COMM-ORG Papers 2005


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 childhood campaigns.

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 organizing.

The State of the Field of Organizing Today

  • 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.

  • Several organizers lamented the dearth of good information available to them about emerging issues.

  • 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 State of the Field of Policy Advocacy Today

  • 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.

Organizers' and Advocates' Perceptions of Each Other

  • 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 advocates.

  • 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.

Recommendations for Further Discussion, Consideration, Funding

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

  • Encourage 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.

  1. 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.

  • Organizing’s 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.

  1. 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 stakeholders?

  • 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.

  1. 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 consider:

  • 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 perspectives.

  • 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   (

Sandy O’Donnell (

Appendix:  Early Childhood Education:  An Issues Brief for Organizers

What 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 appropriate@ (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 secondary education.

  • 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 pay fees. 

As consequences:

  •  only a small fraction of young children have access to quality programs;

  • 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 for-profits; 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

  • 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 (, which has been a significant force for systems improvements – most recently, in after school care – in Boston.

  • See 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 (; the Children’s Defense Fund (; Stand for Children (;  and the National Association for the Education of Young Children ( . 

  • 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: .

Local groups supporting a better early childhood education system.

  • The business community, including the Civic Committee and Metro2020.

  • The Mayor, who has a longstanding interest in early childhood education.

  • Action for Children (formerly the Day Care Action Council, ( 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 (, a new initiative of the Council, Voices for Illinois’ Children (, 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 (

  • 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 (

For further reading

“A Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention”, at

Alexandra Starr, “The Importance of Teaching Tots:  25 Ideas for a Changing World”, BusinessWeek, August 26, 2002, at

Committee for Economic Development.  Preschool for All:  Investing In a Productive and Just Society.  (New York:  Author, 2002).  See:

Christopher Farrell, “The Best Investment:  America’s Kids”, BusinessWeek, November 22, 2002, at

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,

Louise Stoney, “Investing in the Child Care Industry:  An Economic Development Strategy for Kansas”, at

The following are three more scholarly studies.  For briefer digests of research like this, there are two fabulous websites:  and

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).

About the Authors

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.