During the height of the Covid pandemic, many families throughout the United States and worldwide faced the everyday crisis of maintaining educational standards for their children at home. Most parents are not equipped or educated enough to take on the role of teachers for their children, so many parents struggle with finding the right balance of home instruction, home life, and managing their work lives all under one roof for more than two years. It has been no secret that the pandemic impacted and disrupted the daily routines and lives of children and their families.
According to the article Internet and the Pandemic, 30% of parents whose children have had any online instruction since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak say they have had a very or somewhat difficult time helping their children use technology and the internet for this purpose. Certain groups of these parents are particularly likely to say they have difficulty helping their children with online learning.
The crisis led many parents, teachers, administrators, and governments to reexamine how education is administered to our youth and to start rethinking how learning is defined.
During this time, parents were forced to be intimately involved in their child’s learning process and sometimes needed to assess their educational shortcomings while navigating the curriculum that had changed since they were in school. Teachers had to learn to step into a new way of teaching and interact with students. In the United States, it was revealed that the system is broken. Numerous parents during the height of the pandemic became unsure of how they should handle the monumental task of educating our youth.
As time has passed, parents have begun looking at their children’s education options more closely. Homeschooling, which used to have only a tiny percentage of participants, has become popular since many parents saw that their children did better in school when they stayed home. Also, many families found that being forced to be intimately involved in their child’s schoolwork and lives brought the family closer together. The biggest takeaway and lesson of education during the pandemic was that reform or rebirth of education is needed.
Brilliant Detroit is leading the way to a rebirth of education even before the pandemic. It is an organization dedicated to building kids’ success in families and neighborhoods where families with children from 0–8 have what they need to be school ready, healthy, and stable. The organization provides proven programming and support year-round out of Brilliant Detroit homes in high-need neighborhoods. The organization is revolutionizing what it means to be a community and changing how families participate in their children’s education.
Curious about Brilliant Detroit’s secret sauce to success, I reached out to Maria Montoya, the Strategic Communications & Systems, Director at Brilliant Detroit, dedicated to working with the organization to help families be school ready, healthy, and stable.
My Interview with Maria Montoya
Tell us about the gentrification process in Detroit; how is it changing the city?
Detroit is expansive compared to most cities, where you can get around in 20 to 30 minutes. Detroit has many communities within the city and even other cities within the town. Then you have 50% of our children who are under five or still living in poverty. You have this entire, flourishing neighborhood in this community that has existed for a long time, but there will be pockets where you will see blight. There’ll be pockets where you no longer see services or access to usable grocery stores, or you might have childcare and schools that have closed up and been boarded up, but an active community is living there.
There’s this idea that everybody’s abandoned the city. Often there is this coverage of Detroit that it’s this kind of abandoned city, and that’s not the case. There are always a lot of stories about how downtown is growing. One of the most vibrant things about the city is that you have so many unique neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods where generations of families bought and purchased homes alongside each other or rented for years within a two- or three-block radius of each other. The city is full, with over a hundred thousand kids attending K-12.
Our focus at Brilliant Detroit was how we get to the children from the belly to eight years old before they’re generally activated into some school-type program. That’s where the idea of neighborhood-based hubs came into being. How do you bring quality programming and structured activities to the neighborhood instead of consistently burdening families to seek out things outside the community? Because as expansive as Detroit is, and during a Detroit Winter, the complexities of maintaining and keeping highways functioning are hard transportation-wise for many families to get out and about.
The idea behind Brilliant Detroit is to create that community-based support year-round in the neighborhoods. We don’t close in the summer or for every holiday. When kids are out of school, we provide programs and activities. Another notable thing is we’re working with communities to say what do you think the solutions are, what activities and programs you would like to see for your family. The answers can be found with the folks living in the neighborhood, who know their communities and children best.
What has been the most significant impact made since starting the organization?
If you hear our founder talk about the creation of Brilliant Detroit, she often calls it crazy and wild. Cindy Eggleton and our co-founders had worked on philanthropic efforts for many years. Cindy had run a non-profit and worked for United Way as a program officer overseeing millions in grants allocated throughout the city.
When it comes to literacy programming and support that we’re delivering to children, we lean hard on partners and programs that are evidence-based. There are a lot of things that folks have wanted to try in education over the last 15 to 25 years. Still, when it comes to literacy and brain development and early talk, the core programming programs and activities at all our hubs are evidence-based, which helps foster trust between the parents, the children, and the staff at that hub. One of the things we always shine a light on is we build out the hub with the community, but the community also staffs the hub. Our mission requires each staff member we select to work within the hub to be somebody from the neighborhood.
The fidelity of delivering those programs, even if they are evidence-based, is so often that trust and relationship building. Having someone able to call and say, Look, we’re having a tough time today. We can’t get there for tutoring. They can share what’s happening in their family dynamic with somebody they trust. That person can help them overcome that barrier, or they can say, “Hey, let’s reschedule. Let’s do that later in the week. Let’s deal with whatever you have in front of you right now. We’ll get back to that tutoring or that programming when it’s more feasible for you and your family.”
I’ve worked in school education reform, and I used to cover children and families as a reporter, and there are so many things that folks try for a year or as little as six months. The key to Brilliant programming is how we deliver things already shown to make an impact and then how we deliver those in a community-based way.
How do you select properties for the organization?
Many people are confused by our model because it is a house. The house is selected by neighbors in communities who approach Brilliant Detroit and say, “Hey, we’ve heard about this. We want it for our neighborhood.” There’s a process that we have to go through. First, we pick a house that’s been abandoned or is currently available in the city’s land bank of houses. Then secure the home and remodel it so it can serve as the heart of activities and programs for any family in that neighborhood with an infant to an eight-year-old. We don’t take the house and take out the living room, dining room, and all those things. The home gets remodeled with those things put back into it.
Our programming exists in that kind of fun family way. There are some basements, and a lot of the kitchens get used for meetings and activities and training that the families want to take part in — this kind of house environment where you’re welcome. I remember people, every inch of the couch was covered, every inch of the floor was covered; people were sitting and eating, and they had never seen us before but they are welcomed. People are told to grab a plate and sit down wherever they can find a space or play. That environment you don’t always feel in public areas is one thing I like to share with folks. There’s public access to things across the United States, but what is that feeling you have? What kind of energy does a family experience when they walk into those spaces? The feeling we give people is the magic sauce of Brilliant Detroit.
What role do parents take/play in the organization?
There isn’t a distinction between the parent’s and the staff’s roles. It blends; we all do everything that everyone desires for children. Most of our team are Detroit-based staff members who come from many of the neighborhoods. They’re parents, but they’re also staff members — the same thing with the community advisory. Many of them are grandparents who are raising grandchildren. I think that for us, it’s this child-family-centric attitude of everybody who’s part of touching Brilliant.
There’s no designated role for the families. One of the beautiful things is that maybe as a mother who’s pregnant and attending a baby shower, she can develop her skills and become a community leader and an outreach staff member. In the six years, we’ve existed, you can see how somebody who started as a participant has become somebody who’s working with the staff.
How do you feel your organization is modeling education in the future?
We have a unique model. Whenever I meet somebody, they’re shocked that it is an actual house. There have been many things tried just in general with children and families in the last 30 years. But if we look at where and when children were flourishing, it’s when we had that whole circle; when we had neighbors that knew one another, they knew your parents, your principal knew your parents, your teacher knew your parents, and everything was pretty close to your neighborhood. Now children are expanding out, and they may be attending school or childcare at someplace that isn’t their neighborhood.
How do we ensure that when you come back to that neighborhood, the things you need to be set up for success exist within that kind of five- to 10-block radius? Parents can access tutoring for children, and if you need food, you can access it safely and have conversations with other parents. So often, when programs are created and even funding allocated, what we see is families are asked to make that work. The concept here with the community-based hubs is planning for and by the community. Like, what, when, and how will we offer that? How will it be available and made accessible if all our parents are working and not available for a 10:00 AM program? We’re not going to try to offer a 10:00 AM program because of a grant; we’re going to ask what the families need.
This idea that you’re not burdening the families is often not visited by a state or a county. The answer is straightforward. How do you meet people where they’re at? How do you not burden them to find transportation when transportation may not be available? How do you not create a program at a time that will never work for working families? That’s the goal of the community hubs. It’s making that almost old-school sense of community that we used to have in each of our neighborhoods. No matter where folks are going to school or where their church may be because those are even in different areas now, you know that they can have this hub from when a child is born until they start to interact more with their school community at the age of eight.
How did Covid impact the organization?
The Brilliant Detroit Board and leadership had to pivot to virtual to deliver programs. A lot of thought was put into how we connect with families in the safest way to get them the things they need. Our goal pre-covid was delivering literacy programs, doing development programs for infants and our toddlers, getting moms together, and getting grandparents together for exercise and health and nutrition, things that were all in person and dependent upon those interpersonal relationships. Because we had those relationships and the trust, what Brilliant saw during covid was an immediate ask of the families.
There were, of course, childcare and school issues with those closures. Our team immediately pivoted to start distributing food boxes, learning at-home kits, signing families up for emergency Wi-Fi and low-cost internet, and distributing devices, tablets, and Chromebooks to families. In the first weeks, we had families that didn’t have formula and enough diapers. We created safe drive-by activities so families could access those things from the hubs. Once they had the devices and the ability to access Wi-Fi, we had to make the space to have conversations.
Our schools didn’t immediately hand out devices; it took a lot of community organizing and some philanthropic partners and folks coming together to ensure that it eventually happened. A lot of the non-profits leaned into getting materials and resources to families to fill the gap. Our founder talks about how we delivered programming, and we eventually saw many of the things we had in person go online, like tutoring. Still, most importantly, we created a space for people to talk and connect.
We couldn’t hug or have community dinners. The virtual connection allowed us to see each other and let the children talk without an agenda. Those relationships and that trust played out virtually. Still, to this day, if you get the families online, it may take 15–20 minutes to get everybody grouped because that connection is so needed. I say particularly for Detroit because several places in the country remained hot spots for Covid long after other folks were starting to return to a post-Covid normal. Our families are still experiencing a lot of loss, and we experienced loss early on. I think that it was also essential to create space for families to say, yes, we are here to help you with learning, to help you figure out that crazy second-grade curriculum, but we’re also here to talk about the fact that we’re losing friends, family, and our kids.
What is your favorite story about the organization?
I had the privilege of helping with our annual event this year. It was the first time we had our funders, volunteers, board members, and families come together. It was one of those situations where everyone was ready to have fun. As I’ve traveled throughout the country, other cities were able to move forward a lot faster than those hot spots where covid just really hit the hardest. We knew families were ready for fun.
There was a point in the evening at nine when this child was just up on this fancy statue dancing with silent disco headphones on their head and turned to me and said, This is the most fun I’ve ever had. Thank you so much.
After three tough years, there are lots of stories that are way more dramatic than that and probably, you know, more connected to academics and literacy, but it was just such a relief to us all that children were able to be in a space with their moms, their dads, their grandpas, and community and be kids.
What are some of the barriers you have had to overcome as an organization?
The biggest barrier we discuss is maintaining that magic as we continue growing. We started with two hubs. We will have 24 by 2024. Our founder Cindy would say we’re consistently thinking about how we make sure that as we grow, that key secret sauce of those relationships and that every hub feels that way. Every Brilliant Detroit activity feels that way; if you approach us and we’re at a Girl Scout event, the team is trained in such a way that it feels like Brilliant Detroit. Those things are important.
There is a feeling at Brilliant Detroit that we want to make sure each participant or stakeholder, or community member who interacts with us walks away with that same feeling of welcomeness and openness. We are protective of that because we know the need now more than ever exists.
Seven neighborhoods are on our waiting list, and two cities in other parts of the country would love to see Brilliant Detroit replicate, even outside of the country. Our board and our leadership have been approached about replication. Still, everybody’s protective of how you make sure that what you experience, that nurturing love, the way that everybody feels safe. The way the staff and the participants are given room to grow continues to exist.
What have been the keys to your success?
A lot of credit goes again towards the founders and the board because realizing that there was a need and doing it is magic. It’s also complex and hard work. Often, we are not hiring staff members who come in with the skills of being in an office setting for 10 or 12 years, who are email savvy, or who have a protocol for timecards and all those things. Those are not things that we as staff come in knowing. I met with somebody who’s just been amazing connecting within the community, and I was trying to show her the ups and downs of social media, and she looked at me, and she was like, “This is not my jam.
We had to pivot.
We reach that goal but do it in a human-centered way so that you do not have someone come to work and do something they hate every day, but you’re creating an environment where they are respected for their gifts and talents. This team is good about coming up with solutions. During Covid, we have experienced a lot of barriers as a community. The heart of Brilliant itself is how you respect the individual and that person who is a mom, who’s a community member, and the skills they’re bringing because that’s why folks come to Brilliant. They don’t come to Brilliant because they are good at Facebook ads.
How can people help your organization?
The number one thing we always tell people is to share, whether on Facebook or LinkedIn or Instagram or even sharing the link to our website, just letting more people know about us. You can now be a virtual tutor to a child in Detroit from anywhere you log into Zoom after getting a background check. Being a literacy mentor has never been easier because now that we have so many of our families that have access, if they feel there is a readiness or a reading gap, we can sign them up with a virtual mentor for 30 to 40 minutes a day.
We see a huge difference in kids. They get that confidence level from reading with a buddy or a friend each afternoon. It can help our children take off. The stats are a little bit higher now, but generally, under 20% of our third graders in Detroit are reading on grade level. For us, our North Star is how do we change that? By third grade, if you’re not set up to be a reader who is on target and able to read and comprehend, we know you’ll likely have difficulty with math. We know you’ll struggle with all those lessons in middle school. Help get every child who wants to be matched up with their virtual reading.
Where do you see the organization going in the future?
A dedicated staff and team members meet monthly to discuss what that replication looks like, what does that selection process look like, and what are those criteria? Regarding expansion, there is a team of folks with allocated hours and brain space to think about that.
They want to ensure that it’s the right space and the right time and that the stakeholders and the community members want it and not something that’s being sought out by a funder or an outside entity. The same way we have our neighborhoods approach us here. The neighborhood is seeking that Brilliant Detroit model and not one individual. Then all the other elements go into it, like what is the landscape as far as properties, and how hard is it to get a blighted, vacant, or foreclosed property in that particular city? Some cities have an interest, like Chicago. It may be easier to do that than Philadelphia or another city on the west side of the country. A lot of thought goes into it, and our co-founders are committed to how we get to our 24 before those replication decisions and plans are firmed up.
Finish this statement “It takes a village.”
It takes a village to create love and safety.
About Maria Montoya
Maria Montoya, the Strategic Communications & Systems Director at Brilliant Detroit, is dedicated to working with the organization to help families be school-ready, healthy, and stable. The organization has a special connection within the communities it works with because they became intimately involved by becoming part of the residential neighborhood. This type of involvement has helped the families in their programs thrive. To find out how you can be an online tutor or volunteer, go to https://brilliantdetroit.org/ and to find out about where Brilliant Detroit homes are located, to donate or to offer support go to: https://brilliantdetroit.org/get-involved/#visit
About the Author
Annmarie Hylton-Schaub, Head Marketing Strategist and Content Developer at Project Good Work, a boutique marketing group focused on helping individuals who want to launch social impact projects, charities, and change-making initiatives. The marketing group works to develop branding, marketing strategy, and content to connect clients with the people who believe what they believe so that their project and business can thrive.
If you have a passion for an unserved community, a social justice problem, or want to change minds, contact Project Good Work at ProjectGood.Work to start your project of change today.