Thirteen years ago, Nealmetria Loper came to a reckoning in her life. After living in a Detroit neighborhood that was troubled by violence and poverty, she decided she wanted better for her own children — and other children living in the city.
Loper — one of two Safe & Just Michigan Community Outreach Fellows— already knew cycles of crime and violence can affect children. Her family was affected by domestic violence when she was growing up, and when she was a young adult, her older brother was murdered. The loss left an absence in her family that she still feels, and she’s keenly aware that many other families in the city struggle with similar losses.
She also knows how families with limited resources struggle to provide their children with opportunities and basic needs. The mother stated that her family has had to use resources available in programs like the SNAP food program or Section 8 housing, like so many other families around her. She understands wholeheartedly what overcoming these challenges financially and socially are like.
Seeking a better future for her family and families sharing similar experiences, Loper decided she had prioritize her education in social justice, advocacy and social determinants of health in order to better become equipped with the knowledge to do just that. That, in turn, led to opportunities to become even more involved in efforts to end childhood poverty, improve education and boost childhood nutrition at the state and national level, becoming a community health worker, postpartum doula and a family health advocate among many other certifications.
“I’m here trying to save the world from my home,” said Loper. She, along with SJM’s second Community Outreach Fellow Ceci Bordayo, will focus their work on lowering barriers to employment in the health care field for people who have a criminal record.
Loper comes from a health care background. Changing Michigan’s occupational regulatory system to enable more people with a criminal record to enter helping professions will require Loper to learn different policies and legislation than she had previously been working on, but that isn’t something that deters her. Loper is passionate about education. She has seen that a formal education is amazing, but lived experience is equally valuable.
“School was my refuge. School was my happy place. It was my everything,” Loper said. “Even now, I’m always in some kind of class or training. I’m a lifelong learner.”
It’s never too late to educate yourself to better your family and our community, Loper stated.
That’s when she began to learn the ins and outs of support systems intended to assist families like hers, such as the SNAP food program and Section 8 housing assistance.
“So many different systems have affected me as a mom in the first place,” Loper said. “Lots of families in my community have been affected by these systems that … barely make it where folks can survive. I know firsthand that you have to empower yourself and others to become a change agent, to be the change you want to see.”
She realized that if she was encountering problems with any of those systems, she couldn’t be the only one. It means that other families in Detroit and around the state share similar experiences. It seemed to her that if she became active in addressing those problems, she wouldn’t only be helping herself, but she would be helping untold number of families around her.
“Whatever issues I’m going through, I know other moms need that support as well,” Loper said. “I don’t only want to help my family but help other families as well.”
At one point, Loper said something “clicked inside me.”
“I made the decision to put more effort into bringing up my children in a better environment and essentially learning what policies affected their health and education. I decided they will not live and grow up the way I grew up,” she said. “I decided that my circumstances will not determine where my life goes.”
Having children didn’t make it impossible to find time to make a difference, she said.
“You make time for what you really want to do,” she said.
For instance, while working part time as a research assistant for the University of Michigan nutritional science program, she also finds time to be an SJM Community Outreach Fellow and a committee member of Michigan Feeding Families, a state-run advocacy team that informs policy makers on nutritional issues and the needs of Michigan families. In addition, she participates in numerous community organizations and is a member of the steering committees of several local organizations working on issues ranging from education, literacy, fair housing and health.
At the same time, she runs her own organization, An Angel is Here. That organization, sustained through gifts of friends and supporters, provides education and services to the community at no cost, such as parent training and child literacy kits among many other tangible resources including system navigation to apply for benefits and childcare.
One of the best things about being involved in this work is that she is able to see results.
“The government has made many of our recommendations around early childhood education come true,” she said, explaining that childcare workers are being paid more, and people in the community who operate home-based childcare are getting funding to enlarge their businesses, helping more working parents in their community. “What I like is that I can see that it is not fruitless. It’s worth being a part of some of these things when you can see things getting better. Even if it’s not always a quick fix, it’s for you to decide that there are things that you can do to help yourself and your children. I want to be an example of that.”
While she hasn’t been directly involved in many criminal justice reform issues before, the topic isn’t new to her. She has seen how crime impacts her community firsthand, and she has witnessed how the criminal legal system has impacted — and failed — people she knows.
She believes in the work Safe & Just Michigan does because she believes in second chances.
“Who doesn’t want a second chance?” she said. “Having to start over and not be able to be in certain places if you’ve made mistakes — that really resonated with me.”
During her fellowship, Loper hopes to learn how policies change and which legislators are most open to giving people another chance. She hopes to reach lawmakers with a common-sense message: “If you want the economy to move, you have to help people to move up.”
~ Barbara Wieland
Senior Communications Specialist