By: Hope Vuto, Senior Manager of Parent & Family Voice at Preschool Promise
Something magical happens when families come together to share, listen and dream together. They have powerful ideas about practical, sustainable ways to more effectively provide early care and education, especially to those who lack opportunity. In Dayton, we have seen this magic up close with our new Parent and Family Voices Committee.
“If you had a magic wand, what would you change?” This is the first question we asked a group of 22 families raising young children in Montgomery County, Ohio, in July 2021. Mothers, fathers, grandparents and foster parents of all different races, ethnicities, income levels, zip codes and life experiences gathered over a meal to answer what we — naively — thought would be a difficult question.
One-by-one, answers poured out. The participants had thoughtful, innovative ideas, many of which could fix how well-meaning governments and helping agencies too often fail in their support for families with young children. This discussion was just the start of a year-long journey together to create an action plan by families and for families, outlining how to change systems to support caregivers and prepare children for success in kindergarten and beyond. Today, almost half of the way through our year together, there’s so much to share. But here’s just one critical take-away.
Ensuring equity takes more than a gift card
Recognizing that families are experts at knowing what they need and should be compensated for the time they contribute, we offer payment for each month they participate in the Committee. But compensation alone isn’t enough. All families today, but especially those experiencing poverty, struggle to find discretionary time.
The best thing we did was hire a passionate, caring family advocate to host the committee and assist with recruiting and supporting participating families. Quiana, our Parent and Family Voices Committee Consultant, is a Black mother of a beautiful and spirited 1-year-old daughter, Shay. Quiana is a natural leader and connector with over 10 years of experience working with families at a Dayton community center.
Quiana does more than just recruit and lead meetings. She has become a friend, a confidant, and a resource for families. We share the belief of Groundwork Ohio and the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Manifesto for Race Equity & Parent Leadership in Early Childhood Systems:
“Families want to work with early childhood systems to improve outcomes for their kids, but face barriers. Rooted in structural racism and bias which pervade the attitudes, behaviors, policies and practices of these systems and our society as a whole, these barriers prevent many parents of color from being true partners and leaders in their child’s healthy development and early learning.”
Of the 22 families on our committee,19 of them earn at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Level. Four have faced evictions just in the 5 months we have been together. Many are facing barriers that a monthly stipend alone cannot begin to eliminate.
Even before the official kick-off of the committee, we worked individually with each family to build trust — by being available, reliable and caring. Quiana checks in weekly to ensure each family can participate in the upcoming meeting. Our goal is to make sure lack of transportation, illness or other issues don’t get in the way of their voices being heard.
Thanks to Quiana’s sensitivity and resourcefulness, we’ve come up with creative solutions to support families who might otherwise struggle to attend and be fully present during each session. We, for example, provide child care. We’ve hired a therapist to host a wellness hour before each meeting. We provide transportation when needed. And we help families make connections to local helping agencies and more.
We also have really good food at our sessions together. Take a moment to read that again – this overture is more important than we often think. We provide the kind of food that feels special, that families enjoy and want to come back for.
We also make time to connect a priority, enjoying celebrations and sending well wishes to those who are struggling. These touches set a tone – a tone of respect and recognition of each individual – that promotes thoughtful conversation and a willingness to hear each other.
We’ve invested in making this work a positive experience for every family, and that commitment has paid off. Over 90% of families have attended every meeting. They come eager to join in and can put aside some of their stressors at least for a while.
In the same way that we cannot expect our children to be ready to learn when they are hungry, sick, scared or stressed, we should not expect families to fight through so many barriers to do the hard task of creating solutions for changing the systems that can lift them out of poverty and serve their children.
After 6 months, what’s our advice? Take time and spend money to invest in the families from whom you want to learn. Give them the space and the time to talk, and they will do the heavy lifting of fostering change.
This effort has been made possible by generous funding from Groundwork Ohio and the Pritzker Children’s Foundation.
In July 2021, Groundwork Ohio launched the Center for Family Voice, an innovative "center for excellence” dedicated to authentically engaging Ohio parents and families in the policies and practices that impact the healthy development of their children. To learn more about putting family voice at the center of policy development so that policies respond to the unique needs of families, read Groundwork Ohio's report "Amplifying Family Voice to Advance Equitable Outcomes for Young Children."