“Time for a cooperative organizing model”
Tom Layman has a long history in organizing in Chicago. He knows the real thing when he sees it. When he first heard about COFI’s family-focused approach, he wasn’t so sure, though. It was radically different from the traditional model he was familiar with for cultivating grassroots leaders and making change happen. But after working with COFI and POWER-PAC parents to find and talk to hard-to-reach families for early learning programs, Tom began to fully appreciate the value this these uniquely trained mothers and grandmothers brought to the table.
I first came into contact with Ellen when I was still director at North Avenue Day Nursery in the mid-90s. She was doing work in Logan Square and got in touch with me about an organizing model she was developing. I discussed it with her.
Then sometime after that, I left North Avenue Day Nursery and became executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Association for the Education of Young Children. I was there for about eight years and while I was there, I reached out to COFI for the Chicago Early Learning and Literacy Project. It was funded by the Department of Education under the Early Learning Opportunity Act. We applied to work in four communities. We put together a program that was basically aimed at bringing early literacy throughout the community; not just in preschool programs, but parks, libraries, medical clinics—the whole thing. It was at a time when CPS was also in an expansive mode.
So there we were in four communities, and we needed to know more about the communities and where the children were. So COFI was charged with doing a round of door-to-door surveys.
That’s how I got to know COFI again. I found them really useful. They had good contacts and relationships in communities. I’ve been involved with community organizing forever and what I saw was real community organizing.
Then I came to Illinois Action for Children where one of our programs, Community Connections, had urban and suburban sites. Community Connections is the program where we work with home-based childcare providers and connect them to center-based classroom experiences for their preschool kids.
At the time, I was new. It was 2006 or so. In the city, we had four Community Connections sites. For the most part, those programs were under-enrolled, especially Logan Square/ Humboldt Park in the Latino neighborhoods, and I wanted to know why. We had staff people who were out trying to get enrollment up. But they weren’t getting anywhere. I was wondering whether there were enough children there to fill these places. So we decided to do a door-to-door survey with COFI. I called Ellen. I knew they had some people on the ground who could inform us.
COFI actually introduced us to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which did the door-to-door in Logan Square. And then COFI people did the survey in Austin, West Town, and Englewood.
COFI parents have supported Illinois Action for Children’s policy initiatives, as well. These are statewide policy initiatives that are largely based on the state budget. I wouldn’t say that we developed the agendas with them, but they knew about it and were involved. They’ve brought families to our lobby day in Springfield and come along when we visit legislators and things like that.
Then there is the Hard-to-Reach Families Committee of the Early Learning Council. There we really have worked with them on policy. Looking to figure out who are the families left out of preschool programs and what can we do about that.
Illinois Action for Children supports COFI’s policy campaigns, too. Like their efforts to have recess in schools. We support that, but I can’t say we’re a major player.
The Hard-to-Reach Families work is interesting, though, because COFI put out a report, “Why isn’t Johnnie in Preschool” that drew from the door-to-door surveys. When parents were doing those surveys, they asked me to meet with POWER-PAC to talk about the possibility of prioritizing early education in their work. So I met with them and so did [Illinois Action for Children President and CEO] Maria Whelan. After those meetings, POWER-PAC decided to prioritize early education.
I like the POWER-PAC group. It brings me back to my days of organizing. They are alert people, many of them are grandmas.
Around the same time, the city’s Department of Family Support Services was having enrollment problems at some of its Head Start sites, the same way I was. They knew that COFI was doing door-to-door stuff. So they wisely got together with COFI and developed the Head Start Ambassador program, where their COFI people would go door-to-door and recruit. I’m pretty sure what they do is have Head Start ambassadors team up with somebody from the site that’s seeking children and they go out together. They have successfully filled every program that they’ve worked on.
Then there’s our contract with the Chicago Housing Authority to do enhanced childcare referrals for CHA residents. Same situation—you don’t just put out a phone number and people call; you have to go tell them what’s going on. There was door-to-door work associated with that. So we had COFI helping us locate where they had people who could go door-to-door, and they had people in Cabrini and a few in at Altgeld. They also had some people in West Haven, which is the old Henry Horner. We may have had another one or two developments. Our charge was to serve CHA residents.
So we got the CHA project started up and that actually turned out to be a nice synergy between us and what COFI could do for us and also the Head Start Ambassadors, because they were interested in those same communities.
A short time later, they expanded our contract to do some parenting training with CHA residents. So we went to COFI and asked if any of the residents would be good parent trainers. We ended up hiring two residents—one from Cabrini and one from Altgeld—who were COFI people, and they worked with us through the end of that contract.
Now we’re up to the present. We have a new Department of Family and Neighborhood Partnerships. We’re expanding our programming with families and working directly with parents. We have sent one of our staff people from that new department to COFI training to learn about their family-focused organizing model. And now, our staff is using it, along with a lot of materials from the National Black Child Development Institute.
COFI and POWER-PAC are authentic. Their organizing approach really does capture the concerns of the people in the communities. It’s important to have the real voice of the community because if you’re in an agency and not listening to the community, you’re sometimes going to be wrong.
I’ll give an example. When Paul Vallas was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he started the program called Parents as Teachers First. In early learning circles, we all knew Parents as Teachers, which is a well-respected home visiting program with a curriculum. Paul thought that would be a good way to reach families that were not enrolled in preschool. It was too expensive to fully implement, though, so CPS developed their own version, Parents as Teachers First.
For a long time, I felt that it wasn’t a real program. Then I came in contact with the COFI grandmas, many of whom worked for that program, going around to homes and reading to kids. I heard about what they did and it rang a bell with me. I was impressed with them and impressed that they were doing more than reading to kids. They were really changing the way the parents valued early education, which will have more to do with kids’ success than just reading to them.
Listening to the community doesn’t always mean action can be taken, though. The POWER-PAC moms, noting the eligibility obstacles that families face, recommended that the process for enrolling children in childcare and preschool programs should be similar to public school enrollment. You just go and sign up without all the checking of eligibility. But that’s one suggestion that just can’t be done at this time. Everyone would be eligible and it would cost too much.
When I spoke to Ellen many years ago about the model for family-focused organizing, I was a bit skeptical. I came up through Alinsky organizing. Simplify and personalize. That’s what I thought organizing was. COFI’s approach was to combine organizing with parent training, and to organize in conjunction with the schools, which could also be the target of parents’ organizing efforts. It didn’t seem like it was going to work.
But since then, the world has changed. The more confrontational organizing, the older style doesn’t achieve as much it did then. The press got tired of it. People got tired of it. The time is right for a different model that is cooperative.
Looking at COFI’s efforts with hard-to-reach families, their work has practical value. Before Head Start Ambassadors, the City of Chicago was saying that Austin was saturated with programs. ‘We don’t need programs in Austin.’ The fact that COFI is able to go out there and find the kids and get them into programs really changes that view of where programs are needed. So COFI is contributing to what we, as an organization, are very interested in: Focusing on high-need communities where families are left out.
As the city is now rebidding of all of their Head Start and preschool programs, COFI has helped raise awareness of the need to pay special attention to communities of concentrated need. If programs were underenrolled, it wasn’t necessarily because there was no need. It was more likely because programs need to reach out to families in different ways. COFI and POWER-PAC basically proved that the kids were there.
Another strength for POWER-PAC parents is that they have each other. The group itself is important. They develop an approach and a point of view collectively that’s informed by all of them. And then there’s the staff and support they get from COFI.
It sure helps to have those networks of families that you can tap into. We got a phone call from a production company that was doing a report on early learning for the PBS NewsHour. We put some statistics together that showed the city’s 12 highest-need communities and how many children were in preschool and how many were in home based childcare and how many didn’t have access to preschool or childcare. They were really interested in talking to someone in that last hard-to-reach group. They were going to be in Chicago in a few days, and as it happened, they arrived just in time for a blizzard.
So I called COFI. Ellen called her staff and we found some families in Cabrini through a group of COFI-trained parent leaders. When there are parents on the ground who know each other, trust each other, then they will trust us if one of the parents brings us in.
I’ve always valued the judgment and the voice of real families in communities. It helps me see the limits to our current drive to professionalize and institutionalize. We make families into clients instead of partners.
Organizing is not as authentic when it looks like you’re paid to promote a certain point of view. Or when parents are recruited to advocate for a program that they’re using. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what COFI’s doing. They’re starting in a much more on-the-ground place. Like what’s happening in your life and your community and what are the issues.
Maria and I have a sense of the knowledge and strength of parents in the communities. It’s foolish to propose services and agendas that don’t build on those strengths.