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State of Opportunity will be shining a spotlight on the issue of infant mortality this winter. Check back for news, resources, and personal stories.

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

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.

Somehow though, Jackson still seems to have a hard time challenging the idea it’s little more than those truths. Jackson’s reputation doesn’t really bother Kriss Giannetti.

“We don’t need people to tell us we’re pretty,” she says. “We already know.”

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the work of Jackson 2020 is flying under the radar of many around the state looking for models of how to strengthen Michigan cities. Perhaps it's because it takes 16 people to describe exactly what the work is. Or perhaps it's because the goals seem so pie in the sky. Among them, to bring Jackson back and truly try to tackle poverty.

This coalition realizes the cavalry is not coming. Three years ago they dedicated themselves to working with what they’ve got and practically every large organization and business is involved. Tim Rogers runs Jackson County’s Enterprise Group.

“In the Midwest, especially, we’re not a growing population,” he says. “So how do you take the challenged part of your demographic and help them along?”

Over 15% of Jackson county residents live in poverty.  To fix that the coalition is working on a lot of different fronts. For example, Rogers and the manufactures he represents have been getting more and more involved in the K-12 school system. They’re working to develop the people already living in Jackson into a talent pool for their companies. What that looks like is manufacturers helping schools develop curriculum as early as the elementary school grades. It means they need to run summer camps and internship programs, and get their workers into the schools to forge relationships.

A model to attack poverty

The United Way of Jackson County, run by Ken Toll, is a big driver of the Jackson 2020 work. Toll says a history of collaboration has made his work getting everyone on the same page a little easier. They all follow a model called Collective Impact, popularized by Stanford University.

There’s a lot to the model, and those in Jackson are following it faithfully. Broadly, they're all trying to be on the same page, set goals that can be measured, and help each other out.

It also means a lot of meetings, according to Ishwar Laxminarayan, Director of Jackson’s District Libraries. “There will plenty of times when we’re going to walk away thinking ‘we can’t do this,’” he says. He jokes, “We have sat through many frustrating meetings where at the end of the meeting we drowned our disappointments  in the beverage of the day.”

Out of those meetings, along with any frustrations have come several concrete initiatives that are making a difference.

Jackson still struggles with all the problems it did three years ago. The teen pregnancy rate is still much higher than the state average. But Jackson’s rate is falling fast, while the state and national average stay the same. That’s in part thanks to a peer education effort run almost entirely by teenagers. The not unrelated indicator of infant mortality is also down. The county’s rate is now 20% below the state average, a huge achievement.

There are other, smaller, signs this effort is eliciting an uncommon level of commitment from those involved, and that is in part, that 16 people think it's worth their time to show up and talk to each other, and a reporter, about what's going on in Jackson. 

We’ll continue to check in on Jackson’s 2020’s progress and take a look at some of the specific initiatives they’re engaged in. Share your experience with us here.