By Sarah Ostyn, Intern
I made a new friend from Detroit during my first few weeks at Michigan State. When she asked me where I was from, I told her, “Dowagiac,” and pointed to the bottom-left corner of my hand, which was in the shape of the famous mitten. I told her that my graduating class was less than 125 students and that the population there was around 7,000 people, about 3,000 less than the freshmen class at MSU that year.
Her first question for me was, “Is this a culture shock for you?” I proudly told her no and went on to describe the racial makeup of my small hometown. I felt as though my exposure to diversity was an important piece of who I was, but I would soon learn that my understanding of this diversity was limited and merely one piece of what was actually at play.
The following year, I joined the MSU Alternative Spring Break program. Along with a group of my peers, I went on a service trip to Operation Breakthrough, a Head Start agency in Kansas City, Missouri. As part of our volunteer orientation, we watched a video that featured parents of children served by the center who told stories of living in cars, sleeping in abandoned buildings or homes without running water or heat, and children unable to sleep at night because of the rats crawling on them. By lunchtime that day, I knew this was where I needed to be. I realized that diversity was more than comparing my skin color with those of my high school graduating class, and I wondered if anyone I had known over the past 22 years of my life had experienced what these small humans and their parents were going through.
Three years later, I moved to Kansas City to work at Operation Breakthrough as a preschool teacher.
Since then, I have continued to explore the systems in which families living in poverty operate. Within Head Start, I have seen families navigate homelessness, foster care, inequitable education, unemployment, the justice system, policing, state and federal services, and so many others. I have seen children put cereal in their pockets so that they would have something to eat when they got home and mothers contemplate whether taking a promotion at work would make them financially worse off. But I have also seen a mother earn her GED and secure steady employment, a girl move out of a children’s shelter and in with her mother and brothers, and countless children enter kindergarten on track with their middle-class peers. These achievements are encouraging, but they do not come frequently enough.
Today, I continue my commitment to children and families through work with the Head Start program in Lansing, and I continue to see families struggling to navigate systems, make tough decisions, and progress into self-sufficiency. I will use this platform to foster relationships that grow educational equity and empower families to advocate for their needs at every level.
In addition to story-based advocacy, I am interested in learning how to use data to pursue systemic change. There is an opportunity for policymakers to have widespread influence on the many of these systems, and that is why I’m here. As a Kids Count intern, I plan to be an agent for change by coupling my experiences with families with research and data to advocate for children at both the community and legislative levels. While I hope to have a greater reach through this approach, I will continue to be driven by the faces of the children I have the opportunity to serve every day.