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A Seat at the Table

By: Lawrence Witherspoon, Director, Center for Family Voice, Groundwork Ohio

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The Johnson Family (including baby Xoie) with Lawrence at Advocacy Day, 2023

At the beginning of 2023, the Center for Family Voice made a promise to the families in our Family Action Network. We promised to provide additional advocacy training in preparation for Advocacy Day, happening in just a few months on March 8th. This training would increase each family’s knowledge of the policymaking process and allow them to engage and collaborate with policymakers and other stakeholders throughout the state of Ohio.

The communications we had with the families and subsequent training allowed our families to expand and evolve into a space that encouraged them to connect, support, and empower each other while advancing equitable outcomes for young children in Ohio. "I want my voice to be heard and measures to be taken into the future. I want families to get the help they need.” This quote from one of the families stood out to me and at that moment, I understood the importance of families having a seat at the table.

“A seat at the table” is a figurative term we often use to describe one’s presence in a particular space, or how having a role in a particular group gives us some sense of authority to be taken seriously and to influence how decisions are made. However, we can have a seat at the table but never get the opportunity to share, define, and influence changes, especially in the policy advocacy space.

When our families spoke about their interest in advocacy, we not only heard them, but we also listened. We continued to engage our families after our big advocacy day event through surveys and personal conversations. Families responded by saying they now felt heard, valued, and empowered.

Having an opportunity to speak directly to policymakers and share stories gave families a taste of what it feels like to sit at the table. Three days after attending the advocacy day event, I received a call from Lynanne Gutierrez, our Chief Operating & Policy Officer, informing me that families would have another opportunity to share their experiences by providing testimony along with other stakeholders, partners, and experts in the early childhood space in front of the House Finance Subcommittee on Health and Human Services as policymakers debated House Bill 33, the FY 24-25 Budget Bill.

I was now tasked with reaching out to families who had been eager to sit at the table on one of the biggest stages in our state. I contacted three families in our Family Action Network to explain this upcoming opportunity that would take place just a few days after advocacy day, not giving them much time to prepare. Each family responded with gratitude and excitement.

“Groundwork has been preparing us for almost a year to tell our own story and we’re ready.” Each family provided written testimony for submission and worked with Groundwork staff all week in preparation for delivering it in person.

Before we knew it, the day finally arrived. On March 14, 2023, Holly, Lori, and Rebekah, experts from our Family Action Network, took a seat at the table and presented their stories as a collective panel to the Subcommittee. Each family represented in the panel told their story about the importance of early childhood education and how they struggle with gaining equitable access to quality education for their young children. You can read their full testimonies here.

I have the privilege of standing beside our families as a partner in support of our young children in Ohio. Since its inception in May of 2022, the Center for Family Voice’s focus has been on amplifying the family voice in the policy advocacy space in Ohio. The work has been humbling and resulted in deep and trusting relationships with many families which has required time, resources, and intellectual humility. We did it! We know this is just the beginning, but the opportunity for these families to have a platform during the state budget process is a critical milestone in the advancement of our work together.

Mario, Rebekah, and Xoie Johnson, Joe and Lori Jarvis, and Holly Unger

“It felt great to have a seat at the table to tell my story and be heard.” The Center for Family Voice will keep our promise to build capacity through our Family Action Network as we continue to involve, inform, consult, engage, and collaborate with families, empowering them to tell their stories as they take their seats at the table.


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