“Listen. Just listen. It’s really important to really work alongside others and hear what they think they need in order to be successful. Let the community you are striving to help be the one to orchestrate it.”
Too often in our country, a child’s zip code predicts his or her ultimate success. Here in Detroit, 60 percent of children under 5 live in poverty, with the majority of them not ready for kindergarten. That’s why, in 2016, I cofounded Brilliant Detroit, an organization dedicated to ensuring that families with children ages 0 to 8 have what they need to be school ready, healthy and stable. Thanks to our efforts, Brilliant Detroit has grown from one hub and 50 participating families in our first year to reaching more than 7,000 children and caregivers across eight Detroit neighborhoods.
The problem I am trying to solve
In Detroit only about 15 percent of all kids read at grade level by third grade — staggering numbers even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Brilliant Detroit establishes and operates home-based hubs in the middle of high-need neighborhoods. We currently work with 92 organizational partners to provide 47,000 hours of high-quality, evidence-based early-childhood education, health and family support. Our goal? To get these kids school ready, healthy and stable.
The moment that sparked my passion
Back in 2015 I asked a young mom what she felt she needed to support her family. She explained that to get any sort of social or educational services, she had to race around the city going from program to program to program — something that was impossible, as she worked full-time and didn’t have access to a car. She looked at me and said simply, “I can’t do it.” That solidified the beginning of Brilliant Detroit. I knew we had to create programs that came to these families, rather than expecting them to move mountains to get to us.
What I wish other people knew
I wish they knew how foundational the early childhood years are. Ninety percent of our brains are developed by age 5. That really tells us where we need to focus our energies and when intensive learning programs need to start. When children are ready for kindergarten and are reading at grade level by third grade, they have the academic skills they need to build a foundation for the future. But so little in the social services field is coordinated and connected. We need to focus on the whole family — children and caregivers — in order to affect school readiness and success.
Advice to others who want to make a difference
Listen. Just listen. It’s really important to really work alongside others and hear what they think they need in order to be successful. Let the community you are striving to help be the one to orchestrate it. You’re not working for yourself but for the good of others. It’s also important to keep track of your North Star, or personal mission statement. Sometimes we don’t always see it, even when it’s in front of us. I am relentless in my pursuit of ensuring that kids and families get what they need and want. I’m a first-generation high school graduate who was raised in poverty. I got to where I was through hard work and the power of education and, yes, the support of my neighborhood. It’s these same types of neighborhoods that have made Brilliant Detroit a success.
Why my approach is unique
Brilliant Detroit works with families, instead of doing things “to” them in a top-down fashion. We launch a hub in a community only after we have been invited in by leaders and have conducted multiple listening sessions with community members. Once the hub begins, we form a neighborhood advisory team to guide our programming. Our focus lies in forming deep ties in neighborhoods and with service providers, so that our families can access critical services right near them. All of our families live within a 20-minute walk of a Brilliant Detroit hub, which allows us to reach more families than programs that require public transportation to access. We work from the belief that organizations provide programs and services, while communities are there for each other and connect through bonds of mutual support. This is one of the reasons why our young kids can begin to show significant educational improvements, in as little as eight to 12 weeks, which are sustained and deepened over time for transformational results.
When I introduce the Brilliant Detroit story, I often say that I live in a fairy tale. This is my legacy — to move the needle on early-childhood education and family well-being in a way that I have not yet seen.