Sarah Alvarez

Public Insight Journalist

Sarah is the Public Insight Journalist for the State of Opportunity Project.

Sarah's job is to get readers, listeners and communities participating in reporting. Using a tool called the Public Insight Network she helps turn questions, tips, stories, and insight from the State of Opportunity community and beyond into content online and on the air. She also files legal and policy stories. She was formerly the Public Insight Journalist on the Changing Gears project.

Before her work at Michigan Radio, Sarah was a civil rights lawyer in New York and a consultant to social justice organizations in California. She graduated from the University of Michigan, Columbia Law School and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

She has a wonderful husband and three wonderful, busy kids and no time for anything else.


Families & Community
4:43 pm
Mon July 21, 2014

How does Michigan stack up when it comes to child well-being? Are you sure you want to know?

Credit User: Guillermo Ossa / Stockvault

The Annie E. Casey Foundation looks at statistics that should tell us something about how kids are faring across the country and in Michigan.  

The foundation looks at things like poverty, teen pregnancy and health insurance coverage to name a few.

If it seems like these reports are always coming out, well, that's partly true. The sheer number of indicators to analyze means that reports trickle out throughout the year. 

Update: Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Yesterday, we looked at 2012's statistics for Michigan.

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11:01 am
Fri July 18, 2014

Getting rid of a juvenile record is now easier in Michigan, but you should still probably read this

Credit Stanley Forthright / flickr

Having a juvenile record can crush the job prospects of a young person exactly the same way having a criminal record does.

Last year it got easier to set aside a juvenile record in Michigan. Setting aside your record, sometimes called expunging, means it will no longer be public and won’t show up on a background check.

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Families & Community
6:00 am
Mon July 7, 2014

A Michigan library lives the "it takes a village" idea

Ypsilanti library branch library manager Joy Cichewicz passes out free lunches to the her young patrons. In this youth section, everybody is always in motion.
Credit Sarah Alvarez / Michigan Radio

“I’m here all day,” eleven year old Charlie told me proudly.

Charlie and dozens of other kids have set up camp in the youth section of the Michigan Avenue branch of the Ypsilanti District Library. The space, a self-contained set of rooms down one flight of stairs just to the right of the main entrance of the library, challenges the idea of a library as a quiet and orderly place.

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2:19 pm
Thu July 3, 2014

Happy 4th of July from SOO

Lead in text: 
Safe and happy weekend to all of you! If you're in the mood to listen to something over the holiday we'd recommend the series Michigan Radio put together last Independence Day on the experiences of immigrants in the United States. We'll see you on Monday.
In 2004, Koffi Itito fled his home country of Togo, leaving behind his family and life as he knew it."I left to save my life," Itito said.While the West
Families & Community
6:08 pm
Mon June 30, 2014

What we know and often ignore about violence in Michigan

Credit Dennis Hill / flickr

Because I cover kids and poverty, by necessity I have a high tolerance for news and information others might categorize as depressing.

But I freely admit not all information is equal for me. Information about the effect of violence on children wears on me in a way most of my other work doesn't.

We're putting together a special about how violence affects kids in Michigan, so I've been looking at a lot of these kinds of stories and studies lately. Here are just a few of the themes I've seen over and over in my research. 

It's contagious

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Families & Community
12:06 am
Wed June 25, 2014

How Jackson, Michigan managed to reduce teen pregnancy and infant mortality with only $8,000

Members of Jackson's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative get together to congratulate graduating seniors and welcome new peer educators into the program.
Credit Sarah Alvarez / Michigan Radio

At 3:30 p.m on a recent week day, I showed up to the College and Career Access Center in Jackson Crossing. It’s a strip mall, where right next to an army recruitment office sits what amounts to a storefront guidance counselor’s office. It’s accessible to anyone in the community, of any age.

Each of the county’s 13 school districts made a tough choice to give up their discretionary funds to pay for it, and hire a few college and career advisors they could share to help them reach their goal of getting 60 percent of Jackson’s residents to have a college degree or career credential by 2025.

When I showed up there were 16 people waiting for me, from the Superintendent of the Intermediate School District to the County Commissioner to the editor of Jackson’s newspaper. They were all there to tell me about what’s going on in Jackson.

“We roll deep in Jackson!” Kriss Giannetti explains. Gianetti is one of the founders of a group called Jackson 2020. Over the last three years they’ve been working together to tackle some of Jackson’s toughest problems.

While we talked, a steady stream of people walked into the center to talk to the college and career advisors or use a computer bank to our left. They were getting help with things like financial aid questions and career training. Recent high school graduate Courtney Reese was one of them. Reese is moving to Washington State this month to go to community college there, but she says she won’t stay too long.

“I’m definitely coming back here,” she says emphatically.  “We have a lot of self-pride. There’s people with "517" tattoos on them and they’re showing Jackson pride. And I just think that’s really cool. Especially with the reputation we have.”

The cavalry isn't coming

Jackson does have a reputation as a city with plenty of issues, or, as I heard said more than once “truths.” It’s not unlike most, if not all, Michigan cities trying to resurrect themselves from decades of economic depression.

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1:06 pm
Mon June 16, 2014

Ideas and stuff: Interesting things we're reading at State of Opportunity

Credit takomabibelot / flickr

There have been more than a few emails between the State of Opportunity team this week about research or articles with some version of "we need to share this," as the subject.  

Not all of it is made for easy sharing on social networks, so we've developed kind of a backlog that we're going to take care of right here, right now. 

It's not necessarily sunshine and rainbows, but I threw in some cheer at the end. 

How do you make a living on zero income?

One thing we've talked about since the beginning of this project is how many kids in Michigan are growing up in a household that earn no income. It might seem impossible, but it could be a reality for as many as 10% of the group of women who at one time got cash assistance, or "welfare." We've met several of these folks in our reporting.

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1:48 pm
Tue June 10, 2014

More than 500,000 Michigan kids could eat free this summer. Why aren’t they?

Credit Tim Lauer / creative commons

Update 10:23 a.m

After reading this story, Bryan Van Dorn from the State Department of Education offered to help any interested sites through the application process. His number is 517-373-0107 and his email is

Tuesday June 10, 2014, 1:48 p.m.

For every eight kids who could get a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year in Michigan, only one of those kids gets fed over the summer by a similar program.

That means more than 500,000 kids around the state who needed food during the school year didn’t get access to the same program over the summer

The school lunch program does make food available over the summer for kids, and they want more families taking part. This year more than 1,300 places across the state will run a “meet up and eat up” program. All together, the program serves around 68,000 kids a day.

Not every school district or town has one of these programs, but most could if they wanted to. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds the summer food program. They want to see more communities applying for the program. 

Although 1,300 sites seems like a lot of places to offer summer food, some kids can't take advantage of the program because of problems with transportation or a safe route to the sites. To get around this, the USDA is experimenting with just giving money to low-income parents to buy food over the summer. That WIC program is still in a pilot phase; it will serve a few thousand people in Detroit this year.

For now, families interested in summer food programs need to find a way to one of the "meet up and eat up" sites. 

Food is waiting, if you can get there

Michelle Dunn runs a "meet up and eat up" program in Addison. “Some people still don’t believe it's free,” she says. “They don't believe you can just go in.” Dunn wishes more people would just walk in. She thinks many don’t know there’s food waiting for them.

Families interested in summer food need to know each food site is different. Not all sites offer food all summer long. Each site keeps different hours, and some may offer other activities along with summer food. It makes sense to get details about a local site, but in general:

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2:52 pm
Tue June 3, 2014

State Supreme Court changes child welfare practice, says "one-parent" rule unconstitutional

Credit Matt Katzenberger / flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled a practice by the state's child welfare system is unconstitutional. 

Yesterday the State Supreme Court struck down a 12-year-old rule they said violated the constitution because it allowed the state to punish both parents for abuse or neglect of a child for whom only one parent was responsible, even when parents were not living together.

A person's right to raise their child without interference from the state – their "parental rights –" is constitutionally protected.

"Before, the state could put a child in foster care for what just one parent did," says Vivek Sankaran, who argued the case against the state. "Now the state has to make findings against both parents before it can take a child away and put them in foster care."

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Families & Community
9:00 am
Wed May 28, 2014

Living off tips and not the minimum wage

Credit Curtis Perry / flickr

Governor Snyder signed legislation Tuesday night to raise the state minimum wage. The law boosts wages gradually, and tipped workers will still make 60 percent less than whatever the minimum wage is for other workers. Right now tipped workers make $2.65 an hour. Under the new law they'll move up to about $3.50 an hour four years from now. 

There is also a petition drive looking to put minimum wage legislation on the ballot. That proposal would raise the minimum wage to around  $10.00 an hour for all workers, including tipped workers. The new law replaced the old public act the ballot measure would change, which may make the effort pointless.  Organizers of the petition drive say they may go to court over the maneuver.

The majority of tipped workers are women. I took the State of Opportunity story booth to a recent gathering of women talking about economic security. The first woman to walk in to the room was Denise Gleich. She's 49 and a native Detroiter.

Gleich has been in the restaurant industry for 30 years, often relying on tips. She raised three daughters on that money, but as she gets older and the economy changes, things are getting tougher. All of her daughters work in the restaurant industry, but she wishes they didn't.

Gleich is now back in school, working towards a bachelor's degree. She hopes to become a substance abuse counselor and says she's getting a lot of help from a program for non-traditional students. Here's her story. 

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