How would Michigan look if the government prioritized the welfare of children above all else? Matt Gillard is championing that ideal as the recently appointed president and CEO of Michigan's Children
, a statewide, nonpartisan children's advocacy organization fighting for strong public policy to protect vulnerable children and to make Michigan an excellent place to raise kids and be a kid.
Deeply committed to investing in children and families by improving public policy, Gillard has a good chance of success with a career history of building bipartisan support. From 2002 to 2008, Gillard served in the Michigan House of Representatives for the 106th District and continued to do policy work in Lansing after his elected term.
A primary objective of Michigan's Children is to improve equity for children that are particularly vulnerable. The organization focuses specifically on children of color--a significant one-third of the state's child population--and other underserved groups.
"The return on those investments is most great in those areas when there aren't a lot of opportunities provided by society," Gillard says. He lists urban and rural communities as examples.
Michigan's Children addresses early childhood, education, race equity, and budget and tax policy--issues that will be at the forefront of Michiganders' minds throughout the year, from budget season to election season and beyond.
As an example, Michigan's Children will continue to advocate for the expansion of the Healthy Kids Dental program to include Macomb and Kalamazoo counties. Once onboard, only three out of 83 counties in Michigan will not be participating (Wayne, Oakland, and Kent counties).
"Access to quality dental care services can prevent larger health issues from surfacing," Gillard says. This program contributes to the overall health of children who wouldn't normally have access to this specialized kind of care.
With the upcoming 2014 elections, Gillard expects support for investing in children will be declared by candidates across the political spectrum, regardless of party affiliation. However, the key will be for elected candidates to follow through once they're in office: to truly prioritize children in decision-making and create policies that benefit Michigan children, he says.
When asked why all Michiganders--regardless of relationship status, age, and priorities-- should care about improving the welfare of children in their state, Gillard says there is both a moral obligation to protect this vulnerable population, as well as an economic imperative to create a self-sustaining society that benefits everyone.
"Investment in children, especially those most at risk, shows strong returns in our society in general, reducing costs of correction systems," Gillard says. By prioritizing the welfare of children, Michigan's government can provide resources that will allow children to be successful throughout life, in addition to decreasing the burden on the government to care for them in later years. These long-term rewards are crucial for a healthy future for the state.
One of Gillard's goals, in fact, is to help generate nonpartisan dialogue around children's advocacy issues by involving nontraditional groups, like the business community, in children's advocacy.
"The law enforcement community is also engaged," he says. "Investment in childhood programs can lead to reductions in crime."
As he starts a significant new step in his career, Gillard considers his goals and legacy. His dream for the children of Michigan is that their best interests will be the number one priority for the state and federal government. He believes Michigan citizens want the government to think in those terms too; however, the political system is not necessarily set up to be responsive to what the general public thinks.
"What keeps me awake at night is simply knowing that we're not doing enough," Gillard says. "Even though I feel like we're making steps toward making Michigan a better place to grow up and raise children, lots of families are struggling without resources they need to be successful."
This story first ran in our partner publication Michigan Nightlight.