Voices of Cody Rouge: Chris Uhl of IFF on the importance of early childhood education

In her classic opus, "The Greatest Love of All," Whitney Houston declared, "I believe the children are our future / Teach them well and let them lead the way." In Cody Rouge, children under the age of 4 comprise 7.8 percent of the population. Children aged 5 to 18 make up an additional 25 percent. It's clear that Cody Rouge's future depends on how it serves its children. 

Early childhood education has played a major part in the growth and development of Cody Rouge. Through ProsperUS Detroit, a place-based economic development organization for low- and moderate-income individuals, two early childhood centers have grown from in-home centers to brick-and-mortar businesses: The Kid Network Childcare & Development Center on Joy Road and Helping Hands Childcare and Development Center on Plymouth Road. There's also an early childhood center inside the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center

So why such a focus on early childhood development? Chris Uhl, executive director-eastern region of the mission-driven lender IFF, has done research on why early childhood education and development helps low-income communities thrive. By funding local programs, research, and real estate solutions, IFF helps communities across the country and is directly impacting growth in Cody Rouge. 

We spoke with Uhl about how investing in quality early childhood education in neighborhoods like Cody Rouge will be key to Detroit's continued resurgence. 
Chris Uhl
Model D: Can you tell me a little more about what IFF is and what you do? 

Chris Uhl: We are a community development financial institution, or CDFI, which were set up to get capital investment into low-income communities. There're all sorts of CDFIs. How we fund our balance sheet is to get investments from banks, foundations, and others who loan us money, and then we loan it out to low-income areas and they get CRA credit for it. 

(Note: The Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA, is a law intended to encourage depository institutions to help meet the credit needs of the communities in which they operate, including low- and moderate-income, LMI, neighborhoods) 

CDFIs have been around for 30 or so years, they've become a real thing.

There are three parts to the business that we do. The first is that capital piece; the lending side. Primarily lending to nonprofits, although occasionally we'll lend to for-profits that have a mission orientation.

The second is our real estate arm. We have a staff of folks who work on everything from feasibility studies — if someone is looking to expand, where they go, what kind of buildings do they look for, do they lease it, buy it, etc. — all the way up to owners rep work, a low-management construction process on behalf of our customers. A lot of times, obviously, nonprofits just don't have a ton of experience in that space, so we come in and augment them and make sure that they're doing things right.

With that arm, we've done everything from housing in Chicago for physically disabled individuals to helping build grocery stores in food deserts. We own some charter schools in Kansas City. We're building a 67,000-square-foot food incubator in Chicago. And then here in Detroit, our real estate development arm is going to be primarily working on creating high quality early childhood centers. 

The third piece is our research arm, where we go in and do studies in a K-12 and early childhood space and identify, where do all the kids live? Where are there quality options, either early childhood or K-12? Where are the neighborhoods that have the biggest gap? The most kids with the least options?

That allows us to target our investments as we build centers in some of those areas.

What are some ways early childhood education entrepreneurs are benefiting from your work? 

So first, we receive funding from both Kresge and Kellogg to go into these high need areas, and find the highest performing centers and figure out re-granting dollars to build out this cohort and either help them fix up the space they're in, or, in some cases, get them in new spaces. We have a few that were home-based providers that wanted to move up and become small-center providers, and so we’re helping them make that leap and have those dollars from Kellogg entrusted to do that.

How can these centers improve neighborhoods more broadly? 

We're going to be rehabilitating buildings and turning them into these centers, and then we're going to be aggregating some money from some mission investors to hopefully do a dozen or so over the coming years. 

A lot of our high need areas overlap with the city strategic neighborhood fund zone, and so we're saying, look, as you're going in and doing comprehensive development of commercial strips and multi-family housing, the one thing that we haven't done in Detroit is invest in these places who haven't thought much about schools. So let's think about what an early childhood and K-12 strategy can look like, either within those developments, or proximate to those developments, so that we're layering different investment strategies that are tracking or keeping young families in the city. 

Because now all of a sudden you have quality housing or quality education options and all of these things in place so you can stay and raise your family here. 

What do you think differentiates Cody Rouge from other communities in Detroit? 

I call the concept "community margin," where because you have a close-knit community and a leader like Kenyetta Campbell (executive director of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance), means a neighborhood like Cody can outperform other areas, even while on the surface looking the same.

There's a dynamic on the ground there and an energy that feels different than some of the other neighborhoods in the city. There's just a human factor there that doesn't exist in the same way almost anywhere else.

This article is part of "Voices of Cody Rouge," a series that showcases the authentic stories of residents, community stakeholders, and local organizations helping to create and shape positive transformation in the Cody Rouge neighborhood of Detroit. This series is made possible with support from Quicken LoansIFF, and the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance

Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is Model D's Editor at Large. Biba Adams is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Her work has appeared in VIBE Ebony Magazine, and more. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.
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