Getting metro Detroit millennials ‘on board’ and into leadership positions in local government

By, Allie Semperger
Published April 2015: Metromode

We all have the power to influence our communities, and millennials know this better than anyone. Using technology as a platform for change, millennials regularly connect and collaborate with each other to advocate for their favorite causes—from using social networks to raise awareness to collecting signatures for online petitions.

Evan Major (David Lewinski Photography)

Yet only 6 percent of board and commission members in metro Detroit are young people (ages 18-35), despite the fact that millennials account for 29 percent of registered voters in the region.

So how can millennials become more involved in leadership roles in local government in metro Detroit?

A few determined young leaders have some ideas.

Getting millennials ‘On Board’

Hayley Roberts, 30, is working hard to develop and promote On Board, a website and database of centralized information about boards and commissions that residents can visit to learn more and get involved.

As communications director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance (an organization that will soon become Metro Matters), Roberts has worked closely with metro Detroit communities over the past five years and understands the challenges of engaging residents, especially young people. She believes that On Board tackles these challenges by advancing the culture of opportunity in the area and helping local governments take the initiative to reach more residents.

“We were very intentional about creating On Board along with city staffers [and] taking their input,” Roberts says. “I think this teamwork approach could help cities feel more comfortable and more apt to adopt new tools.”

Bringing local government online is essential for getting young people involved. In addition to giving millennials an easy way to access information about boards and commissions, On Board also simplifies the application process. The platform allows residents to apply directly for positions online, a convenience that will be especially appreciated by millennials, but will also benefit people of all ages looking to participate in civic life in their communities.

Hayley Roberts (David Lewinski Photography)

Roberts also encourages young people to view boards as gateway opportunities.

“Not only do boards and commissions possess significant power within a community, they can also prepare a young person to go for a city council seat, a county commission seat, and beyond,” she says.

So far, Ferndale, Washtenaw County, and Ypsilanti are all On Board participants. The Knight Foundation provided support to build out the site’s features and functionality, but additional donations are needed from the local community so the site can continue to expand its reach, helping democratize local government one city at a time. Donations can be made to an Indiegogo campaign, which supports a multi-pronged approach to raising awareness about On Board in local communities.

Many cities struggle with a lack of funding and resources that can prevent the implementation of modern technology—but that doesn’t mean the response to On Board has been any less enthusiastic. City clerks from around metro Detroit and other places in Michigan have called asking when On Board will be available for their use. “It reinforces that local governments want to be more efficient and open, and when given the right tools they will absolutely jump at the chance to use them,” Roberts says.

Collaborating with the community

Evan Major, 32, serves as the vice president of the Hamtramck Board of Education. Because of his extensive experience working with youth in both Hamtramck and Detroit, Major was appointed to fill a partial term vacancy on the board in 2014. He then ran for the office and was successfully elected to serve a six-year term as vice president.

“Without question, my most rewarding experiences are the opportunities to spend time with our students, staff, and families,” he says.

Major’s main duties involve working with the other board members and the community to shape the vision and goals of the Hamtramck Public Schools. The board also works closely with the administration to make important decisions regarding the financial and academic health of the schools. In addition, Major and his fellow board members provide vital information about Hamtramck Public Schools to the community and encourage students and families to participate and share their views.

Evan Major (David Lewinski Photography)

Sometimes young people hesitate to lead and struggle to believe that they can make a significant difference in their community. Major views the situation two ways. Practically, he believes that there should be thoughtful succession planning, meaning that “there must be a constant pipeline of training and opportunities for everyone to realize their leadership potential” in order for organizations to evolve effectively.

On the other side, Major takes a more philosophical approach, especially when considering the great inequality in which power is distributed in the world. He raises questions about whether buying into the glorified notion of the individual is really the best way to make an impact.

“We can succumb to the rugged individualism that runs rampant throughout our culture and tacitly support the status-quo with its shadow cast of puppeteers, or we can work towards the vision that many other leaders and many other societies have advanced to solve problems without prejudice to the possibility of failure and see our futures as intrinsically linked,” he says.

Planning for the Future

Andy Wakeland, 31, is a civil engineer and the chair of the Madison Heights Planning Commission. His involvement with the city of Madison Heights began when he enlisted them to join the Millennial Mayors Congress. Wakeland subsequently applied for the position of millennial representative.

“I attended City Council meetings as regularly as I could to get the pulse of the community and to get to know the elected officials,” he says. “It was a great learning experience.”

Andy Wakeland (David Lewinski Photography)

After serving on several other boards and commissions, Wakeland got the chance to serve on the Madison Heights Planning Commission, and when the chair of the commission stepped down, he was elected. As chair, Wakeland runs the meetings in addition to having the normal responsibilities of a board member.

The Commission sets policies and reviews the master plan of the city every five years. “This makes the Planning Commission review what we want the future of the city to look like and make sure that it is still meeting the current trends and future forecast of development,” he says.

Wakeland is passionate about creating recreation opportunities and engaging young people in the community. His dream for Madison Heights is to develop a large network of walking and biking trails in the city.

“Through the Planning Commission and city government, I hope to one day push this agenda, if the community will support it, to keep young people coming into the city, and making it a home,” Wakeland says.

For other young people interested in leadership opportunities, Wakeland advises getting involved with a cause they have a passion for—from leading at churches and alma maters to launching a local initiative and serving on a board. He says that sometimes getting started is the most difficult part of making a difference.

“Everyone is a person just like you—it would surprise you how small the world is and how we all have similar experiences,” Wakeland says. “In local government, you really can make a difference with as little as one voice.”


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.”

Transforming the Lives of First-Time Moms

By, Allie Semperger
Published April 2014: Michigan Nightlight

Vulnerable first-time mothers are raising healthy kids with the help of visiting nurses in Detroit.

Picking the perfect color for the baby’s nursery and registering at Babies “R” Us are unthinkable luxuries for some soon-to-be parents. In fact, many pregnant, first-time mothers in Detroit have much more urgent concerns: lack of money, an unstable family life, feelings of isolation, no car, and little education, just to name a few.

Nurse-Family Partnership reaches out to vulnerable first-time mothers and empowers them to succeed through a distinctive, evidence-based program that sustains the health and well-being of parents and children for years to come.

Nurse Family Partnership

Nurse Lisa Whitener with Brittney Harvey (Doug Coombe)

While many nursing outreach programs are driven by information or curriculum, Nurse-Family Partnership is unique because it focuses primarily on forming trusting, therapeutic relationships between registered nurse home visitors and first-time mothers. “It’s an empowerment-based model rather than enabling model,” NFP Nurse Supervisor Angie Chiodo says. The program aims to help mothers learn to help themselves and access the information and resources that they need.

NFP clients are paired with a specific nurse in order to develop a close and consistent relationship. Nurses can have up to 25 families in their caseload and see about three clients per day. The nurses visit their patients every week or every other week for the first two years of the children’s lives. According to Chiodo, NFP extensively prepares patients for this graduation and even continues contact as needed with their nurses, to connect the patients with any necessary support.

Each home visit involves careful preparation, planning customized to the client, and charting by the NFP nurses. In forming relationships with their clients, the nurses provide the mothers with important information and resources about health-related behaviors, child development, and economic self-sufficiency (including continuing education and finding employment).

The visits have an intentional structure, but can be as flexible as needed to address the major concerns in the client’s life. “Nurses have the freedom to scratch anything they’re supposed to do and just listen,” Chiodo says.

The flexibility, as well as the consistency and frequency of the visits, contribute to the success of the program. NFP recognizes that the mother is an expert on her own life; nurses use techniques such as motivational interviewing to show, not tell, the mothers that they already know the correct answers to caring for themselves and their children.

Nurse Family Partnership

Nurse-Family Partnership (Doug Coombe)

Father involvement varies, case by case; some fathers may be involved but are not necessarily in relationships with the mothers. Also, while some clients have very caring families (“Grandmas are big cheerleaders of our program,” Chiodo says), others face unstable home environments and inconsistent support.

Isolation is common in the community, and NFP nurse visitors are sometimes the only consistent supportive presence in the mother’s life. Although professional boundaries are maintained, the nurses become integrated in the lives of the families.

To further help combat the pervasive isolation, NFP holds events periodically, including community baby showers and a riverfront walking group. Although most mothers are eager to participate in events, many are unable to attend due to lack of transportation.

NFP nurses love their clients, and the feeling is mutual. During feedback visits, clients fill out forms about their experiences. Chiodo says that the reports from the families are positive.

Chiodo has a background in public health and also works as a certified nurse-midwife, the equivalent of a Nurse Practitioner, which adheres to the philosophy that childbirth is an inherently normal – not bad or pathological – process. She was working at a hospital as a nurse-midwife when her supervisor approached her about helping to start the program, which officially began in August of 2012 and is run out of the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority. The first graduation event of NFP clients will take place in December of 2014.

The program is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the state of Michigan with significant support from healthcare providers that recognize the importance of the evidence-based program. Nurse-Family Partnership has two main referral partners: Wayne State University Physician Group Nurse-Midwives and Henry Ford New Center One.

Nurse Family Partnership

Angie Chiodo (Doug Coombe)

The program has been a team effort that includes the funders, the nurses, and many community partners, such as the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association and the Focus: HOPE HealthConnect One program.

Nurse-Family Partnership is more necessary than ever for the well-being of the Detroit community. A recent The Detroit News investigation found that the infant mortality rate in Detroit is the worst among big U.S. cities and worse than some Third-World countries.

“The biggest issue is Detroit has a lot more poverty and chronic stress, institutional racism, [and] all the social determinants of health care are impacting infant mortality,” Chiodo says. She acknowledges that other U.S. cities suffer from these circumstances as well, but the struggle in Detroit is especially challenging.

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.

Hip-Hop: Unifying Detroit Youth

By, Allie Semperger
Published February 2014: Michigan Nightlight

Hip-hop gets a bad reputation, but a look outside the mainstream, at a small but powerful program for Detroit youth, provides a whole different view.

Commercialized rap songs that glorify money and violence have no place at the 5 E Gallery, a nonprofit visual art and hip-hop culture gallery in Detroit that inspires a return to the roots of hip-hop as a peaceful, creative, and unifying culture.

The gallery’s name is a tribute to the five main elements of hip-hop culture: emceeing (rapping), DJ’ing, writing (aerosol art), dancing (including breaking, up-rocking, popping, and locking), and the connecting element of knowledge.

In addition to supporting local artists and featuring their work, 5 E Gallery offers a diverse array of artistic programs that helps youth in the Detroit community develop important creative and technical skills.

Piper Carter, director of public relations at 5 E Gallery, is an acclaimed fashion photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, French Vogue (Vogue Paris), British ELLE (ELLE UK), and Essence, just to name a few. She grew up between Detroit and New York, working in NYC until she moved back to Detroit in 2008 to take care of her mother who was suffering from poor health and needed 24-hour care. “Coming back was a blessing in disguise because we had a chance to connect,” Carter says, acknowledging that the distance impacted the time they spent together. “We ended up being good for each other – she helped me learn how to be a grown woman.”

Piper Carter

Piper Carter (Doug Coombe)

5 E was founded in 2007 by renowned Detroit hip-hop artist and turntablist DJ Sicari. In 2008, Carter met Sicari and began attending 5 E programs and collaborating with him. “I thought [the gallery] was a genius idea and I’m such a hip-hop enthusiast,” she says. “To find a person and a place that loves and celebrates the real culture of hip-hop as much as I did, in Detroit – it’s wonderful.”

Carter’s passion and participation at the gallery continued to grow. In May of 2009, 5 E Gallery launched The Foundation, based on Carter’s idea for a weekly night dedicated specifically to celebrating and supporting the voices of women in hip-hop. The program currently runs on Tuesday nights and participants have included female artists like singer Jade Lathan, who recently appeared on American Idol.

5 E Gallery fosters a creative environment that also functions as a safe space which provides young people with the skills and confidence to become artists that truly live hip-hop culture. The gallery is open after school through the evening for young people to practice their creativity.

5 E also holds a regular youth program on Saturdays where young people get hands-on experiences in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Math) work. This weekly program is based on 5 E’s big annual community event, Dilla Youth Day, celebrating the legendary Detroit music producer J Dilla and showcasing youth performances in the arts.

On Dilla Day and on Saturdays throughout the year, kids learn about music production, media literacy, art, and cutting-edge technology that empowers them to bring their creative visions to life in new and unique ways. “No matter where you go, hip-hop in its creation and inception is made for young people – to communicate with one another, express ideas, and relate what their culture is,” Carter says. She also cites the origins of hip-hop as created out of necessity by youth in the depressed Bronx in the 1970s. According to Carter, hip-hop was the path for young people of diverse cultures (Caribbean, African, Puerto Rican, and more) to “create a new reality for themselves.”

5 E Gallery works to support young artists through artist development and mentorship. Artist development includes classes, programs, opportunities to perform, and constructive critiques. Youth are also taught about the business aspects of their mediums and how to improve their skills. In addition, 5 E connects the kids with role models like music producers and community leaders.

5 E Gallery

5 E Gallery (Doug Coombe)

“For us, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in impoverished communities of color there’s really no modeling – it’s important for young people to see what’s practiced, to see people who are successful,” Carter says. “A lot of us didn’t have models for anything we wanted to do – we realized that we really have to show young people what to do [and] give them guidance and instruction.” By interacting with successful people in their aspired fields, youth gain well-rounded worldviews with a balance of school learning and professional experience.

With a focus on ideals like truth, equality, unity, and peace, 5 E Gallery works to educate the public that hip-hop isn’t just the commercialized rap that is popularly confused for hip-hop today. Rather, hip-hop is believed to be the culmination of all cultures: a movement and a lifestyle. “We’re doing sonic justice,” Carter says. “It’s all about music that uplifts and music that heals and providing a safe space for people – youth, women, people of color – to come and learn from one another.”

Carter is a self-described positive and hopeful person, who believes that life is a journey and not a destination. She acknowledges that violence can take many forms – guns, self-hatred, gossip, bullying, etc. – and that it stems mainly from insecurity and a perceived “lack.” Hip-hop, with its focus on cultural literacy, has the power to overcome this harmful mindset.

“My hope for the children of Detroit is that they always realize and recognize their own value, that they see themselves as an important part of this world with fresh ideas and that their ideas are valuable and valued,” Carter says. “We’re in these times where we hear about abysmal circumstances, but it’s still a beautiful world and it’s important that we uplift our youth and community.”