 percent of engineering employees.” Statistics for females in other STEM fields are similarly dismal.

Seeking to tackle the issue directly, Riley approached the MCWT to propose a partnership for the program. Board member Maria Jasinski says the MCWT was thrilled to collaborate and help make 2020 Girls a reality. Jasinski herself has worked in Information Technology for 25 years, and currently works as the Vice President of IT at Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Company.

Pooling their resources with ITEC, the MCWT contributed valuable connections to women in the STEM fields, providing role models and arranging field trips. The MCWT is also able to leverage the curriculum for 2020 Girls from a summer program led by their organization. In addition, entrepreneurship training will be provided and local female entrepreneurs will speak to the girls about the process of turning ideas into a company.

Both Riley and Jasinski emphasize the importance of community and role models for girls. Jasinski lists lack of availability of programs, social pressure, and lack of role models as a few significant challenges to getting girls interested in STEM fields.

Maria Jasinski and Kirk Riley

Maria Jasinski and Kirk Riley (Dave Trumpie)

“There’s a lot of research that shows role models are more important than income,” Riley says. Through interactions with female role models at 2020 Girls, students will learn about the numerous STEM opportunities available to them in the future.

The all-girls concept also removes any gender stereotypes and distractions. By eliminating the fear of judgment and boy-girl social pressure natural to the age, girls will feel comfortable to take an active role in exploring their passions.

“We need to give girls the opportunity to communicate with other girls with like-minded experiences [and] have a safe environment among their friends to learn new things,” Jasinski says. “Friends are more influential on a student than their parents or teachers when they get to middle school.”

The first community of girls will come together in mid March when afterschool pilot classes for 2020 Girls begin in Lansing schools for students 10-14 years old. Participation will be on a first-come, first-serve basis, with the goal of a wide variety of academic levels among the students.

Each session is about five weeks long, and the program will take place two days a week with five hours of instruction per week. “That initial goal is to give the girls a creative space where they can explore and show off their creativity in the things that they build and design,” Riley says. “Their own ideas put into a robot or a game or an app that they develop.”

Through the program, girls will learn to be leaders and team players. Virtually every 2020 Girls activity will purposefully require participation in a group. “You’re setting aside your own self and being part of something bigger than you,” Riley says. This sense of community and teamwork in 2020 Girls will live on: girls who participate in the program will be encouraged to stay for subsequent sessions as mentors for the new students, strengthening community and practicing leadership.

2020 Girls

2020 Girls (Dave Trumpie)

Leadership is one of the many important skills that students will learn at 2020 Girls. Jasinski credits true passion for empowering people and developing their talents as her favorite aspects of being a leader. She says that the most rewarding part of working on the program is helping young girls see their possibilities and being a positive role model for them.

On a larger level, success for these girls can also have positive implications for the state, keeping talent fostered in Michigan to stay in Michigan.

2020 Girls is just the beginning.