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Darienne Driver, 40, the new CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, is making it clear where she stands on the issue defining Detroit's recovery and affecting most of the region.

In her first media interview since taking the helm this month at one of the region’s leading nonprofits, Driver said poverty is the No. 1 issue that must be tackled. Detroit’s poverty rate at 35.7 percent is the largest in the nation for a major city, according to the Census.

“As leaders and institutions, we have to own this problem. When people lack access to health care, education, jobs and basic needs, their hope for a better life is diminished,” Driver said. “We have to be aggressive and relentless in our efforts to unite around the desire for everyone to have access to better. We must be willing to talk to the people living in need every day and connect them with resources that are working to impact their situation, regardless of their affiliation.”

Unlike most charitable organizations, United Way for Southeastern Michigan is well positioned to deal with some of the challenges facing Detroit and other underserved communities in the region.

With an annual budget of $55 million, the group has 5,000 volunteers who each year devote time to help the organization live out the true meaning of its health, economic and educational creed.

But success should also be defined by the kind of leadership an organization has. It is not enough to have a bold mission statement displayed on billboards across the region.

It is also not enough to just talk about how long a group has been around as opposed to how well it's been doing since its founding. Groups that have a stake in social equity ought to be measured by their impact as well as the results they are producing in the community to improve lives. 

Because some have lost faith in groups that project charity and social justice as their mission, they don’t see the models that these groups use as effective tools in helping individuals and families break the shackles of socioeconomic misery. As a matter of fact, some groups tend to exist only on sign posts while others host dinners to tickle the emotions of their members and then act as if problems are meant to stay forever.

Driver has work to do coming from Milwaukee, where she was the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. That city, she said, resembles Detroit in many ways because both share some of the basic challenges in education and other areas.

“In Milwaukee, we were able to address issues such as teen pregnancy, driver’s license attainment and workforce readiness, and developed a blueprint for proactively tackling these problems,” Driver said. “I intend to bring a similar strategy to metro Detroit. My experience as an educator and community volunteer provide insights that will lead my strategy into unpacking and acting on social justice issues.”

But she is no stranger to the educational challenges in the city. She started her teaching career at Detroit’s Greenfield Park Elementary School in 2001. It closed in 2007.

“I know first-hand there are hundreds of talented teachers and administrators working to improve the lives of our city’s young people,” Driver said. “The young people of our city have unlimited potential, but it is incumbent upon us to create systems and pathways to help them succeed.”

With an inclination to confront the burden of inequality and armed with degrees from University of Michigan and Harvard University as well as occupying a seat on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, Driver is vowing to make a difference.

“I used data to identify opportunity gaps and leveraged political capital in the community to develop programming and write policies that impacted institutions that traditionally perpetuated institutional racism, classism, ” Driver said.

For those who doubt the effectiveness of nonprofits like United Way, Driver, a native of Norfolk, Virginia, says, “I am a firm believer that you can show people better than you can tell them. Come volunteer and see the work that is happening within United Way. We each have a role to play in creating lasting change.”

Only time will determine Darienne Driver’s impact leading an organization devoted to fighting social injustice.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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