Relationship-centered Brilliant Detroit asks, How can we do better?The Nonprofit Journal Project

Brilliant Detroit creates kid-success neighborhoods, where families with children ages 0-8 have everything they need to thrive in life. We do that by repurposing houses in the middle of neighborhoods, currently 12, that become community hubs. Here, we host programs and activities focused on education, health and family support for both kids and adults.

Only 15.1 percent of Detroit children are reading at grade level by the third grade, which is unacceptable. By working with over 100 partners, we’ve been able to raise reading levels for children by two grades over one year through deeply personal, relationship-driven efforts. Our work also shows significant improvement in health and wellbeing outcomes for families. 

Many we serve live in poverty, for a variety of reasons. When COVID-19 hit, we heard and saw firsthand everything they were experiencing from food insecurities to learning loss, to social and emotional trauma. In addition to taking our programming online, we regularly checked in with our families by phone and did weekly food distributions in the middle of neighborhoods. We did more, not less, to love on people during this crazy time and to meet them where they're at.

In some cases, virtual programming hasn’t been as good, but in others, it’s been even better. For instance, while keeping relationships at the center, we were able to triple how many kids we provided after-school tutoring to last school year. We were also able to increase how many people we were serving at all of our sites except for one, which is a big deal during this time. 

Our country’s educational system was inequitable before, and it still is. COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink systems, and I’m wondering if we are rethinking enough? As not-for-profits, organizations and people, I take seriously our responsibility to turn this not-so-great thing into an opportunity to look deeply at how systems work, in order to better serve kids and families. For me, specifically on our mission, it’s that zip code no longer predicts whether a person's future is bright or not.

Our communities are healing from both COVID-19 and racial inequities. I think about this all the time in terms of, how do we do that? I think we have a clear role with the families we work with, but it’s hard to heal if wounds are still being reopened. So for us, we’re stepping into, how do we be better? How do we model something different? This is a continuing conversation at our not-for-profit, with increased intensity. I think if you're really an organization, and people who want racial justice, it's not new, and it goes forward. 

We’ve started doing focus groups in the community to ask families about the ways they’re being impacted and what role we might be able to play in response. It’s difficult to be in the midst of all the pain, because there's a lot of it. But we definitely are all in, and will continue to be, even if it's not a topic of the moment. We've discussed things from who's leading courses, to what books get chosen, to how to help parents talk to their children about all that's going on.

With our staff, who are Detroiters that have experienced the same stress as those we serve, we've instituted healing circles. We're all walking around with collective trauma and grief, and haven't really had the ability to process it. So one day you're lifted and another day you lift up, that's what we've got to do.

How to be safe and serve our mission, both inside and outside of our organization, is still our greatest challenge. This will be something that continues to call me to lead. It's hard, but I think it’s about remaining stable myself, keeping a long view rather than a short one, and practicing my values regardless, which is a lot of care and love for people. I feel blessed to be in this work at this time, to do something that matters for people, but it’s something that requires a pretty good constitution.

Vaccines are an incredibly tricky question for me, because there are many different views. Detroit has a really low vaccination rate. We’ve been able to come together this year because of our organization’s safety measures, which we’ve been very diligent on, and they make a difference, but we’re not out of the woods, right?

We’ve done lots of programming outside for the sake of safety and mental health. We’ve continued our tutoring and healthy programming on Zoom, but we’ve had many outdoor reading circles, gardening workshops, park days and celebrations. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of love and excitement families expressed when we finally gathered safely together. I had kids running up to me in every neighborhood saying, “I’ve missed you!”

We've got a lot of work to do, but despite COVID-19, we’re in a growth phase and have a clear vision for the future. Putting kids and families in the center of our work, partnering with neighborhoods and with families, makes all the difference. We know that if we stay on course, with the outcomes we're seeing, we can achieve population-level change in the city of Detroit. That is a holy grail. To be something in my lifetime with that great an impact, Wow, I'm blessed. 

Our goal is to have 24 sites by 2024, and we're on path and looking at national expansion after 2023. We always need more tutors, which anyone can do, for one or two days a week. It’s a one-on-one experience with a child that, I promise, will change their life. We have over 2000 volunteers in our work and we need more! This is about creating a system of neighbor-to-neighbor regardless of zip code, and we can not do enough.

Cindy Eggleton is the co-founder & CEO of Brilliant Detroit. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.

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