Made building an early childhood system the lead strategy for 2010-2014
Then entering its tenth year, the Discovery network of communities, statewide organizations and other public and philanthropic partners became stronger. It was clearly time for a state-level conversation about how to create an early childhood system that is accessible and effective for all of Connecticut's children. However, funding for the Early Childhood Cabinet had been drastically cut in 2009, creating a void for early childhood planning at the state level. In response to this void, its statewide and community grantees urged the Memorial Fund to take on a leadership role as the convenor of a process to design a statewide early childhood system.
In 2009, the Memorial Fund committed in its strategic plan, “to convene communities, statewide organizations, state agencies, policymakers and other stakeholders to create a vision for a more effective early childhood system in Connecticut.” To this end, the Memorial Fund provided facilitation, expertise, advocacy, research and communications supports to an initiative that would come to be known as Right From the Start (RFTS).
In 2010, the Memorial Fund convened stakeholders from around the state to create a “blueprint” for a statewide early childhood development system. Curtis Ogden and Melinda Weekes from the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) helped the Memorial Fund to design a process that would yield a broadly shared and community-rooted vision for supporting high quality early childhood development for all of Connecticut’s children. RFTS also aimed to develop policies and infrastructure to support community-state collaboration toward this vision. IISC had previously provided Facilitative Leadership training to the Discovery community collaboratives, and continues to do so as of 2013.
Memorial Fund staff convened a planning team to conduct a rigorous stakeholder analysis that resulted in a diverse Process Team, representing a variety of perspectives and experiences in the early childhood system. The Team spent time educating itself about systems thinking and the causes of racial and economic inequity in the current system. The Memorial Fund also engaged a consultant to look at how resources flow into communities and who determines how money is spent, in order to better understand how spending decisions were being made.
A Welcome Surprise and a Change of Course
As the stakeholders were coming together and getting organized, an unexpected thing happened. A bill was introduced in January 2011 to establish a coordinated early care and education system for Connecticut. Early childhood advocates had pushed for this bill, but that it was introduced so quickly and was passed came as a surprise. With this development, it seemed possible that the work of Right From the Start would be subsumed by the state effort.
As the state level effort unfolded the Process Team contemplated its potential contribution to constructing the statewide system. It became clear that there was still a role to play, in supporting the implementation of the state system, emphasizing issues that might not otherwise get adequate attention, and in making sure that the system incorporated the community experience and needs.
The Process Team engaged in a second rigorous stakeholder analysis to create a diverse 40 person System Design Team that would take the work forward. This team then went “on the road” to share what had been learned to date and hear what community residents and others had to say about what a high quality and sustainable early childhood system would look like, how it would be different from what currently exists, and what beliefs and values would guide this system. Parents, child care providers, elected officials, and advocates shared their vision on video, and a picture emerged that were not being adequately addressed in the current systems building work in Connecticut:
As Right from the Start members explored and mapped what currently existed and identified key leverage areas for change, four core commitments emerged.
Early is good, earlier is better. The system needs to build a foundation for learning and development during a child’s first 1000 days.
Pay attention to the whole child. The system needs to have accessible health, mental health, and social-emotional development support.
Mind the opportunity gap. The system needs to provide children of all races and economic backgrounds with the same opportunities.
Support local community action. The system needs to empower local communities to make effective decisions for their families and children.
One of the results of this effort has been a continuing communications and conversation campaign that includes a website and video storytelling. The studies and reports that formed the foundation of the Right from the Start vision and values and the stories offered by stakeholders from across the state became the core of the Right from the Start website.
Though the Memorial Fund regularly plays the role of “convenor” or “incubator” of ideas and collaborative efforts, learning how to play this role without leading or “owning” the outcome was challenging. RFTS has widely distributive leadership among 30 core participants. One challenge for the Memorial Fund going forward is to clarify its role, and find new ways to align Right From the Start with the Discovery work in communities. Another emerging challenge is how to manage and sustain networks that grow out of collaborations like this one.