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North Carolina Allies Center Lived Experience and Racial Equity to Strengthen the Early Childhood Social-Emotional Health System

Advocates at NC Child partnered with the NC Early Childhood Foundation to launch the EarlyWell Initiative in 2019 to lead the implementation of recommendations from the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework. One part of the Pathways Action Framework provides a series of recommendations to invest in and build a robust, evidence-based, and accessible early childhood social-emotional health system.  Since its launch, the initiative has grown to include over 100 service providers, clinicians, and advocates for children’s social-emotional, and mental health to strengthen and enhance infant and early childhood mental health through equity driven approaches. The EarlyWell initiative is informed by the voices of parents and caregivers to ensure that system best reflects the needs and lived experiences of North Carolina communities.

During the first year of the initiative, NC Child and the NC Early Childhood Foundation partnered with four organizations that work with families directly, to understand how they interact with the early childhood social-emotional and behavioral health system and the gaps that exist as they navigate through the process. The coalition reflected on the shift they had to make to ensure that their practices to engage families are equitable and as, so they worked with Empowering Parents in Community (EPIC) as their external race equity consultant. The EPIC consultants helped the partners create a model for sharing power and develop shared language to understand the landscape in the state. The organizations were able to create a vision together that is rooted in family voice. This work led the partners and EPIC to conduct a survey of over 200 families around their social-emotional health and development needs, which resulted in the Lean in and Listen report that continues to inform the initiative’s process and goals.

Values that will guide the initiative as the coalition develops their state action plan and agenda. Courtesy of NC Child.

In 2021, the organizational partners created twelve workgroups known as “Dance Floors,” which represent all parts of the system that families want and need, such as home visiting, child care, access to pediatricians, and many others. NC Child contracted with external facilitators to lead the dance floors with two family representatives in each one who were also compensated for their time. EPIC continued to support efforts by hosting family member only meetings and monthly office hours. This approach allowed the families to have support and share the problems they continued to face as they engaged in workgroups. The workgroups identified the problems families face while trying to access supports and navigate the system and made two to three policy or program recommendations to NC Child. Advocates at NC Child describe this process as “shifting advocacy on its head” where they’ve started with the needs of families first and will engage in the policy process based on what they learned. The workgroups shared 30 policy and program recommendations, which will be used to craft the NC EarlyWell Action Plan of policy recommendations and an advocacy roadmap. NC Child will continue working with partners to prioritize and focus their advocacy efforts over the next year to create a robust and evidence based early childhood social-emotional health system in North Carolina. 

NC Child values their relationship with EPIC as their external race equity consultants. This process allowed them to develop a culture of continuous improvement based on the needs and voices of families. 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.

“I truly believe caring for the caregiver-child relationship is one of the greatest values we can hold as a society. I look forward to moving into advocating, alongside partners and families, for these amazing recommendations”

Morgan Forrester, Director
The EarlyWell Initiative

The EarlyWell Initiative released a new report in June: From Equity to Issue Campaigns: The Next Stop on the Road Map to Childhood Mental Health in North Carolina. The report highlights EarlyWell’s policy and practice recommendations prioritized in 2021 through our dance floor process, which many of you were involved in. The recommendations are rooted in the journey that kids and families take together, starting before birth. Our next step is to turn these recommendations—guided by family, caregiver, and provider voices—into a plan of action for changing policy and practice in North Carolina.

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