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The race toward economic and social stability

Businessman jumps over gap. Overcoming obstacles business concept

By Leslie D. Green | Special to Crain’s Content Studio

Economists suggest the speed of recovery from pandemic-related shutdowns shows the United States is on an upswing that could continue into 2021. However, presidential transition-related conflict and a third-wave surge in global coronavirus cases have economists, investors and businesses on edge.

Credit spreads, overall financial-stress indicators and the dollar have remained relatively tame, suggesting the equity market is mainly consolidating its outsized gains while anticipating clarity on the profits outlook. Indicators, including positive corporate earnings in the third quarter, have been pointing toward stronger U.S. growth—particularly since they rebounded faster than during the last recession. And the United States has been experiencing solid momentum in economic growth so far in the fourth quarter, bringing activity within the 90 percent to 95 percent range of pre-coronavirus pandemic action.

Yet, uncertainty remains. Business leaders question how the President-elect’s plans and policies, including taxes, health care and tariffs, will affect industries and their consumers. And, as more states implement and reestablish COVID-borne restrictions, worries over country-wide shutdowns and hopes for an additional stimulus are growing.

“We have seen a fairly quick rebound. But that last 5 percent of economic growth is going to be very, very difficult to reclaim. It will be a long climb—and probably not until 2022—until we return to the levels of economic growth we had prior to the pandemic,” said Matt Elliott, Midwest Region Executive for Business Banking and Detroit Market President of Bank of America.  

Elliott recently moderated a virtual roundtable conversation with metro Detroit business, academic and community leaders about the state of the region transitioning from 2020 to 2021.

collage image of roundtable participants

Top row, from left: Christina Brown, Consumer Research Insights Analyst, HMS Mfg. Co.; Matt Elliott, Midwest Region Executive for Business Banking and Detroit Market President of Bank of America; Ki (Kouhaila) Hammer, President and CEO, Ghafari Associates; Darienne Driver Hudson, President and CEO, United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Bottom row, from left: Rip Rapson, President, The Kresge Foundation; Nicole Sherard-Freeman, Executive Director, Workforce Development & Detroit at Work, City of Detroit; Michelle Sourie Robinson, President and CEO, Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council; M. Roy Wilson, President, Wayne State University.

Nicole Sherard-Freeman, executive director of Workforce Development & Detroit at Work for the City of Detroit, said city administrators are encouraged by the recent bump in economic indicators but recognize that it’s unlikely to be the real story.

“We won’t know the real measure of impact of what’s happening with the economy for another 12 or 18 months,” she said. “That’s when we’ll start to feel the ripple effects of what happens when you close casinos and hotels and restaurants, and when Detroit’s small business community fails at a rate of about 40 or 50 percent.”

Going beyond economic figures and issues of financial volatility, roundtable participants also delved into the impact of this dramatic year and their concerns surrounding the future of COVID-19, supply chain shifts, racial justice and equity.

Down, Not Out

Increasing cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and Europe is a top concern for investors and business leaders alike though many businesses have been able to rehire workers and the number of unemployment claims is decreasing. Still, there’s growing, but cautious, optimism.

The City looks at residential employment, instead of unemployment, as the real measure of how economic development, economic stability and mobility are affecting Detroit neighborhoods. That number was close to 231,000 in February 2020, Sherard-Freeman said.

“But those numbers dropped in April to 165,000. It looked a lot like a 90-degree angle fall off a cliff,” she said.

With 208,000 residents employed as of late October, the city appeared to be bouncing back. Still, Sherard-Freeman said city leaders remain watchful.

While dips in the economy often hit contract labor first, that sector is also usually the first to rebound, said Ki (Kouhaila) Hammer, president and CEO of Ghafari Associates, which operates technical staffing company G-Tech.

“Before COVID, things were going just fine. Then the pandemic hit, and business in the G-Tech world went down by about 50 percent almost overnight,” she said. The company furloughed staff and cut employee hours, and clients began requesting billing-rate reductions.

Now, though, G-Tech is getting “requests for many engineers, in many different frames for different clients,” Hammer said.

Likewise, HMS Mfg. Co., which designs and manufacturers housewares for retailers, was doing well and focusing on developing innovative products for the home in the beginning of the year. The company paused that strategy when the quarantines started and businesses shifted to delivering essential products.

The company’s niche has helped.

“We did all right because we make everything that’s in the house,” said Christina Brown, consumer research insights analyst for HMS. “Now, we need to make sure we are making the right things for the home to ensure we support life looking a bit different.”

While COVID didn’t hurt HMS sales, it did complicate order fulfillment and supply chain logistics, and it altered company priorities.

“All of our business units focused on shifting away from new design into human protection—what our people need to get through the pandemic and what customers need from us,” Brown said.

In part, this means determining whether employees truly need to travel to accomplish their goals and developing more secure online platforms to help people feel more comfortable making purchases.

“This idea of pivoting and shifting toward the people is really critical for growth,” Elliott said.

Agility Is Key

Pivoting or evolving business strategies is really about resilience and resilience planning, Elliott said. This requires having a diversified source of revenue, planning for sustainability of revenue sources and business models, and ensuring your organization has a technology angle and technology support.

“Not every organization can make that sort of a pivot. But you have to if you’re going to be resilient,” Elliott said.

HMS, which has U.S. and global operations, found itself contending with different and ever-changing pandemic-related executive orders. Shipping also became more complicated for goods manufactured domestically and internationally. At the same time, production was complicated by executive orders requiring some businesses to shut down, Brown said.

Still, HMS shifted goals, optimizing what it manufactured to maintain retailer partner expectations while still protecting their workers. The company also began using its 3D printing capabilities to produce personal protection equipment (PPE), which it distributed to staff and frontline workers.

Now, Brown said, “We are looking at different fulfillment options to optimize where the staff can be and what we can do from various locations. We are looking at doing things like shipping directly to the consumer, shipping larger volumes to our retail customers at a time to optimize fulfillment.”

While work with aviation, shipping companies and online retailers, such as Amazon, accelerated, many construction projects stopped, especially those in the Middle East, which essentially halted for Ghafari Associates, a global engineering, architecture and construction services company.

So, Ghafari shifted its focus from construction to designing more capital projects for the future. Because work in the Middle East is predicated on oil prices, the company is used to and prepared for shifts there.

“If the oil prices are up, they’re spending money. If oil prices are down, they’re not spending money, and everything shifts to a very slow pace,” Hammer said.

Adjusting Service Models

Nonprofits were among the most visible organizations to shift strategies and processes to both endure the pandemic and support those suffering through job and other losses.

In March, most of the region’s K-12 and post-secondary schools turned to remote learning. Whereas digital learning has kept students with adequate technology connected, schools have been paying the price.

By April, many colleges and universities began seeing decreases in fall enrollment—16 percent around the country—and drops in residence hall renewals. Consequently, they initiated layoffs and other budget cuts to help stave off hundreds of millions of dollars in predicted losses while also trying to mitigate the financial pain many students were experiencing.

Yet, Wayne State University is bucking the trend. The Detroit school has seen increases in some enrollment figures.

“We actually had a 5 percent increase in our first-year students,” said university President M. Roy Wilson, M.D., a trained epidemiologist.

The university also hasn’t taken the financial losses most universities have so far experienced this year because of shifting strategies a few years ago that included turning to a public-private partnership for housing and food services, Wilson said.

Still, with decreased consumer spending in 2020, property taxes left unpaid or deferred, high rates of unemployment and other hits to state budgets, college and university administrators expect state and federal budget cuts to affect their bottom lines in the near term.

“We’ve been fortunate, but we are going to be impacted financially,” Wilson said.

The United Way for Southeastern Michigan was beginning to witness more stable households and thriving children before the world was thrust into the pandemic, said United Way President and CEO Darienne Driver Hudson.

However, the board quickly released $2 million from emergency reserves to help nonprofits on the front lines of serving those in need and to provide collaborative and regional grants. Through ongoing and new corporate partnerships, the nonprofit also acquired the volunteers they needed to answer calls from distressed citizens.

“We were able to raise $37 million with the COVID fund. But the actual campaign we run annually plummeted,” Hudson said. The nonprofit, which has more than 740 corporate and community partners, shifted from using its resources to deal with decreasing donations to pushing much-needed resources into the community.

“That’s not a sustainable funding model for any of us, especially people who have fee-for-service models like our family service agencies,” Hudson said. “That’s a big question in terms of what happens next, how we think about those models.”

More than the economy’s finances, Rip Rapson, president of The Kresge Foundation, said the “dark matter of the economy” needs addressing. He described this as the fraying of the soft tissue of the community that is creating a health crisis throughout society.

“Unless people feel a sense of cohesion, a sense of confidence in their daily routines, unless they feel like they have the kind of mutual supports and community that permit them to succeed over the long term, all this falls apart,” said Rapson.

“Nicole’s comment about 40 to 50 percent of the small businesses in the city of Detroit failing is not something that gets put back together right away. This has enormous traumatic, personal, professional community implications.”

Wilson added that there’s also the issue of children missing out on the social and educational development they get from in-person learning. “As an epidemiologist, I’m worried about the pandemic and think we have to be very cautious,” he said. “So, I just urge everyone to think in terms of being as aggressive as we can be in driving the numbers down so that we can open up schools earlier.”

Which is why, Rapson said, philanthropy’s energies have been redirected. “Philanthropy can step in and underwrite every one of those 50 percent of businesses who fail, or they can do any number of other things. But it can’t do everything,” he said. “So, this deconstruction of what it takes to be healthy and vibrant and sustainable over the long term is at risk.”

Understanding, Addressing Disparities

Pivoting in philanthropy, Rapson explained, requires a deep commitment to trying to figure out the infrastructures of social and racial justice that are needed to carry the country into a different rebuilding process.

“There’s no question that urban centers of America are going to have to rebuild. Whether it’s housing, small business development, transportation or infrastructure, this is going to be a different world, and municipal government is only going to have so many tools at its disposal,” Rapson said.

“It’s sad, but I think it took the pandemic to remind people that you can’t talk about health without talking about disparities. You can’t talk about housing without talking about disparities. Just tick through every single indicator,” Rapson said. “People don’t want to deal with it. It’s complex. It means sort of undoing systems and kind of rejiggering them.”

When it comes to rebuilding the city of Detroit, Sherard-Freeman pointed out that it won’t happen with $15-an-hour jobs as the ultimate goal.

She and colleagues at the City are exploring what prospects they have to benefit the region. Beyond FCA building and bringing 5,000-plus jobs to Detroit and the opportunities through suppliers considering a move to the city, Sherard-Freeman said there’s more they can do.

She cited closing the gap on public education and building a workforce that becomes an attractive economic value proposition for industries outside of the auto industry, like health care.

But this means understanding the impact of COVID on the healthcare industry, on communities of color and on industries that don’t yet exist, Sherard-Freeman said.

Rapson added that understanding the open space possibilities and neighborhoods around FCA is as important as determining what to do about the city’s transportation, education and health-related issues.

“What it means is that we have to go back to basics, but the basics are sort of predicated on issues of racial disparity and justice. How we think about a next-generation housing program in the city, how we think about a next-generation small business program or commercial quarter redevelopment program has everything to do with issues of identity and race and history and legacy and opportunity. So, in some ways we’re looking at what we’ve always been looking at,” Rapson said. “But I do think that there’s sort of a bright light that has shined in our direction, and we have to take advantage of the moment.”

The responsibility is on everyone, Hudson said. “Even if you were not the person who built the system, or you are not perhaps the oppressor, or you’ve been victimized, everybody has a role to play, and everyone has a responsibility to understand how we can improve it,” she said.

For its part, the United Way Worldwide has changed its bylaws to include statements on diversity and against racial justice, which they are pairing with staff training.

Elliott said Bank of America thinks about diversity and inclusion as a core part of its business strategy.  “There is also an extremely strong business case for closing the racial wealth gap,” he said. “We can’t be a top 10 state for jobs and income if we don’t make progress on closing the racial wealth gap.”

Ghafari has always had internal policies promoting diversity and inclusion and standing against discrimination, Hammer said. However, not everyone on staff understands the perspectives of other cultures.

“We’re finding out we all need more education in terms of what we have to be aware of so that we don’t think that we’re doing such a good job when we’re not. So, we’re on our first journey, if you will, of pivoting after the whole situation with Mr. (George) Floyd,” Hammer said.

Michelle Sourie Robinson, president and CEO of the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council, said they’ve seen eloquent letters, commitments and pledges from corporations since the video of the death of George Floyd came to light.

But, she said, equitable education and simply the opportunity for minority-owned companies to compete for business are the best ways to close the racial wealth gap.

“Minority firms are often overlooked. But because of their ability to hire in some of these often-forgotten sectors, they have the ability to help close that gap in a more sustainable manner,” Robinson said. “We’ve seen some amazing organizations that are raising funds, but when you look at the fact that the average black family has about $3,000 in net worth, and you compare that to the average white family, which has about $147,000, we have some gaps to close.

“And we close those through economics. So anytime you support minority-owned firms, you are actually helping to do that in a fashion that is much more sustainable than most.”

Forging Ahead

Global manufacturing hit a 29-month high in October and appears to be dealing valiantly with shifts in demand and supply chains. USDA economists predict higher commodity prices in nearly every agricultural industry in 2021.

However, the country is not out of the woods.

Fundamental changes in the way we operate are as necessary to growth as are a second stimulus, a vaccine, a return to pre-pandemic employment levels and a peaceful transition of power at the federal level.

“Going forward doesn’t mean continuing the way we’ve been going,” Elliott said. “If you’re not being inclusive, we’re going to have problems. If your business isn’t resilient or planning for resiliency, we’re going to have problems.

“We all need to take into account how what’s happening now is impacting not just the business community, but also our children, our educational system and the fundamental building blocks of what our economy and society will look like as we head into 2021.”

This piece was originally printed in Crain's Detroit Business Book of Lists 2021 and on

Coping through COVID: Reminding stressed-out youth they aren’t alone

When COVID-19 struck the United States early this year, the world as we knew it changed. Countries began tallying up their dead, borders closed, cities and businesses shut down, and more than 120,000 schools swiftly ceased in-person learning for more than 72 million K-12 and college students.

The lockdowns ended time with precious friends and family, travel, graduation ceremonies, proms, birthday parties and entertainment outings. They resulted in millions of job losses and a collectively high level of stress that hadn’t been seen in decades.

African American female with short hair wearing pearl earrings, opera length necklace with white collar showing from beneath celery green, burnt orange with black diamond shapes

Kamilah Davis-Wilson

In particular, the pandemic’s subsequent effects—uncertainty, isolation, unrest and disappearance of opportunities—are putting young people at risk for higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

“How do we expect youth to process it all?” asked Kamilah Davis-Wilson, community outreach and education manager for The Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, Mich., which provides health and mental health services to 12- to 25-year-olds and their children.

Adenike Griffin, behavioral health manager at the center, said society isn’t equipped for the after-effects of COVID and likely won’t be even after vaccines and treatment are developed.

“I don’t think we’re prepared for people’s inability to cope,” Griffin said. “There will likely be higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and more profound mental illnesses, like psychosis. The effects are going to be huge. We’re going to need to pull together as many resources as we can to create a new normal.”

African American female with short hair wearing black top and unlined jersey knit jacket

Adenike Griffin

The Ford Motor Company Fund, the auto company’s philanthropic arm, is responding by increasing its support of mental health awareness and treatment. Among its initiatives, the nonprofit is partnering with the Corner Health Center on a series of virtual discussions for 12- to 19-year-olds. Topics include social isolation; anxiety, depression and social unrest, suicidality; and grief and the holidays.

“We know mental illnesses in youth have been on the rise over the past several years, and the pandemic has given us even more reason to bring resources to this space,” said Lisa Gonzalez, a manager at the Ford Motor Company Fund. “Our team continues to look at new ways we can partner with specialists and bring forth resources free of charge to teens in this new virtual world. It is important to give our youth the tools necessary to improve their mental health in a safe setting which can hopefully translate to an open dialog between family and friends.”

In this story, we explore how COVID-19 is affecting young people in this country and provide information to help parents and guardians alleviate their distress.

Stress preceded pandemic

Even before the pandemic, the number of young people ages 10-24 who were suffering from serious mental stress, including depression and anxiety, was rapidly growing. These high rates of depression and anxiety caused suicides to climb 56% from 2007 to 2017, making it the second-leading cause of death in that age group.3 Other findings:

• About 2.3 million or 9.4% of adolescents ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode.1
• 11 million or 13.1% of 18- to 25-year-olds reported at least one major depressive episode.1
• More than 60% of college students said they felt overwhelming anxiety.2
• 56% of college students felt hopeless, and 13 percent considered suicide.2
• Among black adolescents, the rate of suicide attempts surged 73% from 1991 to 2017.3

To gauge the effects COVID-19 was having, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey from March through June and found that 1 in 4 adults ages 18-24 said they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.

Uncertain and unsettled

When schools first shut down in March, many administrators said it would be for two to four weeks. That’s because no one knew how long the pandemic would last. Six months in, however, and there’s still a big question mark over the direction it’s going and how it will affect our future.

Male with salt and pepper short hair wearing glasses, dark suit with mauve shirt, striped tie and holding a microphone

David Rosenberg, MD

That question mark is adding to the latest mental health crisis, said David Rosenberg, MD, a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist and professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University.

“Do we wear a mask? What’s going to happen with flu season? Will we be shut down again? Will the vaccine be effective? The uncertainty around these kinds of prolonged, pronounced societal pressures fuels depression and anxiety, especially in the most vulnerable—our teenagers,” Rosenberg said.

Extremely/very negative impact on personal financial security due to COVID-19
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“And the more depression and anxiety there is, the more uncertainty we feel.”

COVID-19 has also taken a toll on the financial security of young adults. About 31% of 18- to 23-year-olds surveyed reported that the virus has had an extremely negative financial impact on their lives, and 26% said they had to move back home.4

“This is one of the first generations that doesn’t feel as if they will accomplish as much or earn as much as their parents because of how the job market is right now,” Rosenberg said. “So, there’s almost the sense of ‘What’s the point?’ ”

Amanda Beck, a home-based therapist at the Inkster, Mich.-based nonprofit Starfish Family Services, said the teens she works with are usually excited about getting new clothes for school.

Female with dark hair pulled back wearing a denim collared shirt

Amanda Beck

This year was different.

“They didn’t know if they were even going to be able to go school or if their recently unemployed parents could afford to buy clothes,” Beck said.

Before the pandemic, a 12-year-old that Davis-Wilson worked with was preparing for track season, a 17-year-old was looking forward to driver’s education, and a college student was getting ready for his first internship. Then COVID-19 canceled their plans.

“Choirs, dance recitals, SATs, overnight retreats, proms—they all went away,” said Angela Burgess, a Starfish therapist. “Kids say: ‘I did what everybody told me to do. I worked hard, and now I can’t have those things.’ ”

As a result, young people are grieving and unmotivated.

African American female with dark shoulder length dreadlocks wearing black V-neck shirt and cream denim jacket

Angela Burgess

“Graduating from high school signifies the end of childhood, while going to college or getting a job signifies the beginning of adulthood,” Beck said. “If we’re not going to celebrate these things now, then when? Nobody knows. That’s stressful.”

Living in the great unknown is also leaving some teens unmotivated to learn and adding anxieties to those who already struggle with school.

Sofia, a high school freshman who asked that her last name be withheld, lives with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“School is already one of the biggest pressures for me, especially if I don’t have enough time to complete my work or get enough explanation,” said Sofia, 14.

Moving to distance learning made things more difficult. “Online school was a hard transition because we didn’t really get taught,” she said. “So, we didn’t really understand anything.”

Teachers are doing better this school year, Sofia said. But she misses her friends and doesn’t know when they will return to the classroom.

“The best thing about school is the social aspect,” she said. “But there is no school in Miami because it’s still the epicenter [of the pandemic].”

Nineteen-year-old Kayla Williams was a college freshman still adjusting to living in a dorm, going to her classes at Wayne State University in Detroit and trying to pin down her undergrad major when the pandemic struck. Suddenly, the public health major had to move back home and adjust to learning remotely.

In September, Williams returned to campus for her job. But because most students haven’t moved back, she said it doesn’t feel like the same school. She knows the number of young people getting COVID-19 has increased and worries about catching the virus.

“As an employee, they enforce a lot of extra rules, like hand-washing every half-hour,” Williams said. “But the virus is still really anxiety-producing. It makes every task stressful because there’s so much uncertainty with this disease and what’s going to happen.”

Alone and anxious

Experts say isolation before the pandemic increased the susceptibility to illness, depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. Pandemic-related quarantines and shutdowns will have a bigger global mental health impact.

School doesn’t just provide teens and young adults a basic education, said Griffin of The Corner Health Center. It also keeps them connected to the teachers, coaches, peers, communities and safe spaces that have, for a long time, played important roles in their lives.

Without that connection, said Beck of Starfish Family Services, teens often feel as if no one wants them, loves them or cares for them.

Psychologists say distance learning can make it more difficult for youths who have suffered—or continue to suffer—emotional, physical or sexual abuse at home and also for those living in food-insecure households.

“There’s no escape at home,” Beck said. “School was somewhere they could go.”

At the same time, working parents are overwhelming many lonely, bored adolescents with adult responsibilities.

“They’re having them step up and help with siblings by babysitting and checking homework,” said Burgess, the Starfish therapist. “They’re also expecting teens to use self-discipline to manage their time and get their work done. But teens don’t have those skills yet.”

See the signs, seek solutions

Sofia knows suicide is avoidable. After a classmate shared graphic details of trying to kill himself, she sought out a counselor, who got him help. Still, Sofia worries about the classmates, teachers and administrators who don’t always take mental health issues seriously.

11 suicide warning signs

Suicide warning signs
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“Kids would say: ‘Why would you try to help them? They are just doing it for attention,’ ” she said. “But if they are self-harming, they need help and attention. Not giving them help is the worst thing.”

While the increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are troubling, mental health experts say there is hope—and also help.

Recognize the signs: Young children with anxiety or depression may have more tantrums or become clingier. Older children may exhibit changes in appetite, mood, energy levels or activity.

“Listen to what they are saying and how they are feeling,” said Davis-Wilson of The Corner Health Center. “They have a lot of feelings about everything happening. Ask why they feel this way. Remember, they are children and try to work with them in a way that works for them.”

If you or someone you care about is exhibiting suicidal behavior, seek help immediately from a mental health professional, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

“When a teen is having thoughts of suicide, we can’t discount it,” Beck said. “We have got to take them seriously. Connecting them to appropriate treatment can be lifesaving.”

Sources: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services,1 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, Fall 2015 and Spring 2019,2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,3 Edward Jones and Age Wave study4


Stopping the Merry-Go-Round of Women’s Incarceration

Selena Lopez with her son Nathan

How one organization helps women rebuild their lives after prison

Selena Lopez was 19 when tragedy struck. A week after her mother died, her father was deported to Guatemala. Distraught and confused, the young mother turned to the streets, where she began using drugs and committing robberies to feed her young son, herself and her addiction.

“I was running amok and ended up circulating in and out of incarceration,” Lopez said. As a result, she lost her son, Nathan, to the foster care system.

A year later, she found help at an outpatient drug rehab center in downtown Los Angeles. But Lopez struggled with housing. And without a stable home, she couldn’t get her son back.

Lopez’s struggle isn’t unique. In 2017, 225,060 women were serving time in jail or state or federal prisons. And more than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child younger than 18, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s a 750 percent increase since 1980, when 26,378 women were incarcerated.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, attributes the increase to “more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.”

Lopez’s narrative changed for the better when a rehabilitation drug counselor told her about the Reentry Project at A New Way of Life. ANWOL, founded by Susan Burton, provides housing, legal assistance and other resources that formerly incarcerated women need to successfully reenter the community, reunify with family and heal themselves.

For those efforts, the Ford Motor Company Fund recently awarded ANWOL $25,000, the grand prize for its Ford Gives Back Freedom Award. And before that, in 2013, the Ford Fund honored Burton with the Ford Freedom Unsung award, which recognizes the achievements and extraordinary work of ordinary people in the African American community.

“For decades, Susan Burton has opened pathways to success for women that are facing challenges to reentering their community,” said Pamela Alexander, director of community development for the Ford Fund. “Without her efforts and her commitment, many would not have had access to support systems they needed to rebuild their lives.”

A lost son, then a lost life

Growing up in Aliso Village, a housing project in LA, Susan Burton didn’t dream of helping women get clean or reunite with their children. She just wanted a happy family of her own.

In 1981, Burton was a content 30-year-old stay-at-home mom living with her 15-year-old daughter, Antoinette; 5-year-old son, Marque; and her mother. She clearly recalls picking her son up from school, going home and then preparing dinner while Marque played outside. She recalls him proudly coming into the house with a flower for his mom.

So far, the nonprofit has helped about 1,200 women rebuild their lives.

“It was covered in ants,” Burton said.

Then the unthinkable happened when Marque went back outside to play. He was hit by a Los Angeles police detective’s car and killed.

“My whole world went out of control,” Burton said. “The rage, anger and guilt I had was overwhelming, because a mother is supposed to protect their children. The day I lost my son, Antoinette lost her mother, because I was no good for a long time.”

Burton tried drinking away her grief. When that didn’t work, she turned to cocaine. She eventually was arrested for drug possession and spent the next 15 years in what she calls “a virtual turnstile of incarceration.”

Despite asking the courts for help with her addiction, Burton said she was repeatedly sent to prison. Her last release was in July 1996. But rather than return prison, Burton, in October 1997, learned that the city of Santa Monica, unlike LA, approached drug use as a social problem and provided resources to help.

“I saw a whole new world that white folks had access to in lieu of incarceration,” she said. “I took advantage of it and found a treatment center.

“Then I said I’m going to build in South LA what I received in Santa Monica.”

Sharing food, lifting spirits

Susan Burton

Susan Burton

After getting a job and saving every dime she could, Burton bought a small house, built five pairs of bunk beds—with help from friends from her 12-step fellowship—and started ANWOL.

“I would go to the bus station and wait for people I knew who were getting out of prison and would invite them to the house,” Burton said. “We all lived together, laughed together, went to 12-step meetings together, paid bills together and created a community of women helping women. It was beautiful. We were all there lifting each other up—sharing food, sharing hope and sharing our commitment.”

Some of the women lost custody of their children because they didn’t have homes for them, which pained Burton.

“I could not turn back the years of pain and suffering that had been thrust upon me after the loss of my son,” she said. “And I knew I couldn’t bring my son back, but maybe I could help another woman not suffer so long after incarceration. Maybe I could help another woman get her kid back.”

In 2002, Burton was able to buy a house for formerly incarcerated women and their children. Now she operates 10 homes.

New attitude, new altitude

ANWOL has helped more than 300 children reunite with their moms. Selena Lopez’s son, Nathan, was one of those children.

“My journey and process were a little longer than others because I was focused on not only maintaining my sobriety but also trying to regain custody of my son,” said Lopez, who lived in an ANWOL home with six women for three years.

She attended monthly and weekly meetings in the house, and the program provided transportation to meetings outside the house.

“A New Way of Life’s programs helped with the reasons behind the trauma, too,” she said.

Yet the most valuable part of Lopez’s recovery was the support she received directly from Burton, whom she calls a second mother.

“Coming from where I grew up, you didn’t really hear success stories about women who were incarcerated and overcame drug abuse. You only heard the negative,” Lopez said. “When I heard Miss Susan’s story and the other women’s stories, it was amazing to me that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

ANWOL also taught Lopez her rights and how to advocate for herself while going through the complicated child protective services system. Besides staying clean and having a stable home, Lopez had to visit her son twice weekly. But the home he was placed in was five hours away, and she didn’t have transportation.

Still, the nonprofit taught her resilience, and Lopez found a way. She donated plasma and used the money to buy 3 a.m. train tickets so she could arrive in time for her 8 a.m. visits.

“It was challenging to have him gone for nearly 2½ years, but he will have been home now for three years because of the whole program,” said Lopez, who is now 25.

A ‘shared responsibility’

Burton, who today is 69, believes communities are underresourced in helping victims of trauma.

“We as a community have a shared responsibility in looking out for and caring for each other,” she said. “I’m trying to fulfill my responsibility to people who are released from prisons and jails so they have something to come home to and have a way to rebuild their lives and become productive members of our community.”

ANWOL now has 35 full-time employees, five consultants and hundreds of volunteers—including Lopez. Burton is also training other nonprofits to use the ANWOL model.

She advocates for women in other ways as well. Burton is author of “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women” and co-founder of the civil rights movements All of Us or None and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement. Named one of 18 new civil rights leaders in the U.S. by the Los Angeles Times, Burton received a NAACP Image Award in 2018 for her book and an honorary doctor of humane letters from California State University, Northridge in 2019.

She also advocates against “child snatching”—the act of removing children from the custody of their mothers—and serves on the Sybil Brand Commission, which allows her to inspect county jails and ensure that the incarcerated women are getting the medical care they need.

“Everything about ANWOL is phenomenal,” Lopez said. “I remember that first conversation I had with Miss Susan when I arrived at A New Way of Life. She asked my dreams. But I didn’t have any dreams, any passion, because I was not expected to do anything with my life.”

Now, she said, she’s now a happily married homeowner with a second child due just before Christmas. Before the pandemic resulted in her being laid off from her job as a program assistant at Los Angeles Southwest College, Lopez helped students enroll in classes and find resources, such as childcare, to be successful at school. Now she is a full-time student with a near-4.0 grade point average and plans to transfer to UCLA in the spring.

“Everything that I ever dreamed of happened. It keeps me motivated,” Lopez said.

She’s also determined to stick with ANWOL, particularly its Women Organizing for Justice and Opportunity cohort program, because she wants to stay involved with children and family services and in changing legislation around it.

Lopez said, “I’m always there to learn more.”

This story was originally published on Other features I’ve written for the Ford Motor Company Fund include:

Arts organizations strive to stay alive amid COVID-19 pandemic

Image of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performing individually but together via Zoom

During the turbulent 1960s, four churches founded The Ark to provide a safe place for young people who were striving to peacefully transform the world.

Ironically now, even as people of all ages demonstrate in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the 55-year-old music venue in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is shuttered. Why? Because of COVID-19, a new and highly contagious virus that within weeks spread worldwide.

“We have always been a place where people could come together and be galvanized by music,” said Marianne James, executive director of the listening room for folk, roots and ethnic music. “It’s painful to not be able to do what we have always done, to not be able to do our part.”

White female, shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, frame-less eye glasses, white knit jacket over dark T-shirt standing with microphone in her right hand

Marianne James, executive director of The Ark

The Ark is one of thousands of arts and cultural institutions nationwide that COVID-19 shut down, costing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue and wages. Moreover, it prohibited more than 130 million Americans from attending the artistic and cultural activities they rely on for entertainment, education and comfort

At the same time, the pandemic is inspiring new creativity in the sector, keeping these organizations alive virtually and helping them preserve their missions.

“Arts and cultural institutions provide necessary social services beyond the joy and inspiration we all enjoy,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The 114-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit represents 35,000 museums, zoos, science centers, arboretums, aquariums, archives, libraries and related organizations.

White female, shoulder-length blonde hair, dark dress and jacket, strand of pearls

Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums

“If there’s any sort of silver lining to this,” Lott said, “it might be the increased recognition of their roles as educational entities that serve kids’ needs outside the school building and school day.”

Costs of closing

“The arts, large and small, are part of our daily lives—from the book you’re reading and the music you’re listening to, to the design of cars and buildings,” said Victoria Hutter, assistant director of public relations for the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Hutter said arts and cultural institutions in the United States contributed nearly $878 billion, or 4.5%, to the gross domestic product and employed more than 5 million salaried and wage workers, according to the latest figures.

But experts expect the pandemic to slash those figures by nearly $7 billion in 2020 and leave many organizations unable to ever reopen.

2020 COVID-19 Impact on Nonprofit Arts and Culture Sector Survey

    • 95% canceled events
    • 67% expect crisis to have a “severe” impact on their organization
    • 30% reduced their artistic workforce
    • 24% reduced staff
    • 40% are “likely” to reduce staff
    • 10% are “not confident” they will survive the pandemic

Source: Americans for the Arts

Bald, black male wearing white button-down dress shirt with dark pinstripes two-toned purple striped tie and black smock

Christian Greer,  president and CEO of the Michigan Science Center

About 45% of museum revenue comes from gate ticket sales and related services, such as gift shops and cafes. “Now, everyone is suffering,” Lott said. “Museums, collectively, are losing about $33 million a day and have been since March.”

The Michigan Science Center is feeling the pain. MiSci, located in Detroit’s cultural center downtown, had limited cash reserves and a little over $1 million in its endowment before the pandemic.

“It’s not even close to what we will need to finish out the year,” MiSci President and CEO Christian Greer said. “There was barely enough money to pay unemployment.”

Because of COVID-19 fears and school group cancelations, earned revenue stopped even before the nonprofit closed its doors to visitors. Accordingly, MiSci furloughed staff on March 27, just 14 days after shutting down.

Museums Help Drive the Economy

    • Museums support more than 726,000 U.S. jobs.
    • Museums contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
    • 76% of U.S. leisure travelers participate in cultural or heritage activities such as visiting museums.
    • Museums generate more than $12 billion in tax revenue, one-third of it going to state and local governments.
    • Each job created by the museum sector results in $16,495 in additional tax revenue.

Source: American Alliance of Museums


The Ark also has furloughed and reduced staff. Before the virus, about 70% of its revenue came from ticket sales and concessions and the balance from a membership program and individual, corporate and foundation donations.

“The goal is to try to stretch funds as far as we can and fundraise until we can not only reopen but also as we ramp back up beyond this unknown period of closure,” James said.

Virus-related concert cancellations are also troubling the $1.8 billion-a-year classical music industry, which generates about 35% of its revenue from ticket sales, said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras.

“Orchestras are the opposite of social distancing. We’re social intimacy, ” Rosen said. “We put numerous people in enclosed spaces.”

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra was close to eliminating its deficit before the pandemic, said President and CEO Gabriel van Aalst. But after canceling more than 40 concerts, the orchestra’s finances are “devastated,” he said.

NJSO leadership quickly renegotiated the musicians’ contract to stave off layoffs during cancelations. Still, van Aalst said, the musicians are still struggling.”It’s tough. The orchestra is not full-time,” he said, adding that the musicians often play with other orchestras, lecture at universities or work on Broadway for additional income. “While we have continued to pay musicians, many other industries haven’t. Broadway, for instance, is 100% reliant on ticketing income.”

Van Aalst also worries about declining donations, which typically comprise about 65% of orchestras’ budgets.

“How do you demonstrate impact to funders now?” he said. “How do you continue to do mission work so there’s a demonstrable outcome and people want to continue giving?”

Maintaining missions

Amid the financial devastation, Hutter said, the arts community has become especially creative about connecting with audiences and stakeholders and meeting their missions.

For instance, maintaining the NJSO’s mission meant going virtual with “Couch Concerts” and events such as its world premiere of Gratis Tibi to thank essential workers, van Aalst said.

Split screed display of white male standing playing violin and Asian male seated playing cello. Both in tuxedos.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Assistant Concertmaster David Southorn (left) and NJSO cellist Philo Lee perform the first movement of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello from their respective homes. Photo courtesy NJSO

Similarly, the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta is offering virtual-learning puppet shows and has made its puppet-making instructions available online. And the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York developed new virtual content by instructing each dancer to perform a certain task and record it. Then the dance company knitted the tasks together to make one film it could share, Hutter said.

While digital-only programming isn’t ideal, it does allow organizations to attract new patrons.

The Ark is using Facebook to live-stream its Family Room Series, a curated program featuring familiar performers. Anywhere from 75 to 200 people watch live, while thousands view the recorded shows later.

“It’s important that we stay in front of people and let them know we’re here. That we could deliver our mission in a virtual community setting has been a real discovery,” James said. “There’s a different kind of live community that comes together virtually. People post comments and talk to each other during the show, allowing us to fulfill our mission on multiple levels.”

Sustaining programs, supporting artists through partnerships

The Michigan Science Center may not currently be accepting visitors, but the need for science, technology, engineering and math programs doesn’t stop.

“This is not the time to stop funding, supporting and preparing our future scientists,” Greer said. “We count on a lot of organizations, like the Ford Fund, to keep us alive. It’s important that people of all ages, backgrounds, colors and creeds have access to STEM.

“If we don’t get kids active in STEM at early ages, they will miss out on the opportunity to be a part of this economy.”

With support from the Ford Fund, the Science Center launched a weekly distance-learning program called ECHO Live, accessible through Facebook and YouTube. Since the shutdown, ECHO Live educators have presented more than 50 shows, which include online science demonstrations and experiments they do with young people participating from home.

The remote-learning laptops and tablets that the Detroit Public Schools Community District has been distributing to students include links to ECHO Live. The first program attracted 500 people from around the state, Greer said, and now thousands from all over the country participate.

The Ford Fund and Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford are also matching $500,000 in donations to organizations fighting COVID-19 and some arts organizations struggling because of the pandemic.

Reopening with safety in mind

While each state is in a different phase of reopening, individual arts and cultural organizations are weighing what timing and safety protocols would work best for each of them.

Reopening is a big source of anxiety, said Lott of the museum alliance. Fall exhibit schedules are still uncertain, as some museums were just opening exhibits when they had to close. On top of that, she said, art museums in particular must consider how curators would travel, how to lend and retrieve art and whether they need to close some spaces to manage social distancing.

Individual wearing head-to-toe protective white suit with gloves and booties and backpack, holding a spray nozzle while walking through the museum.

Sanitizing procedures at the Michigan Science Center, which reopened July 10. Photo courtesy Michigan Science Center

To help, the AAM is providing members procedures that include Centers for Disease Control guidelines and staff training—particularly given the politicization of mask wearing.

For performance-driven organizations like The Ark and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, reopening comes down to seating economics.

Following CDC guidelines of six feet of space between each person means The Ark could only accommodate 40 people in its 400-seat venue. The NJSO, for its part, performs at six venues, some of which have upward of 3,000 seats. Social distancing would mean filling only 10% of the halls, for about 300 people.

Both The Ark’s James and NJSO’s van Aalst question the efficacy of reopening under those guidelines.

“The business model of that makes it difficult for The Ark to reopen,” James said. The nonprofit is reviewing options, such as allowing a limited number of patrons in the building and live-streaming the concerts for those who want to buy tickets and view the show online.

However, reopening may not happen this year, James said, because The Ark is part of Michigan’s last phase of reopening. “And that could be when there’s a cure or a vaccine,” she said.

The NJSO’s van Aalst isn’t sure the orchestra will return to the stage this year or even next winter.

“Because of the work we’re doing, our audiences skew older,” he said. “So, they are in the high-risk categories. Until there’s wide availability of a vaccine, people may not feel comfortable coming into the halls.”

Reopening considerations also include how to line people up outside, how to avoid clusters during intermissions and after performances, and how to keep staff and musicians safe.

“The science isn’t clear,” said Rosen of the League of American Orchestras. “We get contradictory signals from different agencies, which can be kind of daunting.”

When the NJSO does reopen, it might begin with fewer musicians on stage. “The Houston Symphony is partnering with Rice [University] on a study about COVID and musical instruments—like wind instruments, which produce more droplets,” van Aalst said. “We need to know the results. We don’t want to put our musicians at risk.”

The Michigan Science Center, which offers high-touch experiences, is working to go beyond CDC guidelines to ensure exhibits are safe. MiSci hired NSF International, an Ann Arbor-based sanitation company, with support from Midtown Detroit Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the region that includes Detroit’s cultural center.

Before COVID, Midtown Detroit was working with the Detroit Institute of Arts, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit Historical Museum, Scarab Club and others on ways to make the community more collaborative.

“It’s interesting that something like COVID comes along and tests those relationships,” said Annemarie Borucki, director of arts and culture for Midtown Detroit. “Once COVID came, we knew we needed to become even tighter.”

After MiSci introduced Midtown Detroit to NSF, the group created a reopening program and toolkit for cultural center institutions.

“It’s a monumental task; it’s expensive, and there are different levels of complexity,” Borucki said. “At the same time, you’re losing revenue like crazy by not being open.”

This story was originally published by the Ford Motor Company Fund.

Schools strive to overcome digital dilemma

food distribution

Tensions abound in much of the world as medical professionals struggle to contain the novel coronavirus, governments look to get the economy back on track and families contemplate how they will navigate the “new normal.”

For the millions of educators responsible for nurturing new generations of Americans, the past few months have whipped up a whirlwind of decisions, from creating crash courses in distance learning to finding new ways to feed students and tend to their mental health. Along the way, this period has painfully exposed the digital divide that deprives young people in underserved communities of the opportunities to learn in the modern age.

Moreover, just as this coronavirus, called COVID-19, continues to slash corporate revenues and wreck the bottom lines of workers, the pandemic is also threatening academic budgets and posing a big question mark for the future: Will students be able to return to classrooms this fall?

Coronavirus-related school closures have disrupted more than 1.5 billion students and 63 million teachers worldwide, according to UNESCO’s Teacher Task Force. In the United States, 118,251 out of 123,952 schools in 48 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories closed their doors and moved to distance learning, affecting nearly 58 million K-12 students, according to MCH Strategic Data.

Kimberly M. Carter headshot

Kimberly M. Carter Superintendent, Battle Creek Public Schools

“It’s a high-stress time right now because you have to make sure all children learn,” said Kimberly Carter, superintendent of Battle Creek Public Schools in Michigan.

“How do we mitigate the impact of poverty, the impact of race, the impact of trauma and a host of other issues, to ensure students have equitable opportunities to learn? Failure is not an option. These are children’s lives we’re talking about.”

The digital dilemma

While some school districts were well-positioned to launch into distance-only learning, many—particularly those in rural or impoverished communities—were not.

David James, superintendent of the Akron Public Schools in Ohio, thought shifting to distance learning would be more of a struggle. Long before the coronavirus, the school district dubbed itself APS Connected Learning.

“We gave teachers a week to flip to Google Classroom assignments,” James said. “The one thing we had going for us is that several years ago, we went one-to-one with technology and provided all our students with Chromebooks they could use daily.”

Before the shutdown, Akron’s elementary schoolchildren didn’t take the laptops home. However, all 21,000 students were able to do so when the district closed schools. Although far from perfect, James is relatively pleased with the results.

“We’ve had about 44 percent of students really engaging, another 40 percent engaging on and off and another 15 percent struggling with internet access,” he said. For those students, Akron leased mobile hotspots to provide ad hoc wireless connectivity.

Yet, each school district’s experience has been different.

In Battle Creek, “We had to literally scramble, really try to figure out how to disrupt the digital divide that is present in our school district,” Carter said. “The majority of our population are considered economically disadvantaged. They need access to basics—such as food, clothing and shelter—let alone digital access.”

Battle Creek distributed each of its Chromebooks, then used its small surplus of funds to procure additional devices.

Student and teacher work on math problems

Detroit Children’s Center student working with a teacher on homework March 14. This individual attention is more difficult to come by with distance learning, now. Photo by Charlotte Smith

“We have families that range from no device in the home to one device in the home but multiple children,” Carter said.

The school system distributed 1,800 devices to those who could pick them up. However, because access to transportation is a problem, the district worked with Communities in Schools—a national organization that helps schools empower at-risk students—to distribute more. The goal was to ensure each of the 2,500 households in the Battle Creek district had one device.

“But how do you expect someone with four children to keep their kids connected and engaged?” Carter asked. “We have to increase the number of devices. We need to be prepared to go one-to-one. No child should be missing out on the opportunity to have a virtual learning experience.”

Alycia Meriweather headshot

Alycia Meriweather Deputy Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

However, giving students devices without connecting them to the internet doesn’t solve the problem, said Alycia Meriweather, deputy superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD).

Although Battle Creek has purchased and distributed 300 mobile hotspots, Carter said, about 1,000 families still lack internet access.

In Detroit, Meriweather said 85% to 90% percent of public school students lack “educationally adequate devices or internet at home,” and 78 percent of the slightly more than 600,000 Detroit residents access the internet through their phones.

“A cellphone is not the ideal educational device,” Meriweather said.

Before the pandemic, the Detroit district was working to get one-to-one technology use for students during their school day. Administrators, teachers and many K-8 students had one-to-one access to devices. The next phase was providing that same access to high school students.

Then DPSCD received $23 million from Connected Futures, a coalition of businesses and philanthropic organizations. The money allowed the district to get devices into the hands of each of its 51,000 students before the end of the school year and provide six months of internet access in each home (34,000 of them) along with technical support.

While Detroit and Battle Creek work to shore up technology, each district also provides paper-pencil learning packets to many students.

Nevertheless, students there aren’t nearly as engaged as those in Akron, which already had one-to-one technology access.

“I have been honest with our staff about just maintaining levels of achievement,” Carter said. “We are trying to disrupt COVID-caused learning loss.”

In Detroit, Meriweather said homework hotlines are still operating, and teachers are holding online classes. Students who lack a computer or internet access and can’t join by video can still join by phone audio.

Still, educators said, it’s not enough.

The mental health dilemma

Education isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic. Socialization is an essential part of learning as well, said Dan Greenberg, a high school English teacher at Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio.

Dan Greenberg headshot

Dan Greenberg Southview High School English teacher

Before schools closed, Greenberg and his wife, Nicki, struggled daily to get one of their daughters up and ready for school. Sometimes, she even begged to be home-schooled. Yet, when he told his daughter school was canceled, she cried.

“That’s how big a deal this is,” Greenberg said. “Socialization is important for the kids. If we don’t end up reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ next year, I’ll be sad because I like teaching it. But it’ll be OK. The most important thing is dealing with the trauma affecting kids.”

Helping children maintain their current levels of achievement means providing support not only for their academics but also for their mental health during traumatic periods such as the pandemic, Carter said.

“School buildings—especially for students in high-poverty, high-trauma areas—are sanctuaries,” Meriweather said. “We provide academics, but there’s this other element of a safe space where someone is greeting you, asking about you, encouraging you and pushing you to move along in your studies.”

As a school district that promotes a culture of safety, empowerment and healing, Battle Creek redeployed substitute teachers, ancillary staff and others to conduct welfare checks on students—call to ask how they’re doing, what they need and then connect them with resources to meet their basic needs.

“We already had in place some structures that helped us respond in a rapid way to the COVID crisis,” Carter said. To serve its students, the district works with medical and mental health providers, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Battle Creek Police Department, among others.

Similarly, Detroit set up a mental health hotline and, like many other school districts around the country, has teachers check on each student.

Akron Superintendent James said the student board has been a valuable resource in letting his district know what students need, and community partners have helped provide counseling resources.

“They can’t go to the park, they can’t go to the mall,” he said. “It’s very difficult for kids to deal with.”

Students aren’t the only ones struggling, however.

Greenberg, who is also president of the Sylvania Education Association, said it’s a stressful time for teachers as well. Among other issues, he said, they are concerned about their families as well as their students. They’ve lost the order and structure they thrive on. And they worry about being compliant with federal laws governing the education of special-needs students.

Dan Greenberg talks with two male and two female students at a table in a classroom

Dan Greenberg, an English teacher at Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio, interacting with students before school buildings closed due to COVID-19. Photo provided by Dan Greenberg

“You turn your head this way or that way, and there is a litany of issues they’re dealing with,” said Greenberg, struggling to hold back tears. “I’ve had colleagues ask for a leave of absence even though they don’t have to physically show up at school. I take their stress to heart.”

Teachers nationwide are coping by engaging with colleagues through virtual meetings and talks with school counselors. Greenberg—who receives calls, texts and emails from distressed teachers all day and night—has been going to see a counselor twice weekly.

“As president of the teacher association, I feel personally responsible for all of the teachers,” he said. “Their problems and concerns are my problems and concerns. It really is hard to just cut it off and decompress.”

The hunger dilemma

In a normal school year, the National School Lunch Program operates in about 100,000 pre-K-12 schools, providing low-cost or free lunches to nearly 30 million children at school daily. Then, in mid-March, schools across the country began closing, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture began allowing program flexibility.

“Our food services staff has been on the front lines of this, working feverishly,” Carter said. Since March 13, the Battle Creek district has distributed more than 200,000 meals. Students pick up two days of breakfast and lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays and three days of meals on Fridays, or Communities In Schools delivers to those without transportation.

Detroit, which has a similar grab-and-go plan, created 19 sites for meal pickup, Meriweather said. The district is also connecting families in need with resources such as food banks. In Akron, James said bus drivers, school security staff and community partners have helped distribute 10,000 to 14,000 meals daily to children in need.

The reopening dilemma

Although school administrators across the U.S. can’t act until they receive gubernatorial and CDC guidance for opening classrooms this fall, they are heavily engaged in planning.

“First and foremost is answering this guiding question,” Greenberg said: “What can we do to best serve our students and their families?”

School systems are developing a plan A, B, C, D and E. But more questions continue to arise.

“We know no one will be happy with what we do,” Greenberg said. “We’re trying to do it with good conscience, keeping in mind the science, the social distancing aspect.”

In urban schools, James said, class size is an issue. “If we’re going to have a smaller class size to be safe, that means no more than 10 kids in a classroom,” he said. “It would be impossible for us to serve all the kids in our buildings.”

Making that work could mean different schedules for kids. For instance, some students may attend school Mondays and Wednesdays, while others attend Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or, perhaps one group of students attends on Monday, Wednesday and Friday one week and Tuesday and Thursday the next week.

Graph showing percentage of students at $10000 income increasing at increments

Pew Research Center

Meriweather hopes schools in Detroit can return to face-to-face learning but said schools envision a variety of scenarios, including modified face-to-face with social distancing or a hybrid of face-to-face and online learning—which Detroit would be able to do because of Connected Futures.

Another plan might be using all of a district’s school buildings for elementary students and having high school students continue distance learning, Carter said.

“And do we need to extend the school day, since we’re going to be in recovery mode when we return in the fall?” she said.

Also, James asked, how do you get kids who don’t have transportation to the schools?

“There are typically more than 40 students on a bus,” he said. “To socially distance, we could only have 10 to 15 kids on a bus. My thinking is that we start completely virtual, then slowly bring students back, maybe starting with kindergarten or special-needs students.”

Teachers, secretaries, bus drivers and food service workers have been expressing their concerns, James said.

“What do we do about PPE (personal protective equipment) when health care workers need it first?” he said. “The same question goes with food. How does returning to school impact how we feed our kids? These are complex issues, and all of them are interconnected.”

The budget dilemma

Underscoring these issues are unstable state economies. Each reopening plan requires money. But with revenue down in most states, schools face significant budget cuts.

Battle Creek’s Carter fears the budget consequences of buying the technology necessary to effectively teach remotely.

“We did a lot of hard work to pull ourselves out of a deficit and have been fiscally responsible over the last couple of years,” she said. Now, the district is using its fund balance to purchase equipment it didn’t expect to buy.

DPSCD expects it will need to add about $3 million of its own funds to meet the Connected Futures goal of providing each student a device and internet access by the end of this school year, Meriweather said.

“Cuts will hurt high-poverty districts even more because the needs are so much greater. Different students have different needs,” Meriweather said. “That’s the difference between equity and equality. Social services, teaching non-English speakers, special needs—those cost more money.

“There’s only a certain amount you can cut before you are really compromising the quality of service you are providing to students.”

(This story was originally published by the Ford Motor Company Fund.)

Renowned classical pianist Andre Watts on discovering himself through music

Andre Watts, classical pianist2020 Classical Roots Honoree 

André Watts was just 10 years old when he played his first concert with The Philadelphia Orchestra. He realized then that he wanted to make being a pianist into a career.

In 1963, Philadelphia and New York-based instructor Genia Robinor helped bring Watts’s vision to fruition. Robinor astounded a then-16-year-old Watts by arranging for him to audition for a televised Young People’s Concert with Leonard Bernstein, the renowned composer, conductor, and pianist. Watts won a spot.

“The broadcast was especially successful for me because Bernstein made this huge proclamation — on national television — that he, himself, was going to take the pleasure of conducting me in the Liszt Concerto [#1 in E-flat],” remembers Watts, “while the three other performers would share a Mozart Concerto conducted by his assistants. This was, actually, the beginning of my professional career.”

A few weeks later, celebrated pianist Glenn Gould canceled his appearance with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. But someone suggested that Watts fill in. “Bernstein immediately loved the idea, and I was called on a Tuesday morning to play that same week,” Watts says.

Though he was nervous, he trusted that all he needed to do was continue to play as well as Bernstein believed he could: “The truth is that I didn’t truly realize the externals of the situation; I wanted to please my mother and my teacher! I also wanted Bernstein and the orchestra members to think I was really good, and that the performance on the Young People’s broadcast hadn’t been a fluke. I wanted them to know I was capable of playing well in the real concert world.”

Since then, Watts has become a superstar; he has performed globally, making appearances with virtually every major symphony and in recital at top venues and festivals.

Watts made his DSO debut with conductor Sixten Ehrling in 1969. In 1972, he became the youngest person to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Yale University. In 1976, he performed the first full-length recital aired on national television. And in 2011, he earned the National Medal of Arts.

Despite the good fortune he had early in his career, life wasn’t simple for Watts. Being biracial meant that he encountered prejudice from both whites and blacks. Still, his mother never allowed him to use bigotry as an excuse for not working toward his goals, and there were enough people who seemed to welcome the idea of a young man of color succeeding in the classical music arena that his obstacles were not insurmountable.

Watts credits the nurturing and instruction of his first manager, Bill Judd, and his last official teacher, Leon Fleisher, for their help; as well as Bernstein, his mother, and others. At the same time, he praises the many incredible musicians whose recordings he heard for their impact.

Grateful and flattered by his Classical Roots honor, Watts said the most significant aspect of the recognition is that it reminds him to be “a good example of always striving.”

“African-American students wanting to enter the classical music world still have the racial component to contend with,” he says. But he posits that the best advice he has transcends race, gender, and profession:

“I would say that searching for and discovering the real you is vital. The process of living and growing as a human being while trying to have compassion for all other human beings will help in making you the best musician or any career you choose — you can be.”

(This story was originally published by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.)

Music Matters: Here’s Why

Kurton Harrison

By Leslie D. Green 

The power to change lives

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Kurton Harrison III was a quiet child, who met most of his developmental milestones. Yet, he didn’t make eye contact and he didn’t talk. He also was sensitive to loud noises and certain sensations. Warm water caused him burning pain.

After years of taking her son to fruitless doctors’ appointments, LaJuana Harrison finally received the diagnosis. Five-year-old Kurton had Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental condition that affects behavior and communication. The doctor reported Kurton would doubtless end up in a group home.

Kurton Harrison III in the JEDI Jazz Recording Studio

Kurton Harrison III, of the Jazz Educators of Detroit Jazz Ensemble, in the recording studio.Photo by Jeff Dunn

Despite the negative prognosis, LaJuana Harrison, her husband and her mother dedicated much of the next year to painstakingly teach Kurton to speak. And although they succeeded in getting him to speak, Ms. Harrison said music is what taught her son to live.

MSU Community Music School-Detroit

Shortly after asking for a trumpet at age 7, Kurton began attending the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, where other children bullied him. When he was 12, he began attending the Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp at the MSU Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-D), an independent affiliate of Michigan State University that offers music classes and therapy.

Kurton Harrison’s hard work, his family’s perseverance and the support they received through the network of music are paying off. Harrison graduated from the Detroit School of the Arts in June and will attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music this fall on a full scholarship.

Music on the brain

Music’s impact on Kurton Harrison aligns with years of research by scientific researchers and academic experts who have found that music increases productivity, advances learning, boosts self-esteem, and helps heal bodies and minds. These are some of the reasons militaries use music to improve coordination, surgeons use it to heighten concentration, physicians use it to rehabilitate patients and parents use it to calm infants.

Neurologist Alexander Pantelyat, who studies the effects of music on the body, is the founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pantelyat explained that music — whether listened to, played or sung — activates more parts of the brain than any other physical activity. As a result, music can improve social behavior, such as eye contact, and social interaction, notably between children with autism and their parents.

Lauren Koff

Lauren Koff (left) and Cristina Rodriquez, co-founders of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc.

“People on an autism spectrum might be hypersensitive to lighting, touch and sounds,” Cristina Rodriguez, president and co-founder of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc. said. “Music is probably one of those things that doesn’t feel so intense and can bring comfort.”

Kurton Harrison agreed. “Music never hurts, even when it makes you emotional,” he said. “It can be a cure, any time, any place.”

Harrison, who also participated in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth programs, said that music also teaches diligence. “My mindset changed (because of) music,” he said. “I was in an environment where I didn’t want to fail. You have to study and you have to practice. Music is hard work.”

Banding together

Learning to sing or play an instrument in a classroom setting can also lift children, emotionally and economically, out of poverty, researchers have found.

In 2017, the Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation in collaboration with the Ford Motor Company Fund held a Latin GRAMMY in the Schools program at Miami Senior High School as part of their initiative to give music students an opportunity to learn about the music industry.

Since 2014, the partnership has donated more than $360,000 in musical instruments to more than 6,000 students in U.S. cities, such as Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York and in Argentina, Mexico City and the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Miami Senior High band students performed as part of the 2017 event. The opportunity was “a big shot in the arm” for the teens, said band director Michele Fernández Denlinger. She said the kids felt like professionals playing a Latin jazz salsa under stage the lights.

Even more impactful, however, were the $20,000 in new instruments the school received as part of the event, she said.

“Our instruments had been taped and tied together,” Denlinger said. “But there are only certain things you can do with an inferior instrument.”

The data show more than 80 percent of students at Miami Senior High School live in disadvantaged communities. However, Denlinger said they can escape that through music, especially if they have the right instruments.

“Having a good instrument creates opportunities for someone who is inspired to play music,” she said.

Denlinger recalled one student who lived in the middle of Miami’s Little Havana community. “They had absolutely nothing,” Denlinger said, “But, he got full ride to play tuba at Yale.”

A sense of belonging accompanies being in a band or a choir and that feeling contributes to a child’s emotional growth and ability to succeed in every facet of life, Denlinger said.

“Imagine a teenager with all these self-esteem issues and home life issues who finds a place where they are part of something, a place where they are getting cheers, they are doing solos, and getting support,” Denlinger said. “Once you get them to feel like they are a vital part of something, like a band, it inspires them. Kids with social anxiety come out of their shells. Kids who didn’t have anyone to talk to at home find a family.”

That bond helped Denlinger’s family heal after the death of her son in 2002.

“Getting back into band (in 2006) helped me get back to me because being able to play music is intoxicating in a good way,” Denlinger said. “Music healed my whole family.”

Violinist Anita Dumar found kinship with the Sphinx Organization, where she volunteers while attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Sphinx Organization is a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps find, develop and promote young classical string players of Black and Latinix heritage. Working to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in classical music, the Sphinx Organization has received support from organizations that include the Ford Fund.

“Sphinx provides a community of people who look like you and are talking about issues in your field,” Dumar said.

The Sphinx society also gave Dumar a goal.

“As a young person, I saw what was going on in the world and thought, ‘I’m just sitting in my room practicing, what good am I doing?'” Dumar said. “But Sphinx shows that what I do affects what happens with underrepresented musicians. Music gave me a purpose that fit me. Losing music would be like losing a part of myself.”

Notes of hope

Richard White was literally lost.

“Every day was about finding food and trying to find my mom,” White said.

Dr. Richard White with tuba at dusk from documentary film, R.A.W.

Dr. Richard Antoine White during production of the documentary film, R.A.W. Photo by John Waire

Born prematurely to a mom who suffered from alcoholism, White started his life homeless on the streets of Baltimore.

During a snow storm one night, a 4-year-old White crawled into an entryway to stay warm. Miraculously, a stranger found him and contacted his mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain. They took White in; but, he wouldn’t speak to the McClains beyond saying the basics like, “Thank you, yes, no, please, hello and goodbye.”

Still, the McClains were supportive. They gave White a trumpet when he was in fourth grade and then threatened to take it away if he didn’t improve his grades.

“I never got a failing grade again,” White said. “The trumpet gave me a voice, it belonged to me.”

Musicians process music as another language, scientists have discovered. In addition, experts have found that knowing multiple languages makes learning subsequent languages easier. The ties between music and language help explain how Kurton Harrison can play multiple instruments and why it was easy for Richard White to not only play the trumpet, but to switch to the sousaphone, an instrument in the tuba family.

Music opened doors for Richard White. When he showed up at the Baltimore School of the Arts and requested an audition – one day after auditions ended – administrators saw the 15-year-old’s passion and gave him a chance anyway.

One hard-fought opportunity turned into another. Eventually, White earned a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Today, White is an associate Marching Band director at the University of New Mexico. He also is principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and founding member and principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Music became the thing that made the impossible possible,” White said. “I went from surviving to living. Without it, I would have stayed lost.”

Music Helps Us Learn by

    • creating a desired atmosphere
    • building a sense of anticipation
    • energizing learning activities
    • changing brain wave states
    • focusing concentration
    • increasing attention
    • improving memory
    • facilitating a multisensory learning experience
    • releasing tension
    • enhancing imagination
    • aligning groups
    • developing rapport
    • providing inspiration and motivation
    • adding an element of fun

Source: LifeSounds Educational Services

This story was originally published on The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

Read more about Kurton Harrison and Richard White.

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