Jennifer Guerra

Reporter/Producer

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.

Her stories and documentaries have won numerous regional and national awards, and her work has aired on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace and Studio 360.

Jennifer graduated from the University of Michigan and received her M.A. in broadcast journalism from Fordham University. When she's not on the radio, she and her husband are making up lyrics to songs and singing them to their adorable baby girl.  

Ways To Connect

Eva Petoskey

Suicide is a major public health problem for American Indians. The suicide rate for American Indian teenagers in particular is 2.5 times higher than the national average. I took a trip over the summer to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Reservation in Suttons Bay to talk with folks in the community about the issue.

When I visited the reservation, it was rainy, no sun in sight, but that didn't stop a couple thousand people from making the trek to the reservation for the annual powwow. The Anishinaabe word is "Jiingtamok." 

Tyra John is decked out in full beaded regalia, which she proudly tells me she designed herself. The 13-year-old is performing two dances at the powwow today – the hoop dance and jingle dance. She lives on the reservation, and she likes it. She likes how everyone shares the same culture. She finds comfort in that. She kind of gets depressed when she leaves "the rez" to go to a public school nearby.

"We're often ridiculed for our culture in school ... well, I am, anyway," says Tyra. "My classmates sometimes are not very welcoming of my beliefs or culture."

When I ask her how that makes her feel, she hesitates for a moment and then blurts out one word: "Terrible."

Miishen Willis is 17 years old and a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Sault Ste. Marie. She now lives in Suttons Bay and was supposed to meet me at the powwow, but her anxiety got the best of her, so we did the interview at her mom’s condo nearby. 

Willis says about five years ago, she started to have these really intense feelings of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. 

"Usually when I have self-harm thoughts I just go to sleep or do something with my hands ... popping bubble wrap really helps," she explains. "And then for suicidal thoughts, I’ve figured out if they get super super bad, I have to get my parents."

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

The goal for children in foster care is to find them permanent homes. If they can’t live with their birth parents, the next best thing might be adoption. But the road to adoption can be bumpy, and for some children their dreams of a permanent family are dashed before the papers are even signed. 

"I refuse to sink"

Nineteen year old Candice Sponaas is a blonde tomboy with a 1000-watt smile. 

Like a lot of teenagers, Sponaas is really into tattoos. She designed the one on her forearm. It’s a big, floral infinity symbol with an anchor on one end and a rose on the other. In between are the words “I refuse to sink.” As she starts to talk about her broken adoption, I notice her glance down at the tattoo on her arm. It seems to give her strength just looking at it. 

Sponaas moved in with her soon-to-be adoptive family just before she turned 18.  They planned to adopt her in a year or two. But ten months in, things were not going well – especially between Sponaas and the mom of the house. So Sponaas moved out.

"And then we just stopped talking," says Sponaas. "And then she said I think it’s better if we just don’t try to force everything here. I wish you nothing but happiness, but that’s all that there is. So, that adoption is never going to happen."

user: Bart Everson / flickr

The type of education a child in Michigan gets depends in large part on where he or she lives. That's because Michigan is under no legal obligation to provide an "equitable" or "adequate" education for all its citizens. The only thing Michigan is legally required to do in terms of schools is provide a "free" education. And we all know that free does not necessarily equal quality. 

Here is what our state constitution says about education: 

Sec. 2. The Legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin. 

So, we've promised our children a free education, but is it equitable and adequate? That's the question we posed in our documentary, The Education Gap. (If you haven't heard it, click on the link and take a listen. You may be surprised at how much of a difference your zip code makes in terms of educational opportunities.)

The equitable and adequate question is also at the heart of a recent lawsuit against the Highland Park school district. As my colleague, Kate Wells, reported last week, the ACLU sued the district and the state of Michigan, saying students were not taught basic literacy skills. Here's an excerpt:

Lead in text: 
Turns out you can tell a lot about an infant's socioeconomic background based on what he eats. "The tentacles of income inequality find their way into many different aspects of life, and food is a particularly apt example," writes Washington Post reporter Roberto Ferdman. New research shows that babies who eat lots of foods high in sugar and fat come from poorer, less educated households compared to babies whose parents follow suggested infant feeding guidelines. Not only can these high fat/sugar foods impact a child's growth, but research indicates it can also "negatively impact a child's long-term health, eating habits, and food preferences."
Health
Sue Kley

State of Opportunity aired a documentary yesterday on foster care. All this week, we're publishing a series of articles that explore specific aspects of the foster care system, and some of the challenges kids within that system face.

Imagine being removed from your home, from the only place you've really ever known. You're taken away from your parents, your toys, your bed, maybe even your siblings, and told that you have to live here, in this new place with these new people. Imagine what that must feel like.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

    

What does it feel like to be removed from you parents’ home? From the ones who were supposed to protect you and keep you safe?

PART ONE

I want to introduce you to a set of siblings. Let’s start with the oldest one Andrew. He’s an intense little guy who’s 9 years old and very much into superheroes.

ANDREW: My favorite Marvel superhero is Spiderman.

AUDREY: Want to see my best friend?

That’s Audrey, his little sister, she is <<FIVE!>> and adorably shy.

And finally, there’s Braden, the ham of the family.

BRADY: Let it Go! Let it Go! Can’t hold it back anymore

user DarkGuru / creative commons

Pay now or pay later? I feel like that could be the unofficial tag line for our State of Opportunity project.  

The "pay now or pay later" question comes up time and again when we talk about programs aimed at helping kids climb out of poverty. For example: Do we spend the money up front for high-quality preschool for low-income kids, or do we wait until they're falling behind to try and step in to help? Do we offer preventive medical care for low-income kids, or do we wait to treat them until they've developed asthma or heart disease later in life?  

Lead in text: 
New U.S. Census Bureau data show a decline in childhood poverty rates for the first time in 10 years. That's big news. But as Emily Badger points out in her Washington Post article, that's about the only good news coming out of the most recent poverty data gleaned from the Bureau's 2013 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement.
Research
user Peter Lindberg / flickr

There are more than 13,000 youth in foster care in Michigan at any given time. There's no way we could possibly interview anywhere close to that number, but if we could, we would no doubt hear some heartwarming stories about being in care, some horror stories, and everything in between. 

user photosteve101 / flickr

If you're like me, you probably don't have a lot of spare time. So in an effort to make things easier for you, here's a roundup of some articles from the week that our State of Opportunity team found interesting. Happy reading!

How one poor inner city managed to turn things around

I've been thinking about this story from the New York Times all week. It's a story about hope and renewal. Just about everybody – politicians, police, residents – had written off Camden, N.J. In the summer of 2012, there were 21 murders in Camden, the highest homicide rate in the city's history. Fast forward two years, and the homicide rate this summer was six. 

It has been 16 months since Camden took the unusual step of eliminating its police force and replacing it with a new one run by the county. Beleaguered by crime, budget cuts and bad morale, the old force had all but given up responding to some types of crimes.

The results are encouraging. Read the full article to see how Camden is fast becoming an example of how it's not impossible to turn things around.

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