Vanessa Rich

“Community messengers”

COFI and POWER-PAC entered Vanessa Rich’s professional life with a jolt. When their report about hard-to-reach families was released in 2009, Rich got calls from aldermen and the press looking for answers. Why were these poor families with young children not able to enroll in preschool? She invited parent leaders in and, together, they have grown a close and productive partnership. One effort to train community parents to go out and sign up the most needy families for publicly-funded Head Start has become a national model.

I knew COFI before I came to work for the City of Chicago. I’ve been here for seven years. COFI Board member Jackie Grimshaw is a friend of mine, and so I had heard of COFI. I never was involved with them then. I knew they were out there.

When I started working for the city, my involvement with COFI became more direct. They did a report on hard-to-reach families for Action for Children and released it in May 2009. I remember that one senior alderman got the report and came straight to us. We’re sitting over here going, ‘Well, that’s not the information that we have.’ We hadn’t seen the report at the time and so we reached out to COFI.

The alderman’s reaction to the report was basically, ‘Why aren’t you out here getting these kids?’ We didn’t know we weren’t getting the kids. We knew that we had unmet needs but the way it was presented left us a little off guard. Ambushed.

Because it was explosive, the report also got press. And we literally still had not seen what everybody was talking about.

So that was when we said, ‘Okay, so what can we do?’ Whether we believe it’s true or not, there must be some perspective out there that does believe it is true, so we need to address it. That’s our job. To try to figure out what it is that you’re saying and how we can address it.

We did reach out to COFI after we had a conversation about what they found. We also got a copy of the report. We were able to see what they were talking about, and we agreed. Services that were being requested by families were not being developed. But they were right: COFI was able to reach out to families and have conversations with them in a much more in depth way than we had the capacity to do.

So we decided to take lemons and turn them into lemonade. COFI parent leaders knew where to find hard-to-reach families, had good relationships in communities and were able to have conversations. So we started working with them. We asked them to go back on our behalf, find out what these families needed and give them information about childcare services enrollment.

That’s how it was able to work. This is something we hadn’t tried in recruitment and outreach. It’s clearly something that we need. Using COFI’s data and information, we gave that back to the Head Start recruitment contractor. We didn’t tell anybody they had to hire COFI.

The other thing we found out is that COFI didn’t understand all of the limitations on enrollment eligibility that we were dealing with. They were simply looking at the numbers and listening to the parents whose doors they knocked on saying, ‘I have a two year old and I can’t find full day care.’ They weren’t dealing with the fact that the parent may not be eligible for services because they weren’t working.

So there were lots of pieces that we then put together with the contractor who gave COFI parents all the information. We got them trained so that they would know the next time they went out to talk to families which ones were eligible and what alternatives might be available to them. And we learned a lot from POWER-PAC parents. For one, it often takes more than one visit to figure out how to help families.

That was pretty much how we started what has developed into Head Start Parent Ambassadors, which is now a national model. Oregon and Washington states have a very large parent ambassador program. The State of Illinois now has an ambassador program. These are all parents who have been trained to either do recruitment, to do outreach and advocacy, and to really work with parents at a different level than we normally do with parent involvement.

Recruitment is a multi-faceted process. We do radio ads and billboards. There’s also the training that happens at agencies so that they then know how to do outreach. COFI also plays a part in partnering with them. They may sit with the early learning Head Start delegate or they may go alone on our behalf. It’s everything from going to the recruitment fair to going out door-to-door. When an agency is having enrollment problems due to language barriers, COFI can train that agency’s staff if needed.

Parent ambassadors go beyond what our office and agencies would normally do. They bring the parent-to-parent, peer-to-peer approach, which is what we’re looking for to bring in hard-to-reach families. The ambassadors also bring with them existing ties within communities. You have people who are embedded in the community who are working with you to help recruit and talk to families.

COFI parent leaders also have shared experiences with the families we are trying to reach. It’s like when you walk up to the Weight Watchers table and hear from someone who’s used the program and lost 75 pounds. That makes a whole lot more difference to the person who’s picking up the pamphlet and thinking about joining. So these are people who can say, ‘I had my kid in Head Start. I know the community. I know the benefits of getting my kid in there. I know that it may not be easy because we don’t have everything that you want, but it benefits your kid and this is how I know.’

It’s value added, and it gives us another tool. COFI parents are not the only tool that we have, but they are a tool that we can use for multiple purposes.

COFI parents are system builders. They are systems changers. They actually echo what we’re supposed to be about. We are supposed to be change agents and we work with community and parents in order to do that.

We see COFI and POWER-PAC as partners. When we look at how collaborations or partnerships evolve, quite often you start with a business arrangement. As you move and work together, through the levels of partnership and collaboration and coordination, it really requires everyone to give up something. This is where we really are in partnership with them. We are part of the establishment. We need them to do what we do in response to the community. And they need us in order to make those system changes that can support their advocacy roles. It’s really a journey into where we can hear them and they can hear us. And they really do make a difference in systems.

Looking at what POWER-PAC has been able to do. The recess thing is amazing. They’ve had significant impact at CPS that I thought were like miracles. They all benefit our families.

Right at the beginning of this relationship, before we really had a partnership, we went over to COFI’s office for a tour and a meeting. They were talking about the high school deterrent and then they had playground recess on the table. They had formed a parent coalition (POWER-PAC) in order to move these things through. Early childhood was part of the discussion too.

The parent leadership. POWER-PAC. They’ve done a good job. It hasn’t been the same once. That’s one of their strengths. We were looking for reasons why most parent leadership organizations don’t work. It’s because you get one good leader and you don’t develop them any further, and you don’t encourage them to move on beyond your organization. So they are stuck in this dead end place. I would never say that about COFI. We have seen faces come and go. We have seen faces who have stayed and rotated positions. They do a really good job of not just training people, but giving them lots of opportunities, pushing them out the door, and then welcoming them back when there’s something else that might be appropriate.

There are three faces we’ve seen constantly over the years, but they are not always the leadership voices. That’s the interesting thing. That’s why COFI and POWER-PAC are an example of a good organization. These three have been there, but they have moved in and out of various roles.

The bigger impact that COFI brings is the voice of parents who have young children. Like it or not, the first and most important teacher for young children is the parent. They are the change agents in our early learning community. They are the customers. They are the policy drivers. We really have to learn to listen to them and learn how to work with them. To value what people bring to the table, we have to have the patience and skill to help them learn how to bring that gift forward so it can be used. Parents know how to do just about anything that needs to be done. Our job is to figure out how they can make that difference.

COFI and POWER-PAC bring that important voice. Otherwise we’re just a bunch of wonks sitting around talking to ourselves. We drink our own Kool-Aid. When I sit down and think we can’t put a childcare center in Cabrini. There’s no location, there isn’t any money, there’s no provider. Then I listen to parents who are saying, ‘This is something that needs to happen. We have to figure out how to make it happen’.

They’re out there advocating for the things that are going to benefit children and families. They can make things happen. We are bureaucrats and we are on this side of the fence.

Head start, that’s our job. We have always been required to have parents in leadership roles, to hire them if they are qualified. Parents are on advisory committees. You can’t get a budget through if you don’t get a parents signature.

Anybody can get the alderman’s attention. All it takes is a phone call. But it’s the respect after you have the attention. Often, the expectation is that you’ll get 1,000 people shouting and yelling, and you show up and figure out how to make them happy so they’ll be quiet. That’s the standard. But to show up and then hear a group of people like POWER-PAC making sense because they are organized and professional. That’s when public officials start thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I better start taking some notes.’