Meet the Passionate Duo Donning Orange Ties in the Fight for Early Childhood Education
Jay Pluimer and Mike O’Keefe are the driven co-chairs of the YWCA giving circle, Circle of Men, which was first formed to support our signature fundraising event, Circle of Women. Soon enough, though, the group took on a more critical mission: to help make high-quality Early Childhood Education more accessible to all through philanthropy and advocacy. Here, the co-chairs talk about passion for high-quality early learning, why they think it’s worth fighting for and the power of their signature orange ties.
Tell us about yourselves. How did you first get involved with YWCA Minneapolis?
Jay: My name's Jay Pluimer and I have lived in Minneapolis for over 40 years. I've been very fortunate to be involved with YWCA Minneapolis for about four years now. Initially, I got involved because my wife, Kathy Longo, joined the board and I had an opportunity to attend my first Circle of Women event. And part of my getting involved included the creation of the Circle of Men, which was initially an opportunity to support the Circle of Women event. I am not in the Early Childhood Education field or a nonprofit; I work at a wealth management firm and have always been in the investment world. I look at advocating for Early Childhood Education as a return on investment, community development and a way to just give back.
Mike: My name is Mike O'Keefe and I moved to Minneapolis in 1984. For 10 years, I was a journalist and then moved into financial advice. And currently, I am a partner/owner at a small company that does IT consulting. I have four kids and all of them were born and raised in Minnesota. I got involved at YWCA because I knew the former CEO at YWCA. I have been going to the Circle of Women event for probably 10 years. The first year I went, unbeknownst to me, only about five other guys attended and I didn't know it was primarily women.
"Empowering women and eliminating racism is something that men want to see happen, too."
So, I've been a strong advocate for men to get more involved. Why do we call this the Circle of Women? Empowering women and eliminating racism is something that men want to see happen, too. When I got the call that this group called Circle of Men was starting, I thought, I guess I got to do this! I went to the first event and met Jay. He's really the leader of the group and I've come along because I really believe in YWCA, and I truly believe that it’s a catalyst. It’s an excellent catalyst for Early Childhood Education and we need folks who can actually do the work.
What is Circle of Men and what are you hoping to accomplish?
Jay: The primary function is really community development and advocacy. We're trying to develop a community of professionals who are committed to giving back to the community and do that through YWCA Minneapolis. Within that, we're focusing our time, efforts and our money on Early Childhood Education. YWCA has an incredibly successful program that we can support. The money that we've raised over the last three and a half years, between $80,000 and $90,000, has gone primarily to scholarships for children who have less economic means, so they can participate and benefit from YWCA’s early learning programs.
The other goal is to grow the community so that we can do more advocacy and partner with other organizations across the state. We want to help people understand why Early Childhood Education is so important and why it needs more support. And if we can continue to do that, then there will be more people giving more money to support it.
"And then the other part is the macro piece, which begs the question, why aren't we as a state or a community funding this when all the studies and all the evidence suggests it's not just a good idea, it's a great idea?"
Mike: There is this macro/micro concept that we've embraced coming into this work. It's this idea that as individual people, we can donate money to help others. That's the micro piece of this is – you're looking a child in the eye and saying yes, I will help you get that head start in life. Right? And then the other part is the macro piece, which begs the question, why aren't we as a state or a community funding this when all the studies and all the evidence suggests it's not just a good idea, it's a great idea?
So, we are all about relationships and persistence. The relationship piece is getting more people involved. It's really interesting what it takes to get people to show up and get excited about Circle of Men. We've got a great quality of people – very committed and very accomplished people. We really want to expand the group and continue to have those people join.
"It is really important that there are men who are speaking about this... and are saying this is important for our community."
Jay: Yes, it is really important that there are men who are speaking about this, particularly men who are not necessarily in the education industry who come from different professions and are saying this is important for our community.
What are some misconceptions about Early Childhood Education that you’ve come across while talking to people? And what is your response?
Mike: One misconception is that it's just day care. They say, I don't understand why we would support day care. They don't understand the education piece. They don't understand the kindergarten readiness part. If you were as privileged as we were, and were brought up in a family where your mother, your father read to you and paid attention to your development, you maybe took that for granted. You don't realize that there are kids out there where that’s not even in their atmosphere.
"Wouldn’t it be something if years from now, my kid's kids say: What do you mean there used to be no zero to 5-year-old education? I mean, what did people do?"
What I say is that if 80 percent of all cognitive development happens between zero and three, why are we starting to educate them at five? Wouldn’t it be something if years from now, my kid's kids say: What do you mean there used to be no zero to 5-year-old education? I mean, what did people do?
Jay: I would echo that. I hear people say, but we’ve had all this progress with pre-K programs… which is wonderful, but it’s not enough. The sooner you introduce kids to reading, writing and arithmetic, the better foundation that they're going to have – the better their chances are to be strong readers by the age of three, the more likely they are to get past eighth grade, graduated from high school and go on to something post high school, whether it's college or something else. All of a sudden now there are all these incredibly productive members of society who are going to make sure their kids do the exact same thing because they bought into the power of education and because it changed their life.
"The sooner you introduce kids to reading, writing and arithmetic, the better foundation that they're going to have – the better their chances are to be strong readers by the age of three, the more likely they are to get past eighth grade, graduated from high school and go on..."
It’s just this amazing power effect that can come out of it. We have this great programming that is already here at YWCA Minneapolis. Let's capitalize on that, grow it and make it available to as many families as we can.
Mike: So that's why we're here now. We just want to be more productive. We've got all the pieces, we just figuring out how to grow this thing.
What are the next steps for Circle of Men?
Jay: We have three or four events throughout the year that have been focused in on Early Childhood Education, which are opportunities to bring in people from some of the other advocacy groups, and also bring in friends, family and professional connections to introduce them to this.
We also now have the power of the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Challenge Grant where now we can tell people about an opportunity for your money to go to a meaningful cause that could be matched up to $250,000.
"When you show up to another event in an orange tie, people say: That’s a cool tie! What’s that all about? And then all of a sudden you start talking about Circle of Men."
Our goal is to gets these events together, educate about the importance of early learning and then raise the money toward it. Beyond that, people can tell their friends and that's where the community effect comes in. When you join the Circle of Men, you get an orange tie; we wear the orange ties to all the events. It’s part of the theme and the color for YWCA Minneapolis. But also, when you show up to another event in an orange tie, people say: That’s a cool tie! What’s that all about? And then all of a sudden you start talking about Circle of Men.
Mike: Yeah, I wear this tie everywhere. Really, everywhere. It’s almost time for a new one! When our new members start wearing the tie, they start spreading the word – and that's really how it takes off.