Not all parents come from a background that equipped them with the skills and knowledge to handle the constant ups and downs of parenting. And even people who do find themselves staring at the small person before them thinking, "What do I do now?"
But if you're a lucky parent, you'll meet someone like Jametta Lilly, the newly-named chief executive officer of the Detroit Parent Network
(DPN). She exudes a genuine warmth and enthusiasm paired with a crackling intelligence that immediately instills trust in the people she encounters, from the children who accompany their parents to DPN program officers to the board of directors who chose her as only the third leader of the organization in its 16 years.
Detroit Parent Network, whose headquarters is a former home on Lothrop Street behind the Fisher Building, has a strong lineage of leadership. It was founded by Tonya Allen, now president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, who was succeeded by Sharlonda Buckman, now senior executive director of Family and Community Engagement at Detroit Public Schools.
Throughout its history, DPN has provided support for all kinds of caregivers: mothers, fathers, grandparents, LGTBQ parents, families touched by incarceration of a parent or loved one, and parents of undocumented children. They organize numerous events and activities for members (think field trips that the whole family can enjoy), host parent groups, and offer parenting classes on a variety of topics such as Love and Logic, a technique to build a strong parent-child relationship.
Lilly says she wants parents to think of the building as their house, a place they can feel comfortable and supported. Providing that empowering place for parents is the through line of her diverse career, most recently as deputy director for Wayne County Head Start-Early Head Start. Over her 30-year career, she co-founded and led Wayne Children's Healthcare Access Program and served as executive director for Detroit Health Care Career Center. She has also administered or consulted with local agencies, foundations, and state and federal government programs, including the Detroit and Wayne County Health Departments, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Michigan Black Caucus Foundation, and many more
Lilly knew as a teenager she wanted to work in child development. She was born in India, where her professor parents were teaching. After returning to the United States when she was 4 years old, it was common for people of all walks of life to gather around their table for lively discussions. She started her career as a Head Start teacher doing home visits and distributing supplies out of her Volkswagen van. The common thread, she says, has been a focus on equity and social justice and on bringing the resources of governments, philanthropy, and the community to work together and empower families to improve the lives of children.
Through her many years of experience, Lilly has come to believe that in order for children to flourish, parents must be the focus. "We often talk about children and providing change for children," she says, "but what we don't like to talk about is that the only way that we can really help children is by supporting parents and families. Children grow up in the context of a family, the family grows up in the context of their neighborhood, and that community in the broader sense grows up in society."
Detroit Parent Network headquarters
Engaging parents as Detroit changes, Lilly says, is critical to ensuring the city's burgeoning development doesn't just benefit people already perched at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. Institutions have historically not done well at bringing parents into the decision-making process, and DPN aims to change that.
"We know the history," she says. "As our parents get stronger in who they are and what they know, we either can have parents that partner with the so-called professionals in city government to help make change in the city or we will not have the level of equity and wonderful possibilities this city can create."
Helping parents to engage with institutions, such as the school systems and government, is key to DPN's work, and Lilly plans to expand that advocacy piece going forward. In line with the idea of parents being able to participate in the economic development of the city, DPN is planning to roll out a peer mentorship workforce development program next year, so parents who are undertaking job-skill training can be a support and roadmap to other parents as they face the unique challenges of balancing work, school, family, and difficult life situations.
Parents know best what they need for their children and themselves to thrive, Lilly says, and Detroit Parent Network is at heart a way for them to understand the power of their experience and voice.
"My challenge back to all of us who say that we're about community empowerment is this: In what ways are we deliberately and intentionally providing the resources and support for parents to engage in community, so they can be part of building the solutions our community needs?"
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Photos by Nick Hagen.