This summer, WHI Communications Committee Member, Gregory Powers, met with Margy Long, Director of Washtenaw Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, to discuss early childhood challenges in Washtenaw County and how Success by 6 is helping meet the needs of our youth and families, plus some of her proudest accomplishments.
Q. What originally inspired your passion for early childhood development?
Long. I worked for a long time in community change—trying to impact systems for the better. I’ve done advocacy and a little bit of political work. But my earlier focus was mostly related to improving life circumstances—primarily for women.
Then I had the opportunity to focus on early childhood. I was excited to work on programs that help all kids have an equal opportunity for success in school. Just like health outcomes, there are racial and income disparities in educational achievement. So working on that is what really inspired me to want to work in this area.
I was struck by what’s been discovered about the early childhood period—how much brain development happens in the first three years of life. It’s a short, crucial time that can have a very negative or very positive impact on a child. So an intervention can be very significant.
Q. How did the Washtenaw Success by Six Great Start Collaborative get started?
Long. The program was created in two parts—at the county and state levels.
Local county leaders came together from the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD), United Way of Washtenaw County, the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF), and our county government. They all agreed that early childhood was a time when we could really have an impact on the future of kids and families. They pooled resources to focus on changing programs to better meet the needs of families—ultimately, to make sure that we’re successfully getting kids ready for school.
Then, the state created the Great Start Collaborative. This program operates with the idea that many different social service programs interact and impact young children, but there might not be enough coordination between them. It also makes sure that parent’s voices are heard, which is so important for our work. So while we look at what quantitative data tells us about community issues, we’re always hearing directly from parents.
Q. What challenges or gaps keep you up at night?
Long. One is the health disparities that we see with pregnant women of color—their morbidity rates as well as infant mortality. In Washtenaw County, black babies are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than white babies. This has reduced a bit after some efforts—but right after some programs scaled back, it quickly rose again.
Even though we have two major health systems in Washtenaw County, a quarter to a third of all women don’t receive adequate prenatal care—which leads to things like preterm birth and low birth weight. And, not surprisingly, there’s a racial and income disparity there as well.
We’ve been talking with women about the reasons they might not receive prenatal care. And discovered that many women of color—particularly black women—don’t feel like they have a relationship with a health care provider. They feel like their questions and concerns aren’t answered. And they also feel like there’s implicit bias related to their race.
So now we’re working with healthcare providers at Michigan Medicine to figure out how we can impact this. And we’re also developing ways to encourage women to have more of a voice.
The other challenge is pandemic-related. During COVID, we were doing a lot of work supporting families who have basic needs. As we’ve heard many times, the pandemic really highlighted— and exacerbated—disparities between families of color and white families.
Families counted on school programs to feed their kids and were getting bagged meals that were more like snack foods. The bus system cut services, which led to more isolation. Some families didn’t have the necessary technology for their kids to be in school. Or they had the technology, but they didn’t have strong enough Wi-Fi to support three kids being online at the same time.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of our work pivoted. We had a database of a couple hundred families. So we contacted those families and asked them, “What do you need?” With a grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, we were able to make sure they had food, diapers, and technology for continuing their child’s education. That’s also one of the pieces where I feel like I’ve been able to make the most difference.
Q. On that subject—what are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Long. Having the opportunity to start the Trusted Advisor Initiative—parents who make sure that their neighbors know about early childhood programs and basic services that could be helpful to them. It’s a similar model to community health workers who serve as a bridge between a community and support systems. The trusted parent advisors are equipped with both the knowledge and community trust to have these important conversations.
It started in 2017 with a state grant—part of the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, focused on improving the quality of child care. There was flexibility to figure out how this would work best in your community. We were surprised by how many parents didn’t know about certain programs or their eligibility. And we knew we wanted to give parents a voice—knowing there were some who were isolated from our systems.
Sometimes, a school will ask us to help them connect to a family whose child maybe isn’t attending school regularly or they simply can’t contact them. And there’s been so many times where our trusted parent advisors have a connection to that person and can help. The initiative has been amazingly successful. And now we’re working on ways to grow and sustain it. We want to do more with the model of community change by an organization called Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI). They provide training that empowers parents to make change in their communities.
Q. We’ve also been hearing about the Boots on the Ground initiative—can you tell us more about it?
Boots on the Ground is an outreach initiative through the Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS). The primary goal is to be in the community. There’s door-to-door canvassing—to talk to families about opportunities for their kids at YCS. It’s all about building relationships with parents.
It’s also a recruiting tool. All of our districts lost students during the pandemic, but those with higher percentages of low income students lost the most. And the schools don’t always know what happened. Are they living somewhere else? Or are they at home and not attending school anymore?
Many of our systems—whether it’s government or health care or education—sort of sit back and say, “OK, we’ll wait for you to come to us.” This is an effort that says, “We’re going to come to you—to talk about what you need and what we can offer.”
The trusted parent advisors are also helping with the canvassing. They started out doing this kind of thing—knocking on doors. So in some ways it’s an extension of that.
Q. Why did you join the Washtenaw Health Initiative, and how has it been helpful?
Long. Several people from the WHI thought that we would be an important voice at the table. Before, it seemed like there weren’t as many voices representing families and youth. So I felt like it was important for this group to hear their voices through our work.
Even though we’re based at an educational institution, early childhood requires a holistic approach. There’s also health, supporting parents, and making sure people are getting basic services. The State Innovation Model (SIM) was really helpful to make that connection with families we were seeing that could really use the support through the program.
I also wanted to make sure that we were working alongside the other social service organizations in our county. The WHI helped us meet organizations that we didn’t necessarily have a connection with before. We’re a very small operation with just two dedicated staff. So I’ve learned a lot from a bigger organization working toward a similar goal. And it’s also working on creating equity like us.
Q. Who or what inspires you to continue working for improved health in our county?
Long. I would say it’s the trusted parent advisors that I work with. They have a very different life experience than I’ve had as a white, middle class, educated woman—who was lucky enough to have access to that education.
They’ve taught me so much about the importance of giving voice to the folks in our community who often don’t have a say in the decision making process.
And also the power of those families and the care that those families give to their kids and really want their kids to be successful. The trusted parent advisors have amazing connections—they’re just really inspiring.