News   |   Sign Up   |   A LEVER FOR SCALE

Massachusetts Shows the Power of a Big, Trust-Based Coalition 

In Massachusetts, early childhood advocates across the state are collaborating like never before  to build a new, stronger early childhood system. This historic project, which is hosted by Strategies for Children, is The Early Childhood Agenda.

Many factors contributed to the launch of The Agenda, including the pandemic. When the spread of COVID shut down child care programs and much of the rest of the world, Strategies began hosting what came to be known as The 9:30 Call, a daily Zoom meeting about program closings and openings, evolving pandemic regulations, concerns from early educators, and updates from policymakers. 

The pandemic ebbed, but The 9:30 Call persisted. Strategies brought new expertise to the network in challenges like food insecurity and health care, often by connecting with other nonprofits, coalitions, and state officials, and inviting them to speak on the call. The 9:30 Call also showed that Zoom and other software could be used to host statewide conversations. And these conversations could be used to share and solve problems, to advise policymakers, to devise a new, stronger vision of a statewide early childhood system.

In 2021, the team from Strategies for Children was working with consultant Sally Sharp Lehman to update the organization’s strategic plan, and a clear theme in this process was that Strategies should continue and build on its role as a statewide convener.

This led, in September 2022, to the launch of The Early Childhood Agenda, a first-of-its-kind effort to bring together “hundreds of parents, providers, advocates, and community partners to discuss the state’s pressing early childhood challenges and propose effective, family-centered, sustainable solutions.” 

Strategies worked with Northeastern Professor Kim Lucas to design and test an in-person pilot approach to convening a large group. The next step was to move the pilot to a virtual setting so that anyone anywhere in the state could participate. This conversation led to the creation of working groups and a 10-item list of priorities. 

“We wanted to be able to say that Strategies collectively supports this comprehensive vision for children and families, without everyone having to agree on every individual part of the plan,” says Amy O’Leary, Strategies’ executive director. “That’s one of the lessons learned, that we don’t have to focus solely on negotiating what policies to support. We can also rely on experts to develop a larger vision. We talk about power-sharing, but this is about knowledge-sharing, about valuing expertise.”  

To succeed, the Agenda has had to achieve two goals: include everyone and build trust by including everyone’s ideas. 

“This is something we heard a lot in our conversation with the Alliance for Early Success,” Marisa Fear, Strategies’ director of policy, says. “It’s important to shift away from having conversations with the usual suspects who have always held power in organizations and focus on people who are actually impacted by the issues and who have that lived experience.”

Strategies wants to ensure that the people who are closest to children—parents and providers—are at the center of the conversation. To achieve this, Fear and other Strategies staffers spent time recruiting lived experience leaders such as parents and early childhood providers. Agenda meetings also included the use of software that let everyone contribute.

Strategies also used a tool called the Elevating Voices Continuum to help keep conversations inclusive. 

Fear says that as the work continues, disagreements will inevitably arise, and this will require on-the-go innovations. “Right now, we’re getting a better understanding of the landscape and starting to have policy discussions. But once people start talking about how to increase compensation and whether providers should be required to have bachelor’s degrees, there will be strong feelings, and we will have to move forward and allow for flexibility so that policy doesn’t suffer as we keep everyone together.” 

“We still have some work to do to get people to understand the importance of The Early Childhood Agenda outside their own lanes,” Titus DosRemedios, Strategies’ deputy director, explains. “We try to make this connection in our quarterly convenings where we share narratives and we can share the wins and the challenges and the struggles.” 

The Agenda’s next convening will be in May in Polar Park in Worcester, Mass. Why hold the meeting in a baseball park? “We want it to be fun!” Diagneris “Nery” García, Strategies’ director of communications, says, wisely pointing to the humanity at the heart of advocacy. “We didn’t want to host the convening in a sterile hotel conference room. We wanted to find a more equitable location than Boston. Strategies has many friends and supporters in Central Mass so naturally we thought of Worcester. And since we’ve changed to remote work after the pandemic, and 90 percent of Agenda activities happen online, I think people are excited to be together again.” 

“This is something we heard a lot in our conversation with the Alliance for Early Success—it’s important to shift away from having conversations with the usual suspects who have always held power in organizations and focus on people who are actually impacted by the issues and who have that lived experience.”

Marisa Fear,
Director of Policy,
Strategies for Children

Another vital lesson that has emerged from the work is the importance of leading without having an ego. “At our core, we want to collaborate with everyone,” DosRemedios says.  “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.  We want to add value.”

O’Leary adds, “We want to create the conditions for a good exchange of ideas. It’s about what your spoken and unspoken values are as an organization, and how that translates when you’re working in a community.” 

Strategies is also committed to hearing feedback from everyone so it can continually improve The Early Childhood Agenda. Being open to this kind of change is crucial for success, Garcia says. “Sometimes mission driven organizations hold on to founding strategy or structure for too long.  What Strategies has done well over the years is keep an eye on the bigger picture while continuously evolving with the times to meet immediate needs.” 

Next, Strategies will continue hosting The Agenda and continuing sharing the story of how to convene people across a state and work to improve the lives of children and families.

“We want to share our resources,” O’Leary says, “and all the guiding principles that are embedded in this work.” 

Stay in the loop by joining the Alliance news and invitations list: