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Alliance Grantees Huddle To Share Their Community-Building Experiences

Peer-to-peer idea exchange is one of the hallmarks of the Alliance for Early Success grantee network, and often–when a discussion starts to generate broad interest–grantees will convene in an Alliance “huddle” to have a more in-depth conversation. Alliance state allies recently gathered to discuss how they approach “community engagement” in their work.

The conversation started with review of a continuum depicting levels at which an organization might engage community members and an acknowledgement that the optimal level of engagement may vary based on organizational and project goals. Allies considered a range of questions as they shared their community engagement experiences and explored the nuances of authentic partnerships.

As traditional policy advocacy organizations, allies wondered whether they are well suited to lead community engagement efforts. Many Alliance allies partner with organizations that have established community relationships to connect with parents, educators, and other grassroots community members. Community-based partners have a skill set that’s different from state advocates, bringing added value to community-level work, such as designing more relevant meetings and increasing turnout from the community.

Allies also explored the distinctions between community engagement and community organizing. One huddle participant, who’s a trained community organizer, described his work as investing in individuals as leaders and experts. Importantly, organizers support grassroots leaders to advance changes that they want to see, not a prescribed agenda from advocacy organizations or the organizers themselves. 

Advocates shared that effective community engagement requires authentic relationships with community members, necessitating an investment of time, energy, and financial resources. This means connecting with lived experience experts on issues outside of early childhood, showing up personally, following up and engaging in two-way conversations, and recognizing that community members are already leaders. Many participants agreed the role of community engagement staff is to help parents, educators, and other community members grow in their confidence to advocate in a legislative policy context with additional tools, knowledge, and experiences. 

Some questions that policy advocates should consider as they explore community engagement activities include:  

    • Why does your organization want to engage community members? Based on that, do you need different staff capacity? Or do you need to find community partners? Or both? 
    • Whatever your reason for engaging the community, how will the work honor lived experience, rather than extracting from people (their time, their stories) who are most impacted by the policies we work on, with no thought to how they can control their own narrative or grow and exercise their leadership? 
    • What skills and expertise is your organization bringing into this work that’s different from existing community partners and community organizers? How can you complement each other, rather than duplicating or co-opting work that’s already being done in the community? 
    • Does your organization have the appropriate capacity, relationships, credibility to take on this work? How can you coordinate or leverage what other organizations are doing in the community?
    • What resources are you willing and able to dedicate to community engagement to allow for longer term relationship and trust building? 

Alliance state allies have included grassroots organizations, parents, educators, and others with lived experience in their work in a variety of ways from different places along the community engagement continuum. 

To work around policymaker resistance to funding early care and education in Idaho, the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (Idaho AEYC) is creating Early Learning Collaboratives that unite various stakeholders, including educators, parents, community leaders, and business owners, to create a holistic approach to early learning, tailored to local needs. 

In California, a coordinated effort fueled by the grassroots organizing of parents, providers, and thousands of organizations speaking with one voice realized transformational legislative wins related to family fees and subsidy rates. 

“…organizers also emphasized the importance of having legislators hear directly and repeatedly from parents and providers. Rather than being used as occasional storytellers at press conferences, providers and parents were integrated from the beginning as part of the effort to win permanent change around family fee reduction and rate reform.” 

Through the EarlyWell initiative, advocates in North Carolinashifted advocacy on its head by starting with the needs of families first and engaging in the policy process based on what they learned. 

“NC Child understood that it was encouraged to pivot and slow down when needed, and that the outcome and agenda are not as important as creating a safe space where families feel supported.” 

Policy advocates at New Futures in New Hampshire recognized that lack of financial support was preventing their grassroots partners from engaging in direct advocacy and lobbying effort so they created an advocacy field grant program to share their resources with partners.  

Parents and community members in Illinois were instrumental in helping the state’s Early Learning Council understand the policy changes needed to make it easier for families involved in the child welfare system to access critical early care and education services across the state. 

Coalitions that included parents, educators, and others with lived experience helped Minnesota to achieve a long list of wins for young children and their families during the 2023 legislative session. Their recommendation for effective community engagement? “Just show up authentically and listen.” 

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