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Detroit Parent Network

726 Lothrop
Detroit, Michigan 48202

Sharlonda Buckman

By Tunde Wey
January 23, 2013

The well-worn adage that "kids don’t come with an instructions manual" is patently false in 21st century Detroit. There are a plethora of organizations dedicated to the development of children, each proffering voluminous reams of evidence-based strategies to raise children. However, what might be true is the limited, but thankfully growing, understanding of the various types of children and families. The Detroit Parent Network is helping broaden understanding of the parenting landscape.
The Detroit Parent Network is a parent advocacy, training and support organization working to empower Detroit parents and primary caregivers to obtain quality education for their children. DPN, which is headed by Sharlonda Buckman, sees its primary role as providing the best education for kids. Its tack, however, is a little different. Buckman says, "When we looked at what was happening in education there were people speaking for unions and school administration but there was nobody speaking for kids. We thought parents were the best advocates." By empowering parents to recognize their inalienable value in the education of their children, DPN is working to secure the interests of those kids.
Buckman is youthful. She is 40 years old, 5 feet 10 inches, slender and charming. She laughs frequently and noticeably when she speaks; her language shifts energetically between proper industry lexicon and endearing colloquial banter. The seriousness she exhibits when explaining her work is smoothed by anecdotes and playful segues that reaffirm the importance yet normality of DPN's purpose.
Buckman understands parents, she understands kids and she understands institutions; she has lived every one of these experiences. Her path to heading DPN has been an incubation of sorts, allowing her to develop into the kind of leader intimately familiar with the myriad of vying interests in the K-12 education system.
Buckman is a married mother of two children, an eleven-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. She has worked in the nonprofit industry for almost half her life in education, childhood development and organizational management. However it might be her experience in public school that drives her relentless work ethic in securing parents' rights and children’s futures.
High school was a difficult time for Buckman. It is easy to understand how all the characteristics – self-assurance, jovialness and single-mindedness – that make Buckman a charismatic person might be troublesome in a teenager, especially a teenager in an institution as formal as high school.

"I got put out of all Detroit Public Schools," Buckman says.  "I was home tutored for two years and by 16 I was ready to take my GED."
At the time the eligibility age for the GED was 18, so Buckman spent the next two years in community college. After leaving community college, Buckman cut her teeth at a local community development corporation, later receiving a Master's Degree in Community Economic Development. Her description of her educational experience as “nontraditional” is a constant reminder that the static ideas of "normal" or "traditional" are sometimes a hindrance when delivering assistance.
The lens through which DPN views parenting and parental structures is shaped by Buckman's view of a nontraditional approach to providing support. DPN’s programs, which are broad and representative of the diversity of Detroit parents, are testimony to the shifting shape of families and their increasingly important role in education.
DPN offers parenting classes and training, parent support groups, and public speaking training to foster educational policy interest and action. DPN has an early childhood preparation program called Pathways to Literacy that works to educate parents to prepare their children for kindergarten. Project Graduation, a program to help parents create the sort of supportive and nurturing home environment that promotes high school graduation and college admission, is another DPN program. Buckman says the significance of these programs extend beyond the workshops.
"In our parent leadership training we intentionally built time for parents to build relationships with each other," she says. "In essence they are building social support networks. They are meeting other parents like them." She explains that part of what is done in the training is having parents develop a mission for their lives. "In this training you get to dream again and find out what you want to do with your life, so parents come up with mission statements and what they find is a circle of support." The leadership training allows parents to begin leadership in their home and community, and most of the training is done by parents who have gone through the program and also recruit other parents.
After seven years of operating outside of any school district, DPN was awarded a Detroit Public School contract to begin offering their programming to DPS parents. DPN now serves 30,000 parents through its eight Parent Resource Centers throughout the city.
In many circumstances emotional proximity to issues is a liability, but for Buckman and her hardworking staff it is their greatest asset; they are parents who struggle with overly boisterous kids, a sometimes obstinate school system and their own personal challenges.
"We don’t just do this work, we live this work. Sometimes I’m running late to work 'cuz I’m trying to get my kids to school on time … sometimes I need a parenting class. The way we get authenticity is because we are living this issue. We bring parents out of isolation – those who think they are the only ones going through this problem." Through the Detroit Parent Network, and Buckman’s efforts, the realization that we are all in this together is ever more apparent – pun intended.

Photo by Doug Coombe.

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