Partnerships Between Community Organizing and Policy Advocates:
Some Observations and Thoughts for
the Woods Fund and Its Grantees
Sokoni Karanja & Sandy O'Donnell
Original date of presentation to
the Woods Fund, April 2004
Thanks to the Woods Fund for allowing this report to be
reprinted on COMM-ORG
The State of the Field of Organizing Today
The State of the Field of Policy Advocacy Today
Organizers' and Advocates' Perceptions of Each Other
Recommendations for Further Discussion, Consideration, Funding
Appendix: Early Childhood Education: An
Issues Brief for Organizers
About the Authors
Several months ago, we received a
small grant from the Woods Fund of Chicago to explore what has seemed to us a
missed opportunity to make an issue we care deeply about -- early childhood
education -- a higher public priority. This missed opportunity, we think, is
engaging community organizing in expanding and mobilizing a constituency for
systems change. As providers of early childhood education, we participate in
quite effective advocacy coalitions, which have won some significant
improvements in the system over the past several years. But, still, many children
continue to be denied access to quality programs, and our teaching staff
remains unconscionably underpaid. And despite rigorous research about the
importance of early childhood education to children and society at large (see
Issue Brief), we still lack a public commitment to early childhood education
akin to the commitment to elementary and secondary education. As admirers of
community organizing, we wondered why so few groups – including those working
on education issues -- were not working on better early childhood systems, and
we wondered what organizing expertise and muscle might contribute to early
We thus had one-on-one conversations with over a dozen
organizers and advocates and searched nationwide for examples of organizing-advocacy
partnerships in early childhood education. What follows are some of the major
themes from this work. The Woods Fund has asked us to share them with its
grantees and other readers in the interest of sparking dialogue that will
inform its grantmaking in the area of integrating public policy and community
- Early childhood
education is not on the agendas of community organizing in Chicago. A couple of organizations are
actively exploring the issue, and many organizations are working on a “sister”
issue, more and better after school programs. What explains this relative
dearth of organizing focus on early childhood education? In some cases, it
does not seem to be on organizers’ “menus” as they ask residents and local
leaders about their concerns; organizers seem to lack awareness of the
issue. In others, an already full organizing issues agenda is the reason,
although some organizers say they would take early childhood education on if
they had another staff organizer. In others, early childhood education is seen
as too big an issue to tackle without a significant infusion of resources. And
some organizers believe that the advocates are addressing the issue well
without organizing’s involvement.
- When we probed
organizers about the importance of early childhood education to their
communities, those whose organizing base is parents readily affirmed that they
were – or should be -- thinking about an early childhood agenda. Other
organizers quickly developed insight into how early childhood education might
be a “good” issue for them: it would engage principals; it would reduce
special ed placements; it could be coupled with additional adult education
programs in immigrant communities; it could be attractive to faith based
leaders as a “jobs with justice” issue.
- Outside of Chicago, organizing in early childhood
education seems most focused on wages and working conditions of home-based
providers and line-level staff. (See Issue Brief on this website.)
- Organizers today
clearly understand that they can and must work on public policy issues, that
many local community problems have systemic roots.
organizers lamented the dearth of good information available to them about
- And several think
it imperative that organizing groups come together across networks to examine
how, together, they can build power for state level systems changes.
- The early
childhood education advocacy community in Illinois is quite effective in winning incremental policy change at the State
level, and it has been extremely effective in defending and even expanding the
early childhood education budget in the recent State budget crisis.
- Although some advocates
are excellent at mobilizing their immediate constituencies to support
campaigns, most advocates more typically focus on winning campaigns through
their considerable expertise and their access to elite power. Grassroots
constituency building that would involve shared agenda setting is typically
seen as an inefficient strategy to achieve the desired ends. And advocates may
be loathe to share agenda setting and strategy development with people seen as
less expert than they.
- Advocates are
quite isolated in their niches. Early childhood education advocates are
typically unaware of community organizing altogether, and they are unaware of
campaigns in other policy arenas in which advocates and organizing have
successfully partnered (such as, for example, the Family Care and predatory
lending campaigns featured in the Woods Fund’s annual report). School Reform
is ancient history to many advocates today.
- Recognizing that,
ultimately, national level policy has to change to adequately finance early
childhood education, state level advocates are just beginning to come together
at the national level to build power, and they are also just beginning to
recognize that, without large and organized constituencies, they cannot win
major policy change.
- Among organizers
who had not worked closely with advocates, perceptions ranged from dismissive –
advocates cannot win significant change in the early childhood system because
they are too beholden to early childhood providers – to negative. One
organizer used the term “noxious” to describe typical relationships with
- Among advocates
who had not worked closely with organizing, perceptions ranged from none – they
did not know what organizing was, who organizing groups were, or what they had
accomplished – to mildly dismissive – organizing had not won systems changes of
the level of challenge that advocates had.
- And yet,
organizers and advocates we talked with who had worked together on campaigns
articulated mutual respect and genuine success in sharing agenda setting,
strategy development, and credit for the victory.
- At the national
level, some advocates seem to be increasingly aware that “professional”
advocates are not effective as organizers and are seeking ways to help foster organizing
a movement of parents to champion early childhood education policy reform – a
movement that advocates, in turn, would ally with.
The following recommendations
emanate from our belief that, together, community organizing and early
childhood advocacy can create the political will to establish a public
commitment to early childhood education comparable of our society’s commitment
to public primary and secondary education. They are, in brief,
- Develop the
capacity of community organizing to expand its reach and influence;
- Develop awareness
within public policy advocacy of the benefits of building partnerships with
grassroots beneficiaries of policy proposals; and
relationship building and shared learning between advocates and organizers in
ways beneficial to both.
While the recommendations are
made with the early childhood education issue and Woods Fund’s new grantmaking
guidelines in mind, they are both generic to other policy issues and directed
to organizers, policy advocates, and funders alike.
- Support “field building” work within
community organizing to expand its reach and influence. While our immediate interest is
field building to get organizing involved in early childhood education, field
building in general is our recommendation. Organizers, assuming they had
adequate funding support to take any of these on, might consider or
re-consider, collectively, how:
- Agendas are set
and issues campaigns developed, in order to expand the issues “menu” and
sphere of influence. For example, an organizer who does develop an
early childhood education campaign could convene other organizers to discuss
with them the evolution and impact of this campaign.
- More parents (and
other community stakeholders whose voices are often relatively silent) can be
drawn into leadership/membership of organizations.
presence and power within our area’s lowest income communities, and
particularly in the African American community, might be increased. (Low
income children remain those most in need of quality early childhood education
and most vulnerable to gaps in quality and access.)
- Organizing can
come together across place, network, and issue to build statewide power, since
many community issues – including early childhood education – are most
fundamentally resolved at the state level.
- Increase the capacity of policy
advocates to partner with grass roots stakeholders. Advocates express concern that participatory
processes will be so inefficient that nothing will get done, that grassroots
participants will not defer to advocates’ technical and strategic expertise,
that participatory processes are not needed because advocates have direct
access to decision makers already, and that they lack the resources to build
grassroots partnerships. At the same time, advocates acknowledge that broad
public support is indeed integral to major policy change, but express concern
that resources are too limited to focus on longer term movement building work.
We have two suggestions specifically for the Woods Fund:
- Convene a small
group of advocates to explore these and other concerns in greater depth. What
are advocates’ perceptions of the costs and benefits of participatory policy
making? What is in the culture or structure of public policy advocacy that
limits grassroots participation in the process? What strategic investments
might be made to encourage more robust partnerships with grassroots
- Help educate
advocates about the potential benefits of partnering with community organizing
on policy campaigns by supporting a practitioner-friendly documentation –
coupled perhaps with an informal forum -- of organizing’s accomplishments to
date, focusing on constituency building capacity and policy wins. The number
of advocates who had no or little knowledge of organizing suggest real
potential benefit in producing more and better information on organizing and
its results in changing systems.
- Encourage relationship building and
shared learning between advocates and organizers in ways beneficial to both. Because advocates and organizers
are so busy, and because their differences in expertise and perspective are so
considerable, we think large, formal convenings by a foundation would be of
limited benefit. Nevertheless, because funders have access to such a wide
range of relationships and expertise, we recommend that the Woods Fund
- Informal and
efficient ways to foster dialogue between selected organizers and advocates.
The Fund’s staff can help introduce – perhaps over lunch or coffee – early
childhood advocates who have expressed interest in building the constituency to
organizers who have expressed interest in early childhood issues; staff might
encourage an advocate grantee to call an organizing grantee, and so forth.
- Engage its
Advisory Committee, which includes both organizers and advocates, in
discussions about how to bridge organizing-advocacy gaps from their
- Help build a base
of “best practices” in advocacy-organizing collaboration by making small grants
to advocates and organizers to write about such experiences and present them to
groups of peers and other funders.
We conclude with a question for anyone reading this report.
In today’s policy, organizing, and funding climates, it is so hard to
think longer-term, bigger-picture. We all tend to move from one issues
campaign, organizational challenge, or legislative year to the next. As
resource bases decline, we all tend to get a little more guarded and insular.
How do organizers, advocates, and other key stakeholders come together to build
movements for significant change, such as early childhood education reform,
that, as one organizer put it, are “waiting to happen”?
We sincerely hope that this brief
report will spark thought on how, collectively, we can build capacity to
improve the early childhood education system and other public systems in need
of change. Thanks for any and all comments.
Sokoni Karanja (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sandy O’Donnell (email@example.com)
it is. “Early childhood education” is a kind of Aday care@ or “child care@ program that recognizes
the tremendous capacity of young children ages 0-5 to learn. Often termed
“pre-school”, early childhood education a) provides A developmentally
(what a child at a given age or stage of development can achieve) curricula
that b) actively involve children in their own learning, and that c) are
taught by individuals with specific training in child development and
early childhood education.
Why it’s important to
communities. Early childhood education produces a better ROI (return
on investment) than any other public or community investment.
- It readies children to succeed in school, the labor force, and
life. Children who have participated in quality (low teacher-child ratios; high
teacher qualifications) early childhood education programs are ready for
kindergarten, stay in and achieve in school throughout their school years,
avoid special education, have fewer brushes with the law, avoid smoking, and
earn more as adults. The reason: young children’s brains are developing
faster from ages 0-5 than at any other time in their lives; they can learn
more in these years than any others.
- It supports parents’ employment. Gaps in child care
provisions remain the major welfare-to-work and labor force advancement problem
of parents; early childhood education is a reliable kind of child care.
Research shows lifelong gains to children, and reduced
costs to the State, when children participate in high quality early childhood
education programs. One recent study found that taxpayers received a 4-1 ROI
for these programs; another, 7-1. Such studies have attracted significant
allies in the business community, with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis
playing an especially prominent role.
There are two additional benefits for organizers of
increasing the supply of early childhood education programs in your community:
- Early childhood programs create community jobs.
- And they bring parents together in a public setting, creating
constituency building capacity for organizing.
The policy challenge. The US stands alone among developed nations in not making quality
early childhood education universally available.
- Early childhood education is funded, poorly, by a hodgepodge
of social service (“child care”, funded through the Illinois and
Chicago Departments of Human Services), poverty (Head Start), and education
(pre-school, called State Pre-K in Illinois) dollars.
- Spending for early childhood education is a fraction of that
for elementary and secondary education: the State of Michigan,
for example, found an average of $2200 per child per year in public funds for
early childhood education vs. $7200 per child per year for elementary and
- In Chicago Public Schools, early childhood education is free
(but CPS programs serve only a fraction of eligible children); for all other
programs, unlike the public education system, parents are mandated by law to
- only a small fraction of young children have access to quality
- salaries are abysmally low in the field, with veterinarians’
assistants and garbage collectors earning more than early learning teachers;
- debate rages about the appropriate role and relative quality
of early childhood education provision among public schools, nonprofits, and
- the non-system discriminates against children of working
parents, who earn too much to qualify for Head Start (a higher-quality program
for low income families) but who cannot afford to pay for quality programs out
of their modest earnings.
The action challenge.
Despite effective policy advocacy in the metro area, early childhood education
lacks the constituency and, thus, the political will to finance 1) high quality
and 2) universal access. As results:
- Some communities have a plethora of quality early childhood
programs, while others have a serious dearth of such programs. (The most
recent study of access by Chicago community area was done by the Illinois
Facilities Fund in 1999; a more recent study by communities statewide, “Moving
Towards a System” can be found at www.iff.org.)
- Chicago Public Schools has a competitive advantage over other
providers over cost, but parents and advocates express concern over the
appropriateness of CPS’ teaching methods for young children, the
appropriateness of the public school setting for young children, and gaps in
hours of operation.
- Entry level wages remain unconscionably low, and career paths
constricted, by inadequate public finance and concerns of remaining affordable
to fee-paying parents.
Who is organizing around the
country to improve access and quality in early childhood education?
- Community organizing focused on improving the quality of child
care workers’ jobs: LA ACORN, Day Care Justice Co-op (Rhode Island),
and United Child Care Workers (Philadelphia).
- Parents United for Child Care (www.pucc.org), which has been a
significant force for systems improvements – most recently, in after school
care – in Boston.
- See www.nieer.org/news/archive.php?newsid=58
for examples of coalitions – typically of business people, civic leaders, early
childhood advocates, parents, and grassroots groups – that are popping up all
over the country.
- National advocates: the corporate Committee for Economic
Development (www.ced.org); the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org);
Stand for Children (www.stand.org); and the National Association for the
Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org). .
- At the state level, advocates for children and ad hoc
coalitions advocate for universal access to quality early childhood education;
sometimes these coalitions include community organizing. On example is Michigan: www.readytosucceed.org. .
Local groups supporting a
better early childhood education system.
- The business community, including the Civic Committee and
- The Mayor, who has a longstanding interest in early childhood
- Action for Children (formerly the Day Care Action Council, (www.daycareaction.org)
and the Chicago Coalition of Site Administered Child Care Programs, which
mobilize parents of children in early childhood centers and homes and staff of
early childhood programs to champion improvements in the system.
- Early Learning Illinois (www.illinoisearlylearning.org),
a new initiative of the Council, Voices for Illinois’ Children (www.voices4kids.org), and the Ounce
of Prevention Fund to raise public awareness.
- Many other coalitions and advocacy organizations concerned
with the welfare-to-work transition, workforce advancement, and education
quality; most are members of the Work, Welfare, and Families coalition (www.workwelfareandfamilies.org).
- Two particularly expert groups on early childhood issues are
the Metro Chicago Association for the Education of Young Children
and the National Center on Poverty Law (www.povertylaw.org).
For further reading
“A Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Abecedarian Early
Childhood Intervention”, at http://nieer.org/docs/index.php?docid=57.
Alexandra Starr, “The Importance of Teaching Tots: 25
Ideas for a Changing World”, BusinessWeek, August 26, 2002, at http://www.businesswekk.com/magazine/content/02_34/b3796661.htm.
Committee for Economic Development. Preschool for
All: Investing In a Productive and Just Society. (New York:
Author, 2002). See: www.ced.org.
Christopher Farrell, “The Best Investment: America’s
Kids”, BusinessWeek, November 22, 2002, at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/02_34/b3796661.htm.
David and Lucile Packard
Foundation, The Future of Children: Long Term Outcomes of Early Childhood
Programs (Los Altos: Author, 1995).
Pew Partnership for Civic
Change, Wanted: Solutions for America: What We
Know Works: An overview of research about what works (and what doesn=t) in social service
programs (Charlottesville, VA: U.
Of Richmond, 2001), pp. 17-20.
RAND Corporation, AAnalyzing the Costs and
Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions@,
Research Brief, www.rand.org/publications/RB/RB5051.
Louise Stoney, “Investing in
the Child Care Industry: An Economic Development Strategy for Kansas”,
The following are three more
scholarly studies. For briefer digests of research like this, there are two
fabulous websites: http://ecap.crc.uiuc.edu
B.T. Bowman, M.S. Donovan, & M.S. Burns, Eager to
Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers (Washington, DC: NationalAcademy Press, 2001).
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development,
NICHD Study of Early Child Care (BethesdaMD:
Author, May 2001).
J. P. Shonkoff and D.A. Phillips, eds., From Neurons
to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Washington, DC: NationalAcademy Press, 2000).
Dr. Karanja is the founder and chief executive of Centers for New Horizons,
a 34 year old nonprofit based in Chicago's Bronzeville community that helps
children and families become self-reliant by providing early childhood
education, youth development, and family support programs serving over 1000
families daily in 15 program centers. Centers has also been a significant
force in building community collaborations and leveraging community
reinvestment in Bronzeville. Centers' central emphasis on education as
community transformation is rooted in the "Education for Self-Reliance"
program of the late Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, a program that was
the focus of Dr. Karanja's dissertation research at Brandeis University.
Among recent awards are a MacArthur Fellowship (1994), Chicago Magazine's
Chicagoan of the Year (one of eight, 2001), and, for the whole organization,
the Neighborhood Builder Award from the Bank of America Foundation (2005).
Dr. O'Donnell is an independent consultant and researcher, focused on
strengthening community based organizations. She assists Centers for New
Horizons in program planning, grants development, and organizational
planning. She recently completed studies of how community organizing raises
funds and how African American community organizations sustain themselves.
She previously taught at Roosevelt University in Chicago and held various
positions in state government, private philanthropy, and community based
organizations. She holds a PhD from the University of Chicago.