TC Chamber's Doug Luciani knows the value of Michigan's kids

Doug Luciani, the president and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, and 10-year resident of Traverse City, cares about kids as much as he cares about the business climate. And, he sees the two of them strongly connected.

Luciani recently took on the role of co-chair (with fellow co-chair Debbie Dingell) of the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, a group of business leaders from across the state that are calling on business people and legislators to ramp up their support of early childhood development programs and initiatives.

Using the council’s Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan as a guide, he believes that business leaders and entrepreneurs need to support early childhood education and parenting programs in an effort to help Michigan’s commerce prosper. The plan calls for publicly funded preschool for all eligible four-year-olds and more services to support the healthy growth of zero to three-year-olds.

We talked to Doug Luciani about the plan and about his dreams for Michigan kids.

NWSW: What do you think the most significant points are for the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan?

Doug Luciani: There are two significant things that the plan that the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan has put together and one is that there should be access to quality public preschool for all Michigan kids who are four years and older. It’s not that all kids four years and older HAVE to go. That’s still a parent’s decision, but it should be available for all kids, and it’s not. That’s a problem for Michigan.

If we left it there, it wouldn’t be satisfactory. The plan also says we need to address what happens to children zero to three years old. We need to look at evidence-based programs that demonstrate that they can help parents or primary caregivers of these children provide quality childcare for them in their in formative years. That first 1,000 days of a child’s life is when their brain develops the absolute most.  

NWSW: What do you believe are the keys to success for the council to make a real impact?

DL: There are a couple of things. One is a policy issue that we need to have a political mandate that is funded that provides for consistent, quality early childhood development that address several aspects of child development. It’s not all education; it’s access to a medical home and dental care … and a number of factors that go into child development. We do need policy that funds those.

The outcome that we need to be looking for--and that’s what’s really missing; there are a lot of states that have programs, but they’re not tied to outcomes-- the outcome should be that every child who arrives at kindergarten is prepared to learn.

So if we really believed in this, and we do, ultimately, we would start to bet against the need for more prison space, the need for more remediation, the social consequences of not investing in children, like higher dropout rates, teenage pregnancy, incarceration, more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, less likely to go to college, lower lifetime earnings, and other things that go with kids who don’t have access to that early childhood development.

NWSW: What significance, if any, does it mean for northern Michigan to have a northern Michigan businessperson leading in a statewide initiative of this magnitude?

DL: What it does for the issue--by having Debbie Dingell, who is obviously associated with southeast Michigan, and someone from the business community in northern Michigan, being myself – is it shows that this isn’t a Detroit issue. This is a statewide issue.

This isn’t a race issue, this is an everybody issue for Michigan. And it’s not a class issue. It affects people at all income levels. I think it helps the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan to have the geographic diversity in terms of its leadership and the composition of the members of the council so it doesn’t get pigeonholed as an urban issue. The greatest disparity in terms of children is in northern Michigan. It’s not in Detroit.

NWSW: How will the leadership council use the plan to make real change happen? Who do you want to talk to most – business people, policy makers, parents?

DL: Our space is the business space. Service providers, like Head Start, Great Start, GSRP [Great Start Readiness Program]--there are dozens of programs in the state – and teachers have done a great job of being advocates for kids for years. And there are some great daycare providers in every community. Hospitals have been talking about this for a long time. So we don’t really need to get to them.

Policymakers know about this issue, but they haven’t connected it to the economic outcomes of the state yet – the return on investment of early childhood is substantial: up to $17 for each dollar that is invested. So we really need to make this a business issue. We have more than 200 business leaders who have signed on in support of this plan [Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan] and that number is growing every day.

And the connectivity, when business adds its voice to all those other voices, we think it can give it the pop that it needs to really see a public mandate, to see public-private investments in childcare centers, daycare centers.

When you’re talking about things that affect kids, there is always loud applause and great agreement. It’s when it comes time to make the difficult choices on spending, and where that next scarce dollar goes, that’s when we tend to lose them.

NWSW: What do you feel is the state’s biggest challenge when it comes to preparing our youngest citizens to succeed in school and in life?

DL: It’s such a big question. There are lots of challenges. The greatest challenge is that many parents are unprepared to fulfill their role as that quality provider of childcare. They are the first and best provider of care for their child. And many of them are unprepared.

And the other thing is this attitude of “I didn’t have that when I grew up, and I turned out okay.” It’s a generational attitude that kids are coddled these days. That they don’t need a nanny state. And “it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for them.” The world has changed since we were children, and it doesn’t make it right that we didn’t have it when we were children. But we’re competing in a whole different economic arena now. And, frankly, our kids are not prepared for it.

NWSW: What do you feel every child in Michigan deserves?

DL: There are so many things that every child in Michigan deserves. Starting from conception, every child deserves a medical home. They deserve to be getting the proper nutrition while they’re still in the womb and then afterwards. They deserve to be held and touched and loved by their parents, or their parent, or whoever is raising them. They deserve to be talked to and read to and made aware of the things that are around them from the moment that they come into this world, because they’re learning and taking all of that in. They deserve to live in a low stress environment: to not be shaken or otherwise abused. And they deserve to grow up in system where they have access to quality childcare and quality preschool just in case they’re not getting it from somewhere else.

It’s more than just loving them. All parents love their children; they just don’t know the right things to do sometimes.

NWSW: When you think about how the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan will impact Traverse City kids, what first comes to mind?

DL: We actually did a study in Traverse City; what would it mean to Traverse City if we did this? We found that we would see a $4 return for every dollar invested if we addressed all of the five areas [Family Support, Pediatric & Family Health, Social & Emotional Health, Parenting Leadership, Child Care & Early Learning] that the Early Childhood Investment Corporation identifies in terms of critical needs for early childhood development. Some areas more, some areas not as much, but in every area there would be a positive return on investment.

So we know that if these things happen in the Traverse City area, that we’ll see a positive impact on our region’s economy. We’ll see less money exported from the region. We’ll see more money going to in-classroom activities versus remediation of behaviors or helping kids catch up to the rest of the class.

We know that in the Traverse City region, more than half of the children tested at kindergarten roundup – using the Boehm Test, which measures simple concepts like does the child know the difference between near and far, many and few, not whether they can read or do brain surgery--were not prepared to be in kindergarten.

So we would see a greater return on investment. What would it look like here? That would not look like us creating a bunch of new programs. That would look like businesses supporting the Great Start Collaborative that exists here…  We think it would look like more talent willing to move to this area and fill critical jobs that are going unfilled right now by younger, smarter people, which is what Michigan needs.

NWSW: What are you most inspired by when it comes to kids and programs for kids?

DL: I’m most inspired by kids who are alert, happy and secure. And you can see them. You can see them walking around the streets of Traverse City with their parents. They’re looking around. They’re asking questions. They’re talking back and forth with their parents. That inspires me.

When it comes to programs, I’m inspired when people are able to back out of their turf war, and really form meaningful collaborations and that are focused on the kids.

Want to join Doug Luciani in his work? Here’s how local businesspeople can help support early childhood development in Michigan:

•    Contact your school district to connect with the Great Start Collaborative; every collaborative around the state is supposed to include employers. Or find local contacts at this website.

•    Contact John Bebow at the Center for Michigan to learn more about the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan and sign on.

•    Look into family friendly policies at your workplace.

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