Coalitions Widen Apertures with Racial Equity Lens

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Word cloud with these words in bold: opportunities, family, literacy, education, liberation, ready
Image: Word Cloud made from phrases shared during “what is your why” CGLR icebreaker, from facilitator Jovonia Lewis.

During National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Week, themed Bright Spots and Silver Linings, our team at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) convened the  Annual Meeting of the North Carolina Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Communities (NC CGLR) in Raleigh, North Carolina to explore opportunities to strengthen local collaboratives. The program focused on using a racial equity lens to develop strategies that diversify outreach and authentically engage community organizations, but also develop and strengthen relationships across our network. 

As the convener of the NC CGLR communities, NCECF creates and sustains a shared learning community, develops tools for communities to use, and supports communities in engaging partners in their campaign work. It is the vision of the initiative that: diverse and inclusive communities grow thriving readers, beginning at birth and continuing through third grade, so each child is prepared for success.

Image: National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

The National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is focused on ensuring early school success for low-income children. Mobilized communities must stop playing catch-up, end chronic absences, reverse the summer slide, address health-related challenges, equip parents to succeed, advance grade-level reading and math; and slow, stop and reverse learning loss. 

Strengthening Networks for Community Engagement Success

Jovonia Lewis engaging with Campaign for Grade-Level Reading attendees.
Photo: Lindsay K. Saunders for NCECF

For most of our time together, campaign leaders explored improving diverse and authentic engagement in coalition building within community organizations, with guidance from facilitator Jovonia Lewis, who is Executive Director of EPiC, also known as Empowered Parents in Community out of Durham, NC. EPiC’s Mission is to dismantle systemic racial inequities through collective organizing and intentional engagement of African American parents and communities, while also advocating for high quality educational opportunities and equitable distribution of resources. 

NC CGLR Annual Meeting July 18; Photo: Lindsay K. Saunders for NCECF

Jovonia helped participants get familiar with who was in the room, along with which organizations and counties were present. As a web of connected strings of yarn made its way around the room, each person shared their “why” for being involved in this work. A word cloud at the top of this blog represents a summary of the responses from participants. 

Networks are important to communities, but they are often imbalanced. Determining that a diverse, inclusive network is the desired goal has to be the first step. Inclusion is key to developing a full network and it takes work to develop authentic relationships that create a network. It is easier to navigate when someone is consistently checking in to keep the network tight. However, each individual must know each other’s lane and be prepared to overlap or find the overlap. Holding a racial equity value includes power sharing. 

In order to take actions that will move the needle forward in an equitable manner, attendees explored how coalition partners must maintain a racial equity lens and authentic engagement, while also prioritizing coalition building. Trust must be built over time to proactively eliminate racial inequities. 

Utilizing a racial equity lens as a tool proactively seeks to eliminate racial inequities and advance equity at tables of influence and collaboration; identifies clear goals, objectives and measurable outcomes; engages community in decision making processes; identifies who will benefit or be burdened by a given decision, examines a potential unintended consequences of a decision, and develops strategies to advance racial equity and mitigate unintended negative consequences; and, develops mechanisms for successful implementation and evaluation of impact. 

Participants explored their county demographics and demographics of those their organizations serve, in contrast with the demographics of those at the coalition table. They then reflected on what they see, how it feels, and what they want to do to address the ratios. Ultimately, coalitions need to dig deep to create coalition tables and leadership that represent the diversity of their communities, including those with lived experiences on the challenges the coalitions aim to alleviate and ultimately solve. 

Community Engagement

While building networks and effective community engagement, coalitions should be continually assessing their approaches and work successfully through evaluative questions such as:

  • How have communities been engaged? Are there opportunities to expand engagement?
  • Who are the key institutions (church, government, nonprofit, private, elected officials) and grassroots organizations doing this same or similar work?
  • Who from low-income communities and communities of color participate in and benefit from decisions that shape their neighborhoods and regions?

“Those closest to the pain must lead the change,” was a powerful line shared with the group. 

Feeling authentic in how we engage communities is key, but missteps can occur, when partners are not mindful of the true value or the equal balance in the dynamics of the work being done. We must create connectivity around educational inequities while learning how to navigate and disrupt the system. Ways to do this include:

  • Community forums, listening sessions, meetups, and 1:1 conversations
  • Ensuring that family and provider voice is and continues to be centered
  • Getting feedback from community participants on ways they best digest information
  • Offering of a give and take as we trust the wisdom of collaborators

It’s important to continually be mapping the activities within our networks to evaluate sections of intersection from schools, early childhood education, sporting events, parades, churches and other areas where communities come together. When mapping these, we can see how those groups may align with the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Measures of Success Framework, which include elements of social determinants such as economically viable neighborhoods, safe neighborhoods, equity, trauma-informed communities, housing stability, family economic security, and environmental health. 

Moving forward, partners must be mindful of best practices for coalition building, such as exercising moral leadership, operating at the speed of trust, finding a balance of commitments, navigating competing coalitions, and focusing on solutions. 

Keep in Touch with NCECF and Support Our Work for Equitable Early Childhood Literacy

Since 2015, the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation has served as the state lead for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in North Carolina. The National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has mobilized hundreds of communities across the country to ensure that more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career and active citizenship. It is a collaborative effort by foundations, non-profit organizations, business leaders and government agencies supporting children’s school readiness, summer learning and regular school attendance. We convene and support 13 NC communities in their literacy initiatives. 

Please be sure to subscribe to our biweekly newsletter to keep up with our work helping the lives of North Carolina families, from their earliest days. 

The NC Early Childhood Foundation is driven by a bold – and achievable – vision: Each North Carolina child has a strong foundation for life-long health, education, and well-being supported by a comprehensive, equitable birth-to-eight ecosystem. We build understanding, lead collaboration, and advance policies to ensure each North Carolina child is on track for lifelong success by the end of third grade.