Many early childhood state policy advocacy organizations in the Alliance for Early Success network report that cultivating champions at the local level has helped them achieve statewide change. Working from the local level up, they say, is powerful because the people closest to the problem are most effective in making the case, and most likely to offer viable solutions. And as the saying goes, all politics is local.
So in April, the Alliance convened a group of advocates who have been successful in building and leveraging local champions to make young children and their families a priority in their state. Tennessee advocates from Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) and Chattanooga 2.0, along with Idaho advocates from Idaho AEYC and United Way of Southeastern Idaho, offered some practical, field-tested advice on building a system from the ground up by cultivating the expertise found in local communities.
- Build trust and create early wins by focusing local initiatives first on something tangible, like creating more pre-k seats in a community.
- Follow up tangible early wins with education on how local advocacy helped to make the success possible. Support community members to move from direct service focus (i.e., pre-k seats) to policy advocacy focus (building a community level birth-to-8 system), in order to sustain and improve on gains made.
- Allow outcomes and word of mouth to build momentum and increase the number of communities who want to create a local initiative.
- Once there is some local infrastructure in place, the state then has something to fund to continue building and enhancing a birth-to-8 system.
- Identify local quarterbacks. Start with leaders who have existing relationships, are passionate, and who are already doing the work on the ground. These can be school districts, child care providers or networks, chambers of commerce, health care entities, collective impact organizations, United Ways or other 501(c)3s.
Be aware that school district-led collaboratives may have a harder time moving beyond school-based pre-k to a more systemic approach that includes local child care providers and other stakeholders.
- Define communities however it makes sense for your state – anything from a whole region to a small town.
- Build trust by making it clear that your goal is to help them succeed in their goals and emphasizing the expertise they have about their local community.
- Let go of the desire to control all aspects of the local collaboratives and enable the local leaders to adapt to local needs. Give communities the “how” rather than telling them what to do. Create guardrails, then step back while communities tailor an approach and plan that best suit their local needs and opportunities. No “one-size-fits-all” approach or mandates, lean into the uniqueness of local dynamics.
- Be patient and respect the speed that communities want to move. It may take months for communities to figure out together what their collaboration should look like to best meet their needs, and some are going to be more willing to move from service provision to advocacy than others.
- Work with local communities to perform a needs assessment to identify the early childhood issues that community wants to prioritize.
- Include a wide variety of stakeholders in the needs assessment process from the beginning, including service providers. Be sure to include any stakeholders who are likely to be obstacles to the success of the venture.
- Charge each community with developing or enhancing a strategic birth-to-8 plan – creating a statement of need, performing root cause analyses, coming up with strategies, prioritizing those that are best for their community, and moving those strategies into implementation.
- Share messaging that connects workforce and economic development to early childhood development: a strong workforce relies on post-secondary preparation, which relies on students being career ready out of high school, which relies on students reading at grade level, which relies on students being kindergarten ready, which relies on a strong investment in early childhood.
Investing in the Community
- Ask local private foundations for start-up funding to get the ball rolling in local communities. Share the longer-term vision with funders – momentum generated from the needs assessment and/or early wins will help secure additional private funding and/or make the case for public funding.
- Build trust by raising funding first for local initiatives already doing the work – support their programs, local pre-K seats, and other investments in local early childhood services before beginning to build out a local advocacy infrastructure.
- Provide technical assistance to localities on how to blend and braid local, state, and federal funding.
- Try a collective impact model, where recruited local quarterback organizations receive annual grants to fund someone to lead the work in that community.
- Provide tangible support to enable local partners to add advocacy to their already full plates. In addition to direct grant funding, provide resources to support local decision-making, such as a framework for thinking about early childhood issues in their communities, data about children and families in their communities, a set of strategy options from which they can identify their local priorities, and/or a peer learning network.
- Require a local match to any private or public dollars to create ownership and buy-in.
Provide Ongoing Support
- Offer technical assistance to quarterback organizations or other local partners, such as on results-based facilitation, collective impact, how to do a community needs assessment, or how to write a strategic plan. Ask questions that encourage them to think bigger.
- Provide supports based on what communities need, like communications, identifying sources of funding and writing grant applications, or quality improvement strategies.
- Support local partners to have multiple voices making the case for early childhood development in their communities, including influential local employers/businesses.
- Local partners can build credibility in their communities and have their work highlighted at the state level by leveraging their affiliation to the state-level advocacy organization.
- Keep local leaders up to date on policy and best practices, which enables them to educate their elected officials and take action.
- Connect local advocates with potential early childhood legislative champions who represent their communities.
Train local leaders, as needed, to advocate with their local legislative champions, including through calling, emailing, hosting legislators at receptions or in their classrooms, writing op-eds, and launching social media campaigns.
Encourage local advocates to teach their state legislators about early childhood and the need for services in their communities.
Reaping the Benefits
- Local leaders are closer to early childhood issues, providers, and infrastructure than state legislators, so they are often more likely to understand and take action on the issues. Localities can also sometimes get creative about solutions in ways that state leaders are not able to.
- Hearing from friends, family, and colleagues in their communities helps lawmakers understand the needs and pressures in ways that state level advocates cannot demonstrate. It can strengthen their support for early childhood investments and give them the vocabulary and local examples to talk about it with their colleagues.
- Conservative lawmakers in particular respect and value local early childhood advocacy because they know that local leaders are in the driver’s seat.
- Having a local infrastructure in place can build political power. When the Governor or state legislature makes a move that is harmful for young children and families, there is an established network of advocates to take action. State level leaders learn their votes are being watched.
- Building a birth-to-8 infrastructure from the bottom up incrementally creates a system that then becomes normalized and a good candidate for state and/or federal investment that can grow capacity.
- More families in more communities directly see the impact they can make by raising their voices, creating more advocates for early childhood in the state.
- Creating more early childhood seats at the local level can, over time, improve outcomes on school readiness and reading proficiency, which in turn makes a case for broader, statewide investments.
- Local advocates can inform the work of the state level advocacy organization by sharing how policies are working (or not) on the ground and providing input on needed policy change at the state level. This feedback loop can inform the state level advocacy agenda.
- More early childhood advocacy at the state and local levels can shift culture and perception within the state and change the conversation, helping voters and lawmakers alike understand the importance of the early years and increasing buy-in for investment in early childhood.
The engaged discussion and actionable advice in this session made it clear yet again why advocates in the Alliance community consistently say that peer-to-peer technical assistance is one of the most powerful benefits of their involvement.