Supporting Communities During the Pandemic
community engagement, strengths-based approach, cross-cultural conversations, basic needs, access
It’s hard to capture in words what we do as the Outreach Team of the West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning (AFEL). As part of our work, we collaborate with pretty much anyone who is invested in young children in West Philadelphia. We find ourselves in both boardrooms and classrooms, working with community members, applied researchers, nonprofit leaders, and childcare providers. Our initiative is a collaboration of social and educational service agencies, as well as community stakeholders working together to support access to high-quality early childhood programs.
In my role as a Family Navigator on the Outreach Team, my job is to help align organizational and local civic policy with community needs. Family Navigators are community members serving as disseminators of early childhood education (ECE) best practice for West Philadelphia. In the midst of COVID-19 and the ongoing race revolution, this bridgework has become even more crucial.
Our initiative has two large goals for our community. First, we want to ensure that children in our zip code are kindergarten-ready. And second, we want to ensure that children are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. We’re a street-level team, responsible for clearly articulating these goals to the community and promoting the importance of high-quality ECE. We know that when community members hear messages about ECE, they sometimes don’t immediately understand the jargon used by social service workers and academics. We find that when the message comes from a trusted source with firsthand experience—such as a Family Navigator—community members are more likely to understand the nature, components, and importance of high-quality ECE.
This “translation work” goes both ways. Family Navigators also work to make sure that all of our organization’s policy decisions serve the needs of our community. We know that data analysts are experts on statistics and projections, but without truly knowing the community’s struggles, strengths, and feelings, it can be difficult to translate research into action.
Where the numbers can’t go, we are able. I myself am a mother of a child with autism spectrum disorder, and I use my own experience to help support other mothers of children with disabilities in championing their children. We sit on advisory committees, serve as consultants for the city and other nonprofits, and advocate for ECE reform at the local, state, and federal level.
While our daily work focuses on providing ECE resources, during the pandemic we quickly expanded to address basic needs of the community. Ensuring food access is one way our role has grown as articulators of this cross-constituent conversation. Our parent organization expanded food distribution services to reach roughly 300 people twice a week, relying on Family Navigators to help spread the word throughout the community. Before the pandemic, we typically relied on in-person interactions and relationship-building in our organizing efforts. As guidelines on social distancing evolved during the pandemic, it became clear that we would need to come up with other ways to make sure our families were accessing the food distribution sites, and that the sites served their needs.
We waded through and synthesized huge amounts of information about COVID-related resources for young families and passed it on to our community, using methods of delivery that we know to be most effective. For instance, when our parent organization provided us with information and resources for the community via hyperlinks, we knew that this format was not ideal for our community members because so many have limited bandwidth. Instead, we relied on tried-and-true methods for sharing information, such as screenshots, texts, phone calls, and even casual conversations (from a safe distance!).
At the same time, we also worked to make sure internet connectivity issues improved so that community members could access increasingly important tools like Zoom, Google Classroom, and online registration forms. We learned how to use these tools and spread this knowledge to our community through both formal and informal training. We also shared information to support student learning, such as information about internet programs and the use of school district Chromebooks. We even offered inclusive virtual read-alouds for a local elementary school. Finding this balance between traditional and tech-oriented outreach strategies was an important part of making sure people knew how to access resources.
When it comes to improving food access, we believe that it’s not enough to simply provide food. The food must meet the families’ specific needs. We saw that the food options were not suitable for our children, who had unfortunately lost access to school lunches when schooling went remote. It was very difficult for families to meet their nutritional needs using available food pantries, both in terms of children’s preferences and their dietary restrictions. We knew this was particularly troublesome for our families of children with special needs, who often have very exacting diets. Additionally, the food distribution sites were far away from families’ homes.
After listening to and working with families in our community, we knew we needed to communicate what we’d learned to a larger audience, so we drew upon our networks to advocate for better choices. In fact, members of our team were selected as COVID-19 Community Response Captains for the city of Philadelphia. As COVID-19 Captains, we keep abreast of CDC guidelines, share pertinent and tailored updates about pandemic resources with our neighbors, and bring community concerns back to city leadership. In citywide and neighborhood meetings, we share with leadership what we’re seeing on the ground, giving them a picture of the barriers families are facing.
In our advocacy, we learned quickly that city leaders and service providers want to listen! We provided our insights on what we saw as deficiencies and barriers for families within the current systems. We advocated for food resource sites closer to our families, and for higher-quality offerings. These insights gave leaders the impetus to act. Our parent organization, for example, reached out to private enterprises like wholesalers, restaurants, and local farmers to gain access to higher-quality foods and to create more food distribution sites where people needed them.
We discovered through our work that the United States Department of Agriculture was working with the School District of Philadelphia to provide disaster supports based on the school lunch program. We reached out to contacts around the city, and we were then invited to the table. We explained that there was no need to spend more money. Rather, funds could be diverted to a new system that gives parents voice and choice. Each child in a household now receives Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) of approximately $365 per child. Parents can select meals based on their diverse dietary needs and tastes.
Through our advocacy, we successfully made our community aware of the offerings that met their needs at locations that made sense for them. This is just one of the examples of how the AFEL Outreach Team works to improve equity. We work to ensure that decision makers are mindful of the diversity and spectrum of needs in their communities. It is an inclusive practice that extends beyond anticipation of need and moves toward a healthy and sustainable community. Our success isn’t particular to Philadelphia. Other communities can better align resources to community needs by listening deeply to community members, raising the voices of community members, and advocating to lower barriers to resources.
What we learned/big takeaway
Stick to the basics. We continued using the same strategies that were already working to continue to strengthen community connections, but we expanded and adjusted them for this new era.
How to support all our partners in developing their active listening skills.
What we are still figuring out
Don’t react based on emotions. Actively listen. Constantly scrutinize and do self-assessments to make sure you’re following the ebbs and flows of the community. Take steps toward having difficult discussions that change policy. Be honest and have that uncomfortable conversation.
What I would tell other leaders during this time
Leading by Convening: In this case study, Rachel Honore describe the community leadership model they’ve adapted to advocate for families in West Philadelphia. This set of training tools from the National Center for Systemic Improvement discusses important topics for community leaders, such as authentic engagement, coalescing around issues, and ensuring relevant participation.
Relevant Laws and Best Practices: This case study focuses on advocacy that Sophie and Rachel’s organization did around their community’s physical needs within established governmental structures. Similarly, community leaders should be aware of the education rights of their constituents, as outlined in this resource from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Resource From the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community: Sophie and Rachel’s organization provides an educational support system in their community. Use these helpful advocacy resources to get ideas for developing relationships between schools and families, and more.
Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships: As in the example provided in this case study, Sophie and Rachel’s organization works to build partnerships within their community. This resource from Dr. Karen Mapp provides a framework for building such a relationship between families and schools.
West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning (AFEL) is a collaboration of social service and education agencies and community stakeholders working to create an education support system for students and families in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, a federally designated high-need, high-poverty area. The initiative aims to build awareness around the importance of early childhood education, to strengthen the capacity of childcare centers, and to support parents and caregivers as their children’s first teachers. AFEL’s long-term goals for West Philadelphia children are: (a) kindergarten readiness, and (b) reading at grade level by the end of third grade, so that children are successful in school and beyond.
About the Author
Rachel Leah Honore is the proud mother of an energetic 8-year-old boy who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, delayed learning, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Rachel refers to herself as the “unlikely advocate” and credits the genesis of her journey to advocating for her son, which quickly evolved into educating, empowering, and mentoring other parents and guardians.