It can be easy to invest money in an attempt to fix problems. But money alone can’t build trust or change.
That work starts with how you treat people.
Fortunately, for the families of Detroit’s northwest neighborhood of Brightmoor, the network of providers and parents working to improve the quality of early childhood education and our partners at the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation have an approach that is still too rare in the world of philanthropy: they see the power of putting people first.
While the financial support has definitely made a big difference to our neighborhood where social needs, of every kind, are visible every day, the story of how we got here is less about money, and more about mutual respect, listening, and people of power being willing to change.
Through one simple choice and action, the Foundation acknowledged that the experiences and contributions of people like us – those caring for and educating children on the frontline in the neighborhoods for decades – are as valuable as those who decide where the money goes.
A valuable partnership
In 2017, after carefully surveying childcare providers and members of the Brightmoor Quality Initiative that we formed ourselves, we created together what we felt was the best way to identify gaps in care and resource needs. The effort was led by a person we chose together, Camarrah Morgan. With her passion and deep knowledge of the challenges we faced in Brightmoor, having Camarrah at our side felt like winning the lottery.
At the end of the co-creation process our network was thrilled when the Foundation agreed to our request to hire Camarrah to continue to work with us. That is, until we heard the title that would go along with her new job – ‘network officer’.
Everything about the word officer felt out of line with the spirit of our collaboration and the close relationship we were working hard to build.
Why words matter
In communities like Brightmoor, we have a lot of officers looking over us: police officers, parole officers, child protection officers, family independence officers. People who work for foundations often have the title officer and they often confuse monitoring their investment with truly working with the people to build opportunity and common good.
We have a great deal of respect for our police officers and other civil servants whose titles include the word. We acknowledge the importance of the critical role they play in ensuring the safety that is essential to building communities that can close achievement and income gaps.
However, the roles are not the same.
As professionals who are working to improve communities, foundations should be finding ways to signal they are about collaborating and sharing knowledge and power.
The officer title sends the wrong signal.
An important choice
We had a choice: sit silent or speak up, possibly at the risk of creating tension with the very organization trying to help improve our work.
Out of respect for the relationship, and the Fisher Foundation’s investment in early childhood improvement goals, we decided to speak up. It was more important to be authentic about what the word officer felt like in our ears and why we hoped Camarrah and the Foundation would consider a different title.
To our surprise, the Fisher Foundation not only considered the possibility; they empowered us to choose the change we wanted to see.
The fact that the invitation and encouragement came from the organization’s Executive Director, Doug Bitonti Stewart, sent the best message of all – foundation leadership was willing to hear our hearts, and they shared our belief that language and listening matter.
We came up with more than 20 different possible names. Then, as a group, we voted on the top three choices with hope we could give the Fisher Foundation a taste of what it had given us: options.
In the end, our list took us right back to the spirit and the original purpose of our Brightmoor Quality Initiative; we’re all in it together working shoulder to shoulder – children, parents, neighbors, providers, coordinators, teachers and funders.
At every level, this work of caring for and improving educational resources for the children of Brightmoor is a partnership. We decided there is no better word for our relationship than partner.
As a result, the Fisher Foundation no longer uses the word officer in their titles. Instead of staff roles known as program and network officers, it now has program partners and network partners. It still uses program associates for those who work for us on program teams – so they can move from associate to partner.
Consider your choice of words
Working together for more than 10 years, we’ve created a lot to be proud of. Four of our early childhood centers ranked highest in Detroit by the state of Michigan are in Brightmoor. The five-star rating through Michigan’s Great Start to Quality program proves what partners, not policing, can accomplish.
What a world of change we could create if more foundations and donors chose to see on-the-ground contributors in neighborhoods like Brightmoor not as beneficiaries or as part of the problem needing to be policed by officers, but instead as what we truly are – partners worthy of being heard.
More foundations should consider changing their titles to better reflect their intentions.
Gwen Shivers is a long time resident of the Brightmoor neighborhood in northwest Detroit, a veteran early childhood education provider, and the owner and operator of Ms. Gwen’s Heaven’s Angels Day Care. And Pam Savoy-Weaver coordinates early childhood community resource grants in Brightmoor through a partnership between the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation and Development Centers, a Detroit based nonprofit providing human and behavioral services.