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United Way's New President and CEO Dr. Darienne Driver Talks Her Vision for Detroit

Driver hopes to broaden the scope of what a charitable organization can really be. United Way has been around since 1887, but there's still plenty of work to do, especially in Detroit.

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Dr. Darienne Driver was 6 years old when she decided to pursue teaching as a career path. She couldn't see herself doing anything outside of a school setting and "was determined to teach." Her first grade teacher, Mrs. Wright, was the first to hone the "precocious" child's passion. "She found different ways to engage me, to really nurture that talent," Driver says. "Then I realized, she was the teacher I really wanted to be." Before life as a trailblazer, Driver was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia with parents, Linwood and Dale Driver, and her sister. In middle school, the family packed up and moved to a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where her mom worked for the Sickle Cell Society Inc, and her father ran a nursing home.

Like many of the students she taught further down the line, she too benefited from public school systems, and was proud of the "wonderful" education she received. The reason education is an important part of Driver's life is because her parents attended segregated schools at a young age.  "Education has always been something we always had to fight for as African-Americans," says Driver. "My sister and I were reminded on a regular basis that our education was not something we (could) take for granted." This ingrained ideology resulted in her sister becoming a neonatologist, and Driver being named president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. "We always had an agreement (her sister said), 'You teach them, and I'll deliver them,'" which Driver did after graduating a year early from the University of Michigan with a master's in education.

Early graduation left her with time to figure out the next steps. She reached out to a few classmates and friends who were working for Detroit Public Schools, and they encouraged her to apply for a teaching position. She was now following her first grade teacher's footsteps and became a teacher at Greenfield Park Elementary School. It was here she began building bonds with students and their families, just like what Mrs. Wright did with Driver and her family. She remembers one student in particular, James, who she motivated to complete his homework by promising to perform a cartwheel in front of the entire class. "Of course, the one time he does bring his homework, I wore a dress," says Driver. "The whole class is just laughing. They were like, 'You promised, you promised, Ms. Driver!' I got a whole new level of street cred that day, because I went outside and just did it. Thankfully, it ended up being okay … it was a real breakthrough. (James) was like, 'I won't make you do that anymore, Ms. Driver, I'll start doing my homework.'"

She was "willing to do anything to help them learn and wanted them to have that same fire and passion about their education." Driver left DPS in 2005 to attain her doctorate degree from an urban superintendents program at Harvard University. Through the doctorate program, she participated in an internship in Clayton County, Georgia for two years. Following the internship, she landed in Philadelphia where she ran a "turnaround program." "It was called the Empowerment Schools," says Driver. "Those were the 100-plus schools that were failing to meet expectations or corrective action. I think that was the term back then." After four years in Philadelphia, she became the chief innovation officer in Milwaukee. "It was the first they'd ever had," says Driver.

In 2014, she finished her doctorate degree at Harvard, and subsequently was asked to be interim superintendent due to her predecessor stepping down. Three months later, in October 2014, she was asked to be the permanent superintendent – a role served until June 2018. "I just became really interested in how the economies of cities and states are impacted by what's happening in school communities," says Driver. "I realized the type of change I wanted to create was not going to happen if I stayed in the classroom." Which is why she began making more of a difference outside of the classroom.

In her current position as president and CEO, she's already pledged $500,000 from United Way to help fund the installation of water filtration systems in 106 Detroit Public Schools. She says even in her current position, it's hard not working directly with students, but she fills this hole by making sure "the resources we are receiving are going directly to serving our students, their families and their communities." In addition to improving the DPS water supply, Driver is gearing up for what she describes as "listening tours" to visit a number of community agencies and partner agencies "to see what their needs are."

Amongst the seven-city tour list are Inkster, Pontiac, Mount Clemons, Detroit and Lansing. "We have to be very strategic in our approach," says Driver. "What are the greatest needs in our community that we can really target? Then be very intentional on how we start to solve those problems. So that means there might be some things we might not be able to do as much of anymore, and then that means we may have to start reallocating resources, and making deeper investments in other areas…"

United Way is a "backbone" organization whose purpose is to "mobilize the caring power of Detroit and southeastern Michigan to improve communities and individual lives in measurable and lasting ways," according to United Way's mission. This "backbone" often looks like their campaign initiative to raise $46 million this year, or through launching "Seasons of Caring," which is a year-round volunteerism program with the goal of completing 25,000 volunteer hours. "I am a firm believer that everyone may not have the resources to give financially, but everyone can give time," says Driver. "So this is how we can invest and empower our community. Whether there are people who are providing those resources or those who are recipients of those resources, to make Michigan a better place."

Top 5 Things Dr. Darienne Driver is Thankful For

A foundation to stand on...

"I am very thankful that I had such a strong foundation while I was growing up – education was really at the center of everything that we did. Getting that from my parents and my grandparents and their friends and family and relatives, just very grateful that I've had so many experiences. I went to seven different states and being able to see the landscape of this country through so many different lenses is just invaluable, and I take all of those experiences with me wherever I go."

A strong network...

"I would definitely say the network of support that's been created across this country and having the opportunity to learn from and interface with some of the best educators in the country, whether they were superintendents or teachers or principals, that really is a gift because as we learn from each other, we are only going to be that much better, that much stronger, for our children."

The students...

"I am grateful for all of the children that I had an opportunity to learn from, work with, and serve and teach and lead. I carry them with me wherever I go, and I'm just very grateful for the lessons that they taught me. My prayer is that in this role now, I can continue to serve them and serve them well."

The work-life balance...

"There are days where it's a lot easier to be thankful than others, but I think the fact that I can stand here and talk to you today and say I am in good health and of sound mind. I have a network of support, family and friends that make sure that I am able to stay whole."

The Motor City...

"I'm thankful to be back in Detroit."

Jasmine Espy is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

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