3 min read

Charting the Course to Brighter Futures: An Evolving Community Engagement Approach to Creating an Early Learning Roadmap

First 5 Marin

Marin County, sitting right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, has invested in many incredible resources for parents. When it comes to child care, there are options that are high-quality, affordable, developmentally and culturally appropriate. So why, then, do many parents feel like they do not have access to these resources?

Income inequality in Marin leads many families to lack access to affordable high quality child care. The Marin County Early Learning Roadmap project is focused on creating an in-depth plan to strengthen early learning systems in Marin, so that every family in Marin County can access the things they need. 

With recent national and state momentum supporting early childhood investment, Marin County early learning partners seized the opportunity to organize the resources they currently have, and create a plan that brings everyone—families, providers, and most of all, children—on board. And, to get everyone on board in an authentic way, the partners knew that community engagement would be the most critical tool in their box. 

“Community engagement, really strong community engagement, is a big step,” VIVA’s Rebecca Strull shared. “If the client doesn’t have the time and the resources to dedicate to doing it right, they’re not ready.”

“If you’re not ready to give up control, you’re not ready,” she emphasizes.

That is why the Marin County partners have prioritized being ready. They wanted meaningful input from their stakeholders, the 3Ps of early learning systems: parents, providers, and payers (direct funders and their representatives). Through two rounds of community engagement, this group is showing that they are dedicated to letting the community lead the way.

If it sounds like this work is leading up to a significant journey, you’re not wrong. All of this community engagement is part of creating their early learning roadmap. This roadmap will feature actionable steps, measures of success, and of course, lots of community input. 

Meeting People Where They Are Through Focus Groups

The VIVA team visited with a series of child care centers and community organizations to hear from parents and providers about what they really need from their county. It was important to hear everyone’s voices, including those who are often left out. Whether that meant conducting engagement in Spanish, having focus groups virtually on Zoom, or hosting focus groups in historically marginalized communities, VIVA did what we could to meet families where they are. 

These focus groups brought between five and twelve people together to engage with each other, reflect on their experiences, and tell their stories. A true early learning roadmap will take Marin County early learning systems from where they are now to a system that makes parents and children feel supported for years to come. Marin County simply could not do this without the input and labor of parents and families. 

“Actually, that reminds me—” Rebecca catches herself. “It is also so important that parents are compensated for the work they do for projects like this.” 

“It’s important that we are all able to hear something that we do not want to hear,” Rebecca reflects. The review of everything providers and parents shared revealed some critical gaps, significant challenges, and creative solutions. These became the raw ingredients for the first draft of Marin County’s Early Learning Roadmap. 

Pivoting to Dive Deeper in Community Forums

Once the first draft of Marin County’s Early Learning Roadmap was completed, the team planned to re-engage the stakeholders who had contributed to its conception. The plan was to revisit it during through two forums, one for parents, one for providers. 

Instead, the team pivoted, taking the opportunity to both dive deeper and invite more community members into the fold. Instead of two separate forums, VIVA hosted one large forum for all early care and education stakeholders, even those who had not been a part of the first phase of family engagement. This created a space for dynamic conversation, where everyone’s perspectives could be shaped and expanded in real time.

The Value of Community Engagement

Following the community forum, parents and providers were re-engaged through interview calls, personal conversations where they could share their feedback and input throughout the process. Creating personal relationships with parents was not in the original part of the plan, but at the end of the project, it became one of the most valuable parts of the work.

Rebecca supports deep community engagement, reiterating how important it is to do community engagement right. “It’s important to share back any learnings when you can. Parents like to hear how their feedback has shaped a process, plan, or program, and it’s even more important to them to know how it’s being used.”

In undertaking a community engagement process, it is important to see the community as a partner. The work they do in helping to shape a process is extremely valuable. Theirs is the kind of perspective that you cannot get anywhere else, and it is worth investing in. 

Now, Marin County is on its way to a strong plan—one that the whole community can feel good about. There is palpable excitement about how community perspectives have been centered in the planning process, and the promise that there are positive changes coming to Marin’s early learning systems.

“[These communities] dedicated time and reflection to helping us get this work done, and ultimately create a better place for families. There is something even more special about knowing that your voice was heard because you see that action was taken on your perspective. This is a change that parents can feel,” Rebecca shares. 

The Marin County Early Learning Roadmap is a project of The Marin Community Foundation. The project was also stewarded by Marin Child Care Council (MC3), Marin County Office of Education (MCOE), Marin Child Care Commission, and First 5 Marin.