BY PERI STONE-PALMQUIST
This month is my 10-year anniversary working at Student Advocacy Center and I can’t help but be nostalgic as I reflect back.
I was not looking for a new job when approached to apply at SAC. I was happy working part-time at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, managing their Education Project for Homeless Youth. I was a mom of 2, ages 5 and 3. I was content, fulfilled.
But running SAC? That sounded like a dream job. How could I not apply?
I had met SAC’s founding executive director, Ruth Zweifler, more than 10 years earlier as a newspaper reporter and was immediately hooked on the mission, as she introduced me to young people who had been expelled from school. I was outraged at how our schools were turning their backs at young people when they needed support the most. SAC’s students inspired me to go back to school, initially with the idea of being a better reporter. But soon I realized I wanted to stop covering the news and start making it. I wanted to help create change so that every student could get the education they deserved.
So when the call came to apply to SAC’s Executive Director position, how could I say no?
Still, I was incredibly nervous at my interview before the entire board of directors. So many eyes on me, asking probing questions. But Dr. James Hawkins (retired Ypsilanti Community Schools superintendent) made a point to share his experience working with me and the passion he saw when we collaborated. I breathed a little, but left the interview entirely unsure of what laid ahead.
I suppose I never could have imagined the journey that the next 10 years would bring. I often describe that first year as being thrown into the deep end of a pool and forgetting how to swim.
When I started, we had only a handful of staff and the most seasoned — the indomitable Margaret Harner — was retiring. We had serious financial challenges and I can remember sobbing in my office, convinced we’d have to shut down the very nonprofit that I loved, just months after starting.
But instead, we reached out to you, the community. We started telling our story. We started a more rigorous evaluation process. We wrote a lot of grants. We gave our young people and parents a bigger platform to share their stories through our annual storytelling event (this year on Friday, May 13). And people like you responded!
When I started, our budget was under $300,000. And today, it’s closer to $1.5 million — thanks to supporters like you. That expanded support means we can work with more students — and provide deeper, more intensive support.
With help from United Way of Washtenaw in 2012, we launched Check and Connect, our evidence-based academic mentoring program, growing it from nothing to more than 100 students in 3 school districts (Ypsilanti, Lincoln and Detroit). Things really came full circle when we recently hired one of our former Check and Connect youth as a youth organizer. And recently, Program Manager Tina Jurries helped our hardworking mentors implement the use of an evidence-based evaluation tool that really shows our impact on student’s social emotional functioning. Things have come a long way.
Shortly after launching Check and Connect, we started our Detroit office with just one advocate (Danielle Flint). We now have 3 full-time advocates, a full-time mentor and a youth organizer. Our support in Wayne County went from around 20 students every year to 172.
Our Helpline has grown from supporting about 70 students to more than 500. Not only have the numbers increased, but the quality of the responses has continued to improve. The team we have (Amy Wilhelm, Larry Cantlin) is just outstanding, even offering virtual advocacy at times and establishing ways to document their impact. So impressive!
We have sustained our advocacy with court-involved youth, started by Margaret Harner in the 1990s. We are proud to have been asked by Michigan Alliance for Families to collaborate this year on a project to improve graduation rates for students involved in the foster care system who also have disabilities.
We have also sustained and built on that systems-level advocacy Ruth has always been known for. One of my favorite moments was joining with young people from across southeast Michigan to walk from Detroit to Lansing and cheering as they demanded change on the capitol steps. Another time, our youth held a demonstration on the Capitol Lawn to show lawmakers the journey of an expelled student. The activity was called “Game of Life” and State Sen. Jeff Irwin dressed up in an orange jumpsuit and sat in a makeshift jail cell to help illustrate the school-to-prison pipeline.
Eventually, our advocacy made a difference and zero tolerance was overturned in Michigan in 2017. What a day of celebration (even though we have a lot of work left to do!).
Now, we have a youth organizer and community organizer who support our work with the statewide Michigan Education Justice Coalition, as we work to build healthy and healing schools in a grassroots way. We just had an amazing training for folks around the state who want to advocate in their districts for more responsive school discipline policies.
There is so much more, of course. I am so grateful for the amazing staff along the way — many of whom I mentioned already. Kathleen Kosobud was our first hire as an education advocate and she went on quite a journey with me before retiring. Julia Gilbert, our accountant, joined soon after. Anell Eccleston was one of our first mentors, then one of the first members of our leadership team and recently came back as our first Director of Care & Sustainability. Shakel Raiford stepped up in a leadership role in an emergency and has never skipped a beat. We have a truly amazing, passionate team — too many names to mention here.
Our board has been stellar, devoting so much time to supporting me personally and helping guide the organization. They are always encouraging and asking just the right questions.
I think of so many of you who have supported us most of the 10 years I have been at SAC. Many of you don’t just write a check – but you have taken time to encourage me and the team. You have walked alongside us, advocating for change, celebrating our wins, showing kindness to our families in big and small ways. You have made a difference.
Most importantly, I remember individual students and the profound impact they have had on me. Many were able to overcome expulsions or traumatic discipline hearings and have gone on to college and jobs. I recently was invited to a baby shower for a former student — what a joy and privilege.
As I celebrate this milestone of 10 years, my heart is full. I am incredibly grateful and proud. Thank you for being part of my journey.