Staci Lowry, On Developing a Community Change Network

Staci Lowry, a 35-year-old mother of three based in Detroit, Michigan, experienced an incredible scare in 2014, when her youngest child suffered a stroke. Her daughter is fortunately fine today. “She’s the most rambunctious of my three children, so she’s resilient,” Staci said. But this moment still obviously counts among the most traumatic of her life. If there is any silver lining, however, it’s that the experience preempted something of a political awakening in her.

At the time of her daughter’s stroke, she was working full time at a major conglomerate as a customer service rep. (She declined to mention the company, for reasons that will become apparent, but added, “you’d definitely know the name.”) After she had exhausted the 12 unpaid weeks she was legally permitted to take off of work through the federal Family Medical Leave Act in order to care for her daughter, she was fired. “They let me go while I was literally still in the hospital caring for my child,” Staci said. Staci, who was struggling to make ends meet even before her daughter’s stroke, soon found herself unable to make mortgage payments, and she eventually lost her home to foreclosure.

While attempting to get herself back on her feet, she started examining the injustice she’d experienced with a new vigor. “You can’t make people choose between caring for their children and work,” she said. “It’s just not fair.” While her daughter was recovering, Staci found it incredibly difficult to find a job. “No one would hire me because of the many doctors and therapies that were needed,” Staci said. So instead, she began volunteering for campaigns that advocated for things like Earned Paid Sick Time and increasing minimum wage.Her volunteerism led her to work for that local nonprofit and working on numerous campaigns for mothers and working families.

She began to think about going back to college to further her studies in these areas, but with so many competing priorities — her job, family, and volunteering — she couldn’t figure out how to pursue a degree on top of it all. “There was no way I could juggle everything,” she said.

But then an opportunity arose. She found a new job at a small consulting firm that had flexible enough hours to allow her to go back to school part time, which is how she suddenly found herself enrolled at Henry Ford College. Through her organizing work, she met Susan-Hooks Brown, a program lead with the school’s Community Leadership Program, who encouraged her to apply.

Professor Robert Yahrmatter’s leadership class, Staci said, made a particular impression on her. “His class was like no other I’d ever taken,” Staci said. “I was used to having teachers throw me a book, tell me to memorize something and then tell me to take a test.” The Community Leadership Program, however, exposed her to new ways of thinking and approaching societal problems. “Professor Y allowed us to decide with him what we should include on the syllabus,” she said. “I’d never been a part of a class where the professor was like, what do you want to get out of this?”

One of the biggest advantages of the CLP program at Henry Ford, Staci says, is the opportunity to become credentialed in community change work. Prior to enrolling in the program, she had amassed years worth of volunteer and paid work with various nonprofits around Detroit. Each time she tried to advance, however, or apply to jobs that worked nationally, she was turned down. “I think part of the problem is I didn’t have the degree,” she said.

She’s also learned the importance of self-care through the program. “We’ve really come to rely on one another and think of ourselves as a family,” she said of her fellow classmates. Developing the type of a network she’s gained through the program, she said, will be critical to sustaining the type of community change work she envisions doing for the long haul. “Whether I like it or not, this is my calling,” Staci said. “But you need to learn how to network, maintain healthy working relationships and take care of yourself so you don’t burn out.”

Today, all of Staci’s personal and professional experiences, education, and volunteering has led her to her current job, which she started just this past April, as the Wayne & Oakland County Regional Organizing Director for NextGen Michigan. Whatever comes next for her, moreover, she knows she’ll take what she’s learned from the CLP program with her into the future. “I’ve learned how to kick down the type of doors that used to be in my way,” she said. “And I want to help other people do the same.”