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Washtenaw United: Growing Towards Educational Equity By Building Trust

Colleen Klus
Washtenaw Intermediate School District

When you have to worry about food, housing, and transportation, education can fall away on the list of priorities. Add in a healthy mistrust of a system known for systemic and institutionalized racism, and the barriers to success only grow. Knocking down those walls and building a better future is the goal of a group of "Trusted Parent Advisors." The group of seven women have been knocking on doors for four years and are having a great deal of success. WEMU's David Fair found out more about the program in his conversation with Washtenaw Intermediate School District community engagement specialist and parent liaison Colleen Klus. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area.  And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services.  It is a community voice.  It is 'Washtenaw United.'




Originally from the west side of the state and moved to Ann Arbor 7 years ago, from Chicago. Colleen has been in her current position for 4 years. She has a Master of Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University. 


Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD)

WISD Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative


UWWC has invested nearly $20,000 in the Trusted Advisors program through FY19 Opportunity Fund and the FY20 Power of the Purse Fund. Funding community mobilization and grassroots advocacy efforts is one strategy we employ to move our mission forward. The work of Trusted Advisors does just that.

Trusted Advisors builds the leadership skills of moms with low incomes and equips them with the skills to connect other families with low incomes to high-quality early education programs and resources. Trusted Advisors recognizes the power that relationships and mutual experiences hold.

Modeled after a program in Chicago called Community Organizing and Family Issues, the Trusted Advisor program, focused within the MacArthur Boulevard area of Ypsilanti, provides training to parents, equipping them to develop trusting relationships with other parents in that community. With this trust, the peers are then able to recommend community resources through their shared experiences. During its launch season, the Trusted Advisors knocked on over 2,800 doors, attended 12 events, and identified 451 families with young children who would benefit from additional services and supports.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're getting ready to start another school year. It comes amid a lot of uncertainty about COVID, but with the knowledge that education is more important than ever. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. It's our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity. Getting a good educational start is not just about students and teachers, it's about families and home life. Our guest this morning is among those working to strengthen those collaborations and relationships. Colleen KIus is a community engagement specialist and parent liaison for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's Success by Six Great Start Collaborative. And Colleen, thank you so much for the time today.

Colleen Klus: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: This is a program specifically designed to enhance opportunities for kids, but also for the family as a whole and specifically in low income neighborhoods. It is the people in those neighborhoods that were most adversely impacted last academic year during the heart of the pandemic. How difficult was it to effectively do your job while watching such an increased level of hardship among those you want to work with?

Colleen Klus: Yeah, so I think everybody had challenges working through COVID, and that was definitely true for any community outreach. And I work with the Trusted Advisor Initiative, who are a group of seven community change makers in Washtenaw County, and they really work at building relationships with families to make sure that they have everything they need in order for their children to be successful and for families to thrive. We've been doing this work for about four years, and because we had started in 2017 connecting with families and building relationships and trust with families. When the pandemic started and everything shut down, we were fortunate to be able to reach out to families through texting and phone calls and to find out what their needs were. And the work that we did definitely shifted at the beginning because the needs that our families had were around a lot of basic needs, food, and cleaning supplies. And so we really shifted to focus on that. And then once we had some systems in place for that, then we started shifting back towards education and making sure that families had everything they needed to keep their kids engaged in their learning.

David Fair: And it really speaks to what's at the heart of this program. It's about building relationships, but it's equally about approaching the mission with a sense of empathy, right?

Colleen Klus: Yes, we approach all of our work--the core of our work--is really about empathy, respect, and reducing barriers. And that doesn't happen with just one conversation. That happens with multiple conversations and keeping those connections with families.

David Fair: Empathy is sometimes easier to offer than it is to receive. Does it take time to build the kind of relationships with families that kind of lead to that greater academic outcomes for the kids?

Colleen Klus: Yes. Yes, it does. Our first grant that we had in 2017 was about hard-to-reach families. And what we found is that families are not hard to reach, but that there is a lot of mistrust and broken promises that families have experienced through the systems that they have been engaged with. And so, it's been really important for us to build that trust. It takes time. And when we first started, we went door-to-door to talk to families about early childhood education, and we would have to return to neighborhoods multiple times. And we actually been going into the same neighborhoods for four years. And so we've really created those strong relationships and the trust that we're not going anywhere.

David Fair: Washtenaw United in our conversation with Colleen Klus continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Colleen is parent liaison for the WISD Success by Six Great Start Collaborative and a part of the Trusted Advisors Initiative. Most of the work that is being done in this program is focused on the eastern side of Washtenaw County. On a purely academic level, what are the biggest challenges?

Colleen Klus: What we have found is we have yet to meet a parent who doesn't want what's best for their children. But what we do find is that there are so many barriers, and those barriers are like food insecurity, housing instability, financial hardship, and, not just that, but all of the hoops that one needs to jump through in order to work through those issues. And so, when we first started the work and we would talk to families about preschool and home visiting, we would say, "Yes, of course, that's what I want for my child. But I have this long list of other issues that I need to deal with first." And so we kind of shifted and said, "OK, well, let's help you deal with those issues and then we can connect your child with school."

David Fair: Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, we're dealing with another that is of racism and the resulting inequities in inequalities that creates. How much does that come up as you build relationships with these families and have really dynamic conversations?

Colleen Klus: It comes up a lot, and it impacts, I would say, the majority of the work that we do. What has been so, so wonderful about the trusted parent advisors is that they have developed not just relationships with families and the community, but they've also developed relationships with community leaders. And they are not afraid to speak very frankly about the systemic racism that's experienced by the families that they work with, specifically the families of color that they work with.

David Fair: When you are dealing with things like food insecurity, housing insecurity, and then you add the kind of institutionalized injustices to that that racism brings. Emotional well-being and sense of security is all impacted. How much of what is being done with this program is focused on overcoming that part of it?

Colleen Klus: Part of what we offer is when we build those relationships, that's also a big piece of offering support. Trusted advisors, whole parent cafés--weekly, some biweekly. And parent cafe is really about a support group for parents by parents. And it is a nonjudgmental space where you can come and talk about the joys and challenges of parenting, but also of life. Then the purpose of that, within these cafes, they also develop relationships with each other, so that they have somebody to turn to when they have issues.

David Fair: Once again, this is Eighty-Nine, one WEMU. And we are talking with Colleen Klus, who is with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's Success by Six Great Start Collaborative. And clearly, Colleen, with the pandemic isn't over yet, there's going to be more to contend with this year. It is in the 48197 and 48198 zip codes on the east side of the county where there are comparatively low vaccination rates among those 16 and up. Is that an issue that you consider as part of the function you have to provide?

Colleen Klus: Yes. United Way had reached out to us about a month and a half ago about a vaccine outreach program. They have seen what we've done over the past four years, as far as the trust we have built and asked if we would be willing to talk to residents about vaccines. And it was really just a natural thing to add to the work that we're already doing. And so, four of the trusted parents have added that into the work that they do.

David Fair: And part of your title, Colleen, is parent liaison. In the time you've been working with the Collaborative, I'm sure you've had some experiences that will stay with you long after you've moved on. Do you have a favorite?

Colleen Klus: Oh, my goodness. I have many favorites.

David Fair: It's like picking between children, right?

Colleen Klus: Exactly. Exactly. I think that, for me, we have a neighborhood that we work in that we have spent the past four years going back to. And one of the trusted parents of that has been solely there for the past two years. And one of the really important pieces is being able to connect families to resources and programs, but also being able to empower parents and families, to be able to engage with community leaders, and to engage with elected officials. And we have seen that transition over the past year, where a lot of the residents in this one neighborhood have found their voice and have really started to use their voice to advocate for themselves and for their children. And, to me, I see that as being able to have an impact, not just right now, but really long term impact for those families. And then also amazing for their children to be able to see their parents advocating.

David Fair: Programs come a long way in the four years in which it's been underway. If you look ahead four years from now, where do you hope this program and the people you're working with are?

Colleen Klus: Well, I would love to see it expand. So, we have seven trusted parents right now, and they are have taken on more leadership roles. They each have their own little specialty that they have a focus on. And so, I would love to see each of them become leaders in their own focus area. And then, I would love for us to be able to have even more trusted parents connecting with families and just making sure that Washtenaw County is a wonderful place to raise a family for everybody in every zip code of Washtenaw County.

David Fair: I love when we get to end on an optimistic note. Colleen, thank you so much for the time today. I appreciate it.

Colleen Klus: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Colleen Klus. She is a community engagement specialist and parent liaison for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's Success by Six Great Start Collaborative. For more information on the program to find all the links you'll need, pay a visit to our website at WEMU. Dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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