Partnership and collaboration across diverse leaders and systems are key ingredients to having the greatest impact for children in our state. Among these partners, the most important are families. From nurturing a child’s brain development in the earliest days of life to dismantling systemic barriers, we can’t do what’s best for young children without them.
Every individual, agency, or group working to support children’s flourishing is at their best when they are engaging with and learning from families. Strong alliances with parents and caregivers in child care, schools, doctor’s offices, homes, and throughout our communities are critical to ensuring children are thriving and systems are responsive to families’ needs.
In a recent press release, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and Governor Roy Cooper recognized Family Engagement Month in November as “a time to appreciate and recognize the critical role families play as a child’s first, longest lasting, and most important teachers, advocates and nurturers. Family leaders can help communities build resiliency, reduce barriers to accessing education and health care, and improve the delivery of services.” NCDHHS highlights PBS NC resources that equip parents and caregivers with tools to promote their child’s development. They also emphasize the need to partner with families on long-term solutions to child care that allow parents to go to work, and qualified teachers to stay in classrooms.
Inspired by the spirit of this month, and a value we hold all year long, we’re sharing some ways the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) and our allies are partnering with—and being led by—families to ensure every North Carolina child has the greatest opportunity for success and well-being.
Nonprofit Partners Leading the Way
Some of the most innovative family engagement and leadership work is happening at nonprofits across the state. We highlight three below who, along with other initiatives included on the Pathways Action Map, are actively working to ensure systems are family-driven and equitable. The Not About Me, Without Me report, developed by NCECF as a part of the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative, was used to help elevate family voices when prioritizing policy and strategy areas included on the Map.
- Village of Wisdom (VOW) uplifts and works in partnership with Black families to create culturally affirming learning environments for Black and Brown students. In addition to family convenings that provide strategies to create community interdependence and address racial justice in schools, VOW also uses a community driven and participatory approach to research, ensuring that families are empowered to drive change in the educational setting. Their Keep Dreaming report provides preliminary findings from a community-driven Dreams Assessment conducted by VOW Parent Researchers.
- Charlotte Bilingual Preschool provides a suite of two generation programs, including the only 5-star licensed dual language preschool program in North Carolina and Family Programs designed in partnership with families. Their leadership team includes 11 members from current or alumni families. One of their growth strategies is to build the bilingual early childhood education workforce by hiring and training educators of color from within their family community. Hear stories from family participants.
- The Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center (ECAC) is committed to the right of all children, particularly those with special healthcare needs, to receive a strong education. ECAC Parent Educators enable the organization to approach this work, grounded in practical knowledge and personal experience, with parent leaders empowered as advocates for their children and positioned as a resource for other parents. View their Family Engagement Month resources, including opportunities for storytelling and advocacy.
Listening to Families about Mental Health
In an effort to listen and learn from families about how North Carolina can best strengthen its infant and early childhood mental health system, the EarlyWell Initiative partnered with four community-based organizations to interview and survey over 200 parents and caregivers of young children in 28 counties across the state. The Lean In and Listen Up report, released by NCECF and NC Child, documents the themes, recommendations, and personal stories shared by families, and is intended to be a guide for advocates, policy makers, clinicians, funders, and others interested in improving systems of care for young children and families.
The results of the report were used to center family voices in the development of EarlyWell’s 30 policy and practice recommendations, released this year. Family leaders also served on the work groups that helped to co-create these recommendations, and are currently serving on the EarlyWell Coalition’s Coordinating Team that will help move them forward.
Engaging Families in Changing Child Care
The Care and Learning (CandL) coalition, which began to develop over the course of the pandemic, has a vision to revolutionize the early care and education system in North Carolina so that it is accessible, affordable, and responsive to the needs and desires of all families, particularly families of color. The coalition is led by various stakeholders, including NCECF.
To be successful in achieving this vision, CandL prioritizes hearing what families and other leaders in the early care and learning community have to say. Developing both the messaging and the plan for a transformed system required the input of parents and caregivers on the demand side, including those facing the highest barriers to accessing quality child care, and on the supply side, including child care center directors, educators, family child care home providers, and those who provide informal care.
In early 2022, CandL introduced a listening tour covering 24 North Carolina counties. An update from the pilot listening sessions was released in July 2022. Many parents didn’t want the sessions to end, sharing that having their voices engaged in the process was so affirming. Some of the key themes from what they shared include:
- The current childcare system does not work for everyone.
- Primary barriers to childcare are accessibility and trust.
- The biggest need: access to high-quality childcare options.
Parent Power in Community Collaboratives
NC Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (CGLR) communities have been actively engaging with and learning from families in various ways, and sharing their experiences with one another so these efforts can grow. From Ready for School, Ready for Life’s Parent Leader Network in Guilford County and Durham’s CGLR’s Parent Listening Tours described here, to the many ways initiatives like Twin Counties Read to Rise in Nash and Edgecombe Counties adapted their services to better meet the needs of families during the COVID-19 pandemic, examples abound of family engagement and leadership being prioritized in community efforts across the state.
Respected leaders in the field have also lifted up its importance with community partners at NC CGLR annual meetings. In 2020, Dr. Iheoma Iruka, currently at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, encouraged communities to “focus on providing counter-narratives that lift up the strengths of families and communities of color, rather than assigning blame, and creating villages of protection, affection, correction and connection.”
In August 2022, Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt with Black Child Development Institute of Charlotte, shared, “Out in communities, we need to massage the system to do something different so that we are sharing power with our families…We are building tables to bring families up to tell us—‘What is it that you want, what is it that you need for your children? How can I serve you?’”
Family Engagement and Leadership as a Priority
Yes, parents and caregivers are children’s first and most important teachers, nurturers, and advocates. They are also researchers, decision-makers, and our most important partners and collaborators. Let’s learn from these examples, and keep making this partnership a priority.