A season for advocacy: Leave no ear unturned
|Representative Mark Ouimet|
|Althea Wilson, Washtenaw Great Start Parent Liaison|
|Marianne Miller of Washtenaw Early On, Marj Hyde of First Steps Ann Arbor and Gretchen Driskell, candidate for the 52nd House seat|
|Candidate for the 55th House seat Adam Zemke|
By Teri Banas
The primary campaign season is in full swing in Michigan and candidates for office –incumbent lawmakers home from Lansing as well as challengers for state House seats – are frequent guests at local events and gatherings close to home. That means your opportunity for prime access to future policy makers just got a lot better, and easier.
Along with ready contact at local coffee house meetings, picnics and parades come new opportunities to better inform local leaders about what’s needed in Michigan to strengthen families and build a strong system of supports for young children.
During the run-up to Star Power 2012, the Washtenaw County Great Start Collaborative in May created a novel way to connect elected officials to real people and the issues challenging young children and families. And it happened in the most offbeat backdrop for advocacy – the annual touch-a-truck fun time at the Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor.
Knowing the public party would pick up a truckload of attention from families and therefore public officials, Director Margy Long came up with an innovative plan for injecting advocacy for early childhood in the mix.
The answer: Give public officials and candidates a guided five-stop walking tour of the basic elements that help children become ready for school and life. In the Great Start network, advocates talk about these elements as the “five points of a star” and they’re titled – Pediatric and Family Health, Social and Emotion Health, Early Learning and Care, Parenting Leadership, and Family Support.
Representatives from agencies and institutions that work with families and young children became “stops” or stations along the walk. They presented key talking points and essential information about a child’s critical need to grow up healthy – physically, emotionally and socially – in order to be successful, and also the importance for parents to become knowledgeable and empowered in issues that help their children grow. Joining the advocates along the station “stops” were parents who played the key role of providing the consumer perspective, the parent voice to the discussion.
“Again and again, people said how much they learned. Candidates talked about how much it gave them an opportunity to learn and develop a position on early childhood,” she said. “Since then, we’ve made it a point to actually follow up with them, creating packets of information on early childhood issues to send them.”
The “stops” on the walk-and-talk included a visit with the early childhood health care advocate hired by “Success by 6” for Washtenaw County. Her message to candidates stressed the importance of streamlining access to services for families, including those eligible for Medicaid, Long said. Washtenaw Health Plan advocate Kelly Stupple also shared information about the area’s growing immigrant populations – Chinese, Spanish and Arabic families. By growing strong contacts with new immigrant families, fewer immigrant children will fall through the cracks, delaying services that if provided early on will prevent the costly escalation of health problems.
They also learned from Stupple about the area’s fluoride varnish program for children in the Great Start Readiness Program, volunteer services provided for families from the University of Michigan dental school, as well as general information about a new statewide emphasis on oral health. “(The candidates) were really impressed at how we were able to put these pieces together for young children,” Long said.
At the second “stop” around the star, visitors learned about the social and emotional needs of children from representatives of the agency, Community Support and Treatment Services, a community mental health organization, and the Washtenaw Area Council for Children, among others. Prominent issues discussed during the day included depression in new mothers, problems associated in attachment disorders between mother and child, and infant mortality. “Focusing on health for women, we also talked about how important it is for women to become healthy before getting pregnant,” Long said. “Many (of the visitors) had no idea these were major issues for young families.”
Representatives from the Great Start to Quality Resource Center, serving an eight-county area with information on early education and care issues, attended. They shared information for parents and early childhood educators about the online resource, CONNECT.org, which helps parents find early education and care facilities close to home and helps educators by serving as a platform for information about their qualifications and services.
Other stops along the five points of the star focused on parent education and how families can learn more about services and supports available in their communities – organized play groups and home visitation programs -- as well as the importance of parent leadership. The Washtenaw Great Start Parent Coalition was on hand to show how parents could become effective advocates for improving the lives of children in their communities.
At the end of the day, the Washtenaw County Great Start Collaborative gave lawmakers and potential lawmakers a comprehensive overview of what programs are currently in place to help families of young children, what ongoing issues and concerns are impacting the community and a strong sense of the important role early childhood plays in building a prosperous Michigan.
The lesson from the Washtenaw County Great Start Collaborative is not that we all need to call in a series of big rigs to bring attention to the needs of families and young children. But it does show that with a creative eye, opportunities for advocacy exist wherever people gather. Let’s keep the conversation growing. You never know when you’ll touch someone who needs to hear the message.