Skip to content

10 lessons from former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter for Detroit


hsh_stewardshipboard_nutter.jpgOn Feb. 23, former two-term Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter joined the Hope Starts Here Stewardship Board meeting to share insights and lessons from his work revamping early childhood systems in his city.

Nutter offered plenty of advice stemming from years working to launch and implement an initiative called A Running Start Philadelphia, which includes, among other features, universal pre-K for all city children, funded through a soda tax. Getting that win took years of political maneuvering and building community buy-in. Detroit’s Hope Starts Here initiative launched in November 2016 and has similar intentions – to put the city on a pathway to better early childhood outcomes with a strategic plan devised through intense community engagement.

Here are 10 lessons Mayor Nutter offered as words of advice for Detroit to consider as it grapples with similar issues.

  1. Get the right people around the table: “The quality of the folks and organizations at the table is really the foundation of what you’re trying to do,” he said. “You’ve already started well.” The Hope Starts Here initiative is co-chaired by W.K. Kellogg President & CEO La June Montgomery Tabron and The Kresge Foundation President & CEO Rip Rapson. The Stewardship Board includes more than a dozen leaders representing business, schools, nonprofits, and parents, as well as representatives from the City of Detroit and Gov. Rick Snyder. More than 200 community leaders have joined strategy teams.
  2. This work matters – and not just for Detroit: Nutter said he’s watched the ups and downs of Detroit from afar with intention because “Detroit is a great American city, and its success is critical to the United States of America.” Finding a clear pathway to better child outcomes is a must-do, he said, for Detroit to remain on its track toward recovery.
  3. It’s not about the Mayor or any other single leader: Mayor Nutter pointed out that his initiative was not really his as much as it was owned by the community and four prominent community stakeholders – a corporate leader, a nonprofit leader and the heads of the police and schools. “The Mayor can get a lot done but he can’t do everything. You need everyone at this table, thousands more in the community and millions around the state.”
  4. Talk is cheap and actions matter: You can say you’re putting forward a plan to improve early childhood outcomes but what will matter is what actions follow that and how they land on the ground. “People listen to what you say and then they watch to see what you’ll do to see if there’s a difference.”
  5. Business is a crucial partner in early childhood: Nutter said when key Philadelphia business leaders joined his effort, others took it more seriously. “When they show up, it changes the context of the conversation. It’s hard to make things happen without the business community behind you.”
  6. The clock is ticking, act with urgency: When it comes to improving child outcomes, there is no time to waste. Children are growing and learning and changing each day. “When there’s something wrong with the conveyor belt at the factory, you can pull the chain, stop it, find out what’s going on, pause, and then start it up again when the problem is fixed. But with kids… we don’t end school. You keep feeding them, they keep growing up. They don’t stop. Time is your greatest resource.”
  7. When it comes to governance and funding, think strategically: There are a number of ways to ensure that reforms become permanent and sustainable. What’s right for Philly might not be what’s right for Detroit. Nutter suggested embedding some fundamentals of a program permanently into government through a dedicated funding stream so “they will get done no matter who is in charge.” At the same time, “Sometimes when things move outside of government, it’s easier to attract foundation and other kinds of support,” he said.
  8. It’s about community: Community engagement is crucial – and it happens in community, he said. “Don’t go to the community people with a problem already solved, because they’ll say, Now you’re wasting my time.” In Philly, he partnered with a community-focused organization, CEO, to leverage its built-in community trust and ensure reforms had community buy-in.
  9. Data is another must have: Good data about child outcomes can be difficult to come by. In Philly, Nutter said he “spend a couple of years” chasing down and gaining access to data sets from schools, health organizations and government agencies. Beginning to work early on aligning data sets is helpful, he said.
  10. When setting goals, don’t be afraid to stretch: Nutter said he decided last minute on his inauguration night to announce that he intended to make Philadelphia that No. 1 “green city” in America. The news surprised even his staff, but it was the kind of stretch goal Nutter said a community needs to build momentum toward real change. “Lay out bold, ambitious stretch goals, push yourself and push the community. Push business and philanthropy.”