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Child Care NEXT States Trade Strategies for Building Shared and Collective Power

Every two months, the Child Care NEXT state teams come together for a peer learning session on critical issues that contribute to implementing powerful, multi-year campaigns that transform child care systems and policies. In January, the group gathered to discuss how to build shared and collective power in coalitions.

Child Care NEXT (CC NEXT) believes that transformative social change requires coalitions that build and sustain political power through organizing and advocacy at all levels – from neighborhoods and communities to the state capitol, and everywhere in between. But building a coalition that represents diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and ability is just the beginning. Transformative advocacy requires a coalition that intentionally builds diverse kinds of power as a collective. For example, some have suggested the need for a combination of governing power, community power, and people power to create change. And because early childhood advocacy has traditionally privileged the kind of “grasstops” power that comes from leveraging relationships with policymakers and those that influence them, building a coalition that includes other types of political power will likely require some organizations to relinquish and share power so that others can step up. On top of that, because leadership in our advocacy community is predominantly white, the work of sharing and building collective power is also racial equity work. These are the issues that the CC NEXT teams wrestled with in January.

During the session, we heard from allies in Louisiana and Oregon who have worked hard to build an equitable and powerful coalition that advocates for bold policy changes. The discussion focused on the importance of (1) building relationship and trust; (2) resetting the coalition table, (3) committing to shared, values, formal agreements, protocols, and structures for equitable communication and decision-making; and (4) the role that “coaching” or third-party facilitation can play to help with the above and navigate power and racial dynamics among organizations within a coalition.

Building relationship and trust. Libbie Sonnier, Louisiana Policy Institute for Children (LPIC) and Rochelle Wilcox, Wilcox Academy of Early Learning co-chair Geaux Far Louisiana. They and other early childhood stakeholders have known each other for over a decade, and their strong relationships provide a foundation for the coalition. Sonnier and Wilcox understood early on that shifting the power balance in a coalition begins with trustful individual relationships. So, they set out to intentionally build trust with coalition members, especially those new to the group. For Wilcox, this means listening, being responsive, and taking action. For example, when members felt disrespected or unvalued at a recent meeting, she reached out to them, and demonstrated her commitment to the coalition’s values by following through with action items. Also, ensuring that the relationships are restorative when conflicts arise can build safe spaces. This extends to the relationship Sonnier and Wilcox share as co-leads where they trust each other to push-pull when needed and hold themselves accountable to their shared values.

Re-setting the coalition table. Oregon allies, Andrea Paluso, Family Forward Oregon and Marchel Marcos, APANO from the Child Care for Oregon Coalition spoke about the need for “re-setting the table.” Historically, in early childhood advocacy communities, policy “experts” and those with “grasstops” power took the lead in coalition work. The coalition tended to accept the political environment they work within and focus on consensus messaging and agendas that spoke more to short-term, incremental change, rather than transformation. The leaders also often functioned as gatekeepers by using complex language and jargon that make it difficult for grassroots leaders or those new to the issue to participate. In other words, the coalition usually did not reflect the lived experiences and diverse needs of parents and providers in the community, especially those who are Black and brown. When coalitions reset the table, it means they are shifting powers to grassroots organizations and those who work with communities of color and other traditionally marginalized groups. To be sure, policy experts and grasstops advocates have a role in these coalitions, but their voice and perspective don’t dominate. When those most impacted by policies are at the center, coalitions create more space for ambitious vision and goals. Advocates work to shift the political landscape to make transformative change possible, rather than accepting the political constraints they are given.

Similarly, Sonnier and Wilcox realized that for Geaux Far Louisiana  to center their work on the lived experiences of children, families, providers, and educators, the majority of the leadership needs to come from grassroots organizations. Wilcox emphasized the need to start from the premise that everyone has power, even those who are not associated with organizations with “grasstops power.” She lives by Alice Walker’s wisdom: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” This mindset has helped their coalition grow and invite new members, who are often not represented in leadership tables.

Commitment to shared vision and agreements. Resetting the table and building trusting relationships in coalitions require agreeing on common vision for change and ways of working with each other. The Child Care Oregon Coalition shared their work on articulating their common values, mission, and operating agreements including a focus on centering race and equity in everything they do. These agreements were imperative to the coalition, since they now guide decision-making and how members engage with each other. For example, Oregon allies discussed how their common values and principles helped the coalition understand the importance of providing people who are new to this work opportunities to grow in their understanding of early childhood policy and the political process. Their coalition also made sure that there were multiple times and methods (e.g., Zoom, email, phone call, Jamboards) for everyone to engage in the coalition’s work. In Louisiana, Sonnier, as an advocate with traditional “grasstops” power, talked about living out their coalition’s values by intentionally stepping back so that others can step up.

Having a common vision and values also helped the Oregon allies make decision about who to invite to join the coalition and what kind of leadership table they need to create. They shared an experience where they had to ask an organization whose work did not align well with the coalition’s values to step back. At the same time, they also spoke to the need for these values and agreements to be “working documents” and somewhat fluid to make room for new perspectives.

Navigating power and racial dynamics. Both Louisiana and Oregon allies worked with a third-party facilitator to support the coalition’s work described above. For the Oregon coalition, it was helpful to have someone steeped in race equity work who isn’t part of the coalition to help build trust, address power and racial dynamics, and repair relationships that inevitably happens in this work. In the Louisiana coalition, when they decided their work should be driven by the voices of parents and providers, some organizations who are known as “traditional advocates” protested to have a seat at the table. External facilitation and coaching helped allies navigate these conversations in which some advocates learned to step back. This created space to invite new players who are typically not represented in leadership tables but are representative of the communities that are most impacted by state policies.

For more, see resources below from CC NEXT Allies that have been helpful as they build shared and collective power in coalitions.

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