Susan Sands, National Chair of Minneapolis-based Jeremiah Program
Emphasis on two generations
out of poverty and into living-wage
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Human Capital
Interview September 26, 2014
John Adams, Janis Clay,
Paul Gilje (coordinator), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Dan Lortiz
(chair), Susan Sands, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter. By phone:
Dave Broden (vice chair), Audrey Clay, Dwight Johnson.
According to Susan Sands,
Minneapolis-based Jeremiah Program is unique in its approach to
attacking the problem of poverty among single mothers and their young
children. Rather than focusing only on the mothers or only on the
children, Jeremiah attempts to move the families from poverty to
prosperity by working with both generations at the same time. The
intensive program is aimed at low-income mothers age 18 or older with
children age five or under.
Before a family can fully participate in
Jeremiah, the mother must have a high school diploma or GED, complete
a 16-week empowerment program and be accepted into a postsecondary
institution. After meeting these requirements, families who are
accepted into the full Jeremiah Program live in housing units on the
Jeremiah campus in either Minneapolis or St. Paul, while the mother
earns a career-track degree or certification at a postsecondary
institution. On each campus, the children attend a high-quality Child
Development Center, which aims to prepare them for kindergarten.
Families stay in Jeremiah program for an average of two-and-a-half to
Jeremiah Program outcomes show high levels
of success, Sands reports. Sixty-one percent of women who finish the
empowerment program and then enroll in Jeremiah complete the full
program. Graduates earn a livable wage, averaging $19.35 an hour, and
90 percent of them maintain consistent employment. Ninety-three
percent of graduates' children are performing at or above grade level.
Jeremiah has started expanding to several
other cities around the country, but Sands is quick to say that the
program will only go into cities where it is invited as a community
initiative. She says, though, that the cost of providing housing and
limits on philanthropy in the Twin Cities area make it difficult to
expand Jeremiah's program here.
Susan Sands is chair of
Jeremiah Program's national board of directors, a position she has
held for the past two years, and has been involved in the program for
more than 10 years. Jeremiah Program is a Minneapolis-based
organization that provides affordable housing, childcare, life-skills
education and other services to low-income single mothers and their
children. Its goal is to move families from poverty to prosperity,
ending the cycle of poverty by transforming both the mothers' lives
and the children's lives. She is among a group of community leaders
who actively worked to develop a St. Paul campus for Jeremiah Program,
in addition to its existing Minneapolis campus.
Sands has started three companies, including
S&B Properties, the St. Paul real estate development and consulting
firm she created 22 years ago and still runs today. The company
originally focused on renovating houses in distressed areas, working
with community development corporations. Today, the company serves
exclusively nonprofit organizations, helping them resolve their real
In 1977, she and Marlene Johnson established
the first state chapter of the National Association of Women Business
Owners. In 1982, Sands and Johnson helped establish the Minnesota
Women's Campaign Fund, now known as womenwinning, a nonpartisan
political action committee (PAC) dedicated to supporting prochoice
women candidates at all levels of political office.
In addition to Jeremiah Program, Sands has
served on several other boards, including the Greater Minneapolis
Council of Churches, Western Bank and the F.R. Bigelow Foundation. She
is also a member of the Community Advisory Network for the University
of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing. She has a B.A.
degree in sociology and social work from the University of Minnesota.
The Civic Caucus invited
Susan Sands to discuss Minneapolis-based Jeremiah Program's unique
approach to raising low-income mothers of young children from poverty
to sustaining-wage employment by working with both generations. The
topic is part of an on-going Civic Caucus focus on Minnesota's human
The mission of
Minneapolis-based Jeremiah Program is to transform the lives of
low-income mothers and their children and move them from poverty to
prosperity, two generations at a time. Susan Sands of Jeremiah
Program said an understanding has developed at the national level that
transforming only one generation at a time is not as effective in the
long term. Through safe and affordable housing, quality early
childhood education, empowerment and life-skills training, and support
for career-track education, Jeremiah Program prepares determined
single mothers to succeed in the workforce, readies their children to
succeed in school and reduces generational dependence on public
Jeremiah is the only program in the state
that works with both generations to allow the mothers to complete
their education. "If you're going to affect the children, you must
work with the mothers, as well," Sands remarked. She said she doesn't
know of any other program in Minnesota that works with both
generations and offers housing and child development services.
Jeremiah Program started in Minneapolis in
response to civic leaders. In the early 1990s, Minneapolis Mayors
Don Fraser and Sharon Sayles Belton put out a call to business and
religious leaders, saying the city could not sustain itself, given the
growing number of children being born to single mothers in poverty.
According to Sands, Fr. Michael O'Connell at
the Basilica and clergy from other downtown churches started a free
daycare center in a church near Loring Park for women attending
Minneapolis Technical College (now MCTC). The center closed after four
months. The women told interviewers that daycare was not their primary
need; they needed safe housing.
Fr. O'Connell put together a collaboration
of business, philanthropists, education and the churches in the area
to see what could be done. "That was the beginning of Jeremiah
Program," Sands said. Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy) owned a
vacant lot behind MCTC and contributed the site to the program.
After several years of program planning and
fundraising, Jeremiah opened 18 housing units on that site in January
1998. In 1999, the Child Development Center (CDC) opened in a
temporary on-site space. In 2002, the Minneapolis campus expanded to
39 housing units and space for 66 children in the full-service CDC.
Early on, Jeremiah's leaders realized the
importance of a full range of services, in addition to housing.
They developed a program that addresses cognitive change, Sands said.
The program is set up for mothers and their kids, with the intent of
ending multigenerational poverty. To qualify for Jeremiah, the women
must be 18 or older and have a high school diploma or GED. Their
children must be five years old or younger.
Before being accepted as Jeremiah residents,
the women must go through a 16-week empowerment program. Sands
said the empowerment program "sorts out the women who are really
committed to this kind of change." She explained that during the 16
weeks, the women work with a life coach to establish goals for
themselves and their children. The women also do some evaluation to
determine where their skills and interests would be best used. While
they're completing the empowerment program, the women don't live in
"When the women go through empowerment, we
look for a cognitive transformation to happen," Sands said.
"Empowerment teaches them they are responsible for themselves and for
their lives and for the children they've brought into this world. It's
not, 'you did this to me' or 'the system did this to me.' You are
responsible. You then understand that you have control. People who
last through the 16-week empowerment program are committed to making
Sands noted that about 80 percent of the
women who start the empowerment program make it all the way through.
"They really are determined to make a change in their lives," she
said. "It really becomes primarily for their children. They
participate in family goal planning for themselves and for their
children. It's something pretty new for most of the women."
Only after completing the empowerment
program and being accepted to a postsecondary education institution
can the women apply to become Jeremiah residents. Sands said
Jeremiah emphasizes that education is a key to overcoming poverty.
The women participating in Jeremiah Program
are required to work part-time or volunteer in the community and to
participate in a life-skills program held once a week. Sands said
the life-skills program covers budgeting, nutrition, parenting and
communication. It emphasizes to the mothers the necessity of being
involved in their kids' education.
Jeremiah looks at careers, not jobs. The
program, according to Sands, works with two-year and four-year
colleges in the state to provide career-track education to the women,
with the intention that those finishing the program will be able to
earn enough money to support and sustain their families and
Jeremiah's supportive community makes the
program work. "The women can see they're not the only ones who
have to push themselves or struggle with kids on a given day," Sands
said. "They're not alone in this. A community develops. They haven't
had a supportive community from their neighbors and families before."
The profile of a typical Jeremiah client
indicates that she's a low-income single parent at least 18 years old.
She has a high school diploma or a GED and has enrolled in a
She's living below the poverty level and is likely on public
She's likely to have had no permanent shelter before entering
the program. About 60 percent of the women entering the program are
without permanent homes; most are "couch-hopping" rather than living
on the street, because of their young children, Sands said. (Under a
new state definition, people are only considered homeless if they
are living on the street.)
She is largely isolated and living without much hope. She's
frustrated about how she will support her family.
She is likely to be dealing with abuse or addiction.
She lacks self-confidence.
Her average age is 24.
She's likely to be a woman of color, as 60 to 70 percent of
participants are women of color.
The profile of Jeremiah Program's children
indicates that they're between six weeks and 5 years old.
Five percent of them are diagnosed with special needs.
Sixty percent have seen the effects of drugs or alcohol in the
Thirty percent have witnessed or experienced violence.
Their average age is three.
Seventy to 80 percent are children of color.
"These are not typical little kids we're
dealing with," Sands said. "That's why we really focused on a
child-development center, rather than child care."
Families are in Jeremiah Program for an
average of two-and-a-half to three years. Jeremiah participants
must leave the program and housing within six months of completing
their postsecondary program. Mothers still working on their
educational program may stay at Jeremiah when their children reach
school age. The program helps the mothers know what to look for when
they are choosing a school for their children.
The philosophy of Jeremiah is that the women
are responsible for themselves and for their children. Sands said
women may choose to be in relationships, but the focus is on
Jeremiah tries to create community in its
housing. Sands said community also develops in the different
educational institutions. When the women leave the program, the
coaches tell them the importance of getting into a community,
something larger than themselves, that will help support them and what
they've been involved with in the program.
Jeremiah Program outcomes show high levels
Sixty-one percent of people who finish the empowerment program
and then enroll in Jeremiah complete the full program. Sands said
other programs serving a similar population have completion rates
around 30 percent.
When women graduate from Jeremiah, they have career-track
employment. On average, they earn a livable wage of $19.35 an hour.
Most Jeremiah women have relied on public assistance before
coming into the program. After graduation, Sands said, they quickly
reduce or remove their dependence on public assistance. The reason
this doesn't often happen immediately is that sometimes families
must stay on public assistance to receive health-care benefits.
Forty-seven percent of recent Jeremiah graduates obtained a
four-year degree; 53 percent obtained an associate degree.
Fourteen percent are continuing their education or completing
Ninety-three percent of Jeremiah graduates' children are
performing at or above grade level. The program's goal is that
they'll be ready for kindergarten.
Ninety percent of graduates maintain consistent employment.
For every $1 invested in a Jeremiah family,
there's a $4 return to the community. Over the lifetime of 100
participants, Sands said, there is a $41 million return to society
through taxes, earning ability and the fact that they're not drawing
on public assistance.
The program was designed as a model that
could be replicated in other places. Jeremiah's first expansion
began in 2004 when St. Paul community leaders approached the
organization's leaders about expanding to a second site. In 2007,
after several years of fundraising and extensive input from citizens
throughout the city, Jeremiah opened a St. Paul campus with 38 housing
units and a CDC in the Summit-University neighborhood.
In 2009, Jeremiah formed a national board,
in addition to the Minneapolis-St. Paul board, that is responsible for
expansion of the program outside of Minnesota. Sands said the
organization, with the help of a class at Hamline University,
identified 10 to 12 communities around the U.S. as possible locations
for replicating Jeremiah. Criteria used in identifying the communities
included jobs, opportunities for education and the cost of housing.
"This is an expensive, intensive program," she said. "You really need
to have the commitment from a community to do that."
Rather than Jeremiah establishing itself in
a community "like a franchise," Sands said, "we had decided we wanted
to be invited by a community. We're looking at the push-pull; it must
be a community initiative."
In Austin, Texas, where a large contingent of Minnesotans
moved with 3M in 1982, people knew about Jeremiah, she said. As the
program has expanded to Austin, the community has raised $4 million,
with an additional $2 million in tax credits. Phase one of a
Jeremiah campus in Austin opened in fall 2013.A permanent campus
will break ground in January 2015. Austin has Head Start money that
brings down the cost of the child development center dramatically.
A funder in Fargo approached Jeremiah about starting a
program there, but the advisory committee in Fargo had to spend
considerable time there convincing people they had this problem in
their city. Fargo is now launching a $4 million capital campaign for
Gloria Perez, the national Jeremiah Program CEO and executive
director, was invited by the Aspen Institute to participate in an
which was organized to deal with multigenerational poverty. In
addition to Perez, the effort involved policymakers,
philanthropists, educators and media people, which raised the
visibility of the issue in a number of communities. In Boston,
the Ascend effort has resulted in a partnership with Endicott
College in which Jeremiah and the college are running a pilot
program in an existing housing development and an existing local
childcare center to see if the program can be successfully operated
using existing infrastructure.
Sands said groups in Brooklyn and other cities have also
expressed interest in Jeremiah, after hearing about the program. "We
really feel it needs to be a community initiative," she said, "not
something we're forcing on a community."
The first 18 units built in Minneapolis were
financed totally by private fundraising. "It became overwhelming,"
Sands said. When the Minneapolis campus expanded by 21 units, the
program used some enterprise zone public money, with the rest of the
funding from private sources. When the St. Paul campus was developed,
the program used public low-income housing tax credits, as well as
Each year, Jeremiah in Minneapolis and St.
Paul must jointly raise $2 million to subsidize the program. Sands
said the annual cost for the 38 or 39 residents in Minneapolis and
their families is $1million, with the same cost in St. Paul.
Jeremiah's operating cost annually is $25,000 per family. There is
some subsidy from the state for childcare that goes through the
mothers in the program to the child development center. These figures
don't include any of the costs of the participants' postsecondary
education, which Sands said are worked out with the postsecondary
Recruiting volunteers is important to
Jeremiah's operation and to spreading knowledge of the program.
Sands said fundraising is a major role for the organization's board.
Some fathers are involved with their
children during the program and can spend time with them. In life
skills training, Sands said, the mothers begin to understand what they
want from a relationship. She said the program's coaches and the
resident council determine how involved each father can be. Some
fathers help out by dropping off or picking up their children from the
child development center.
She mentioned a new program in the community
which is aimed at empowering young black fathers (ages 18 to 30)
coming out of incarceration to change their behavior.
Transportation is generally not a critical
need for the program participants. Because 60 percent of Jeremiah
residents drive cars and because the program in St. Paulis located
within two blocks of public transit, Sands said transportation is not
generally a barrier for the participants. The women's greatest needs
are for the housing, coaching resources and child development offered
through the program.
Last year, Jeremiah served 250 people,
including children. In addition to the resident participant
families, Sands said, that figure also includes people going through
the empowerment program, as well as nonresident children, such as
children from the neighborhood or children of program graduates, who
come to the child development center.
Many program participants have more than one
child. Sands said one recent participant had twin infants and
often times, mothers have a three-year-old and an infant.
The cost of housing and limits on
philanthropy make it difficult to expand Jeremiah's Twin Cities
program. Jeremiah could well be serving more women and children in
the Twin Cities, but Sands said the program "is bumping up against the
limits of philanthropy in this community." The board continually
debates other ways to serve more people, she said. The housing is very
expensive, but Jeremiah residents have a negative reaction to not
having housing be part of the program, because of the community that
develops there. "The largest cost of expansion is to build a
building," she said. That's why the pilot program in Boston is
experimenting with using existing housing to make it possible to serve
more families and to come into a community more quickly.
Jeremiah doesn't keep people on waiting
lists. Jeremiah's announcement of an upcoming 16-week empowerment
session usually filters to potential participants through county
social workers, educational institutions or word-of-mouth. Sands said
the 20 to 25 slots in the program usually fill based on those sources
of information. Jeremiah doesn't schedule a new empowerment session
until enough people graduate from its full program to make room for at
least 10 new families to move in. "When you're dealing with
homelessness, It doesn't work very well to keep people on a list," she
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman