One consistent thing that happens at the Mackinac Policy Conference is someone (or multiple someones) has to ask: What, if anything, happens when business leaders, governmental representatives, philantropists, educational experts and the media are stuck together in a hotel for four days?
The typical answer is – or, at least, the expectation of those naysayers is – not a whole lot. It’s a boondoggle, they say. It’s not representative, they say. It’s just a big paid vacation for the participants, who eat too much shrimp, enjoy too much frivolity and move on without real discussions.
Welp, not every time. Not everyone. Not at all. Let me tell you a story of how this Conference – for all the folks who do attend because it is a retreat of sorts – created a partnership that affects Detroit children, schools and public health in all the right ways.
Last year, the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation came to Mackinac Island and its staff met with many people that week in 2015. One of those groups it met with was Mayor Mike Duggan’s staff, who suggested they continue their conversation in person back in Detroit when everyone got home.
Tony Werner is President & Chief Executive Officer of the Children’s Hopsital of Michigan Foundation, a non-profit, independent, fund-raising organization. Its goal is to improve the health and wellness of children by raising and granting philanthropic resources across the area.
Werner said when they got back to Detroit, they did indeed contact the Mayor’s office. The Mayor’s staff met again with the Foundation and that’s where the magic happened. Because of that first initial contact on the Island, because they got to know one another and talked in a real and substantial way, that second meeting went very well, Werner said.
“We wanted a collaboration in the area of pediatric health,” Werner said. “The city, which had just started working with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, Director of the Detroit Health Department, and he had definite priorities to discuss.”
Lead testing was the top of Dr. El-Sayed’s list. Dr. El-Sayed said that second meeting quickly went from a talk about general priorities for the city to a focus on being proactive about key issues. By the end, he was prodded to bring up the need for financial support to do lead testing in the school. The doctor knew the Detroit Health Department would need about $135,000 to get it done.
And, thankfully for all parties, the Foundation wanted to know more. They wanted a grant application. Like, right now. The Foundation wrote an email asking for that grant application right after the second meeting. That night, Dr. El-Sayed wrote the application. Hours later, the Foundation funded it.
“It was really fantastic,” Dr. El-Sayed said.
“(At the Mackinac Policy Conference) in terms of agenda setting, the goal is you get to know folks and build relationships such that they understand the core of the work that you do and why it is that you do it and where you’re coming from,” the doctor continued. “So when there are moments like this – where there is something that has risen to the top of the agenda – you’re poised to be able to make a request. And you can do that built on the foundation of a relationship that’s more trusting than just approaching someone cold.
Fast forward a bit. Right now, Detroit Public Schools with this grant is in the process of testing drinking water in all of its schools.
So nothing happens because of the Mackinac Policy Conference? So nothing good is happening in Detroit, in its government, in its charitable organizations, in its schools?
“One has to believe in the ability to be different and then actively go and be different,” Dr. El-Sayed said. “We live in a city that has suffered from a sense of complacency for too long. The problems that we face are immediate and we have to fix them now. … We turned around a grant in two days. The program was ready in a week. We were doing it in two weeks. Detroit Public School was being tested within three weeks of having that conversation.”
“We didn’t let it stay (on Mackinac Island); we actually followed through once we got back and followed up on it,” Werner said.