When State Schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan announced that Steelcase Foundation President Susan Broman would be Michigan’s first director of the newly created Office of Great Start, whoops of joy went up among advocates for early childhood services.
“What I would tell you is the day it was announced e-mails were flying around the state from all of those who had been involved in early childhood, and the common message was this is a home run,” said Marianne Udow, director of the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation in Ann Arbor who also has worked for years to expand early childhood services in Michigan.
Both Udow, who was the spark behind the creation of the Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC) in 2005 when she was the director of the state Department of Human Services, and Broman served on Michigan’s Children’s Board of Directors together for a number of years, helping to focus our advocacy on creating a viable system of early childhood services.
“Isn’t it exciting that she will be doing this?” Udow said of Broman.
Governor Rick Snyder announced last June the creation of the Office of Great Start to consolidate and coordinate a variety of early childhood development and learning programs, as well as the search for a director who could get the Office of Great Start off to, well, a great start.
Broman, who has headed the Steelcase Foundation since 1996, spent a few weeks tying up loose ends at the Foundation before beginning the new position as director of the Office of Great Start which is housed in the state Department of Education.
“Susan is just a great listener,” Flanagan said. “I’ve watched her in meetings where she clearly has no need to be the center of attention, and yet here are all the players who were speaking to her even though she was not leading the meeting.”
In Grand Rapids, Broman had taken lead roles in the creation of “First Steps,” a community partnership building a coordinated system of early childhood services for children from birth to five years old in Kent County.
A legislative priority for Michigan’s Children in 2012 is to “carve out” at least 20 percent of any increased funding for the Great Start School Readiness Program for programs serving young children from birth to age 3 and their families.
“Based on what we know from brain research, why wouldn’t we heavily invest in the first 1,000 days?” Broman said. “We know what we need to do. We now need to have the courage to realign our resources so we invest more on the front end (early childhood) rather than the back end (criminal justice, etc.). We need to base policy decisions based on data and outcomes, rather than ideology.”
Broman’s predecessor at the Foundation, Kate Pew Wolters, had pushed for the Foundation’s grant of $1.8 million for a “Healthy Start” program made in 1995.
“She says it’s my fault for getting her involved in early childhood,” Wolters said in a phone interview. “This was one of the biggest grants we’ve ever made in the Foundation’s history and I told her I need you to keep an eye on this and make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. I was pleased that she took that to heart and ended up getting involved in a variety of early childhood issues and initiatives in the community, which is great for us. The Foundation was very interested in the notion of prevention and the notion of making sure that everybody has the tools that they need to live their lives to the fullest.”
Broman also became involved in efforts to build a better early childhood system statewide, including several years as a member of the Michigan’s Children Board of Directors. Michigan’s Children has long been involved with bridging early childhood efforts as a member of the steering committee for the Michigan Child Care Task Force and then with the Ready to Succeed Partnership and the Early Learning Michigan project.
Broman’s interest in early childhood systems stems in part from her work for many years in substance abuse treatment programs and systems and seeing how many clients had endured severe negative experiences such as neglect or abuse when they were infants and toddlers. How to prevent such tragedies became her career-long obsession and focus of her efforts to make systems operate more efficiently with limited resources in order to provide as many people as possible the help they need.
Broman was a member of the Resource Allocators Consortium in Kent County, an informal body of public and private funders who meet monthly to talk about issues and projects. At the RAC meetings, Broman got to know Kate Pew Wolters, the director of the Steelcase Foundation. In 1996, when Mrs. Wolters announced she was retiring to spend more time with her husband, she urged Broman to apply for the job.
At Steelcase, Broman began managing grants that totaled about $8 million a year (from about $129 million in endowment funds) shortly before the stock market plunge in 2008. The Foundation contributed about $4 million to charities in 2011, Broman said.
Broman is known as a listener who seeks input from a variety of sources. “I spend a fair amount of time listening and trying to understand different people’s perspectives on issues before launching off on a solution,” she said.
Respect for Broman grew widespread among the Foundation and non-profit communities in western Michigan.
In 1998, when Milt Rohwer was named president of the Grand Rapids-based Frey Foundation, he went to Broman for advice on how to be a responsible funder.
“I needed to talk with her about the world of philanthropy,” Rohwer said. “She had a number of suggestions. The Foundation for which she worked and the Foundation for which I worked both had a philosophy of grant-making that suggested we needed to partner with other Foundations rather than pay for an entire project ourselves.”
One common mission for both Foundations was to find ways to coordinate, expand and raise the quality of early childhood services in the Grand Rapids area.
“Repeatedly, we found ourselves working together, both at a state level initially and then for the last 10 years at a local level trying to deal with that challenge,” Rohwer said.”And we served on the board of several of the same organizations. There was a lot of information sharing and aligning of what we were doing within policy mandates” from their Boards of Trustees.
“I think her government service, in particular with the county, does two things for her,” Rohwer said. “It gives her an idea about what public sector bureaucracies are like and how to work within them and, secondly, it gives her an insight into how state government works because the relationship between the county government and state government is very close. She’s uniquely well-oriented to that world and how to operate within it. I don’t know anybody who has a better background.”
Coming from a corporate Foundation also has given Broman “special insight into what the private sector thinks and believes, and that can only help as well,” Rohwer said.
Broman and Rohwer were among the “masterminds” for the development of “First Steps,” a community partnership building a coordinated system of early childhood services for children from birth to five years old in Kent County that was co-chaired by Wolters and Doug DeVos.
Lew Chamberlin, CEO of the Whitecaps baseball team which is a minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers baseball club, said he came to know Broman through their work on the Board of “First Steps” where he came “to appreciate her passion and her drive, which I think she’s going to bring to this new job and I think it’s going to benefit the entire state.”
“As far as her appointment by the Governor, the one thing that it really says to me, which I like, is that it shows that the Governor is serious about this office,” said Chamberlin, a member of the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan (CLCM), an informal group of business professionals who advocate for public support of high quality early childhood services.
“You know he could’ve just picked anyone he wanted from the bureaucracy and kind of take the path of least resistance, if you know what I mean,” Chamberlin said. “But, he didn’t. He picked somebody he knew was going to be serious about this and was going to make this happen. That’s very encouraging to me.”
For the past three years, Michigan’s Children has worked with partners the ECIC and the Center for Michigan to create the CLCM. A priority for Michigan’s Children, the CLCM and other partners is more state support for programs that serve children from birth to age 3 – right in line with Broman’s focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.
Please visit our early childhood page to learn more about what we're doing for young children in our state.