Residents of Clarkston, Georgia heartily embrace the importance of early learning. “Early learning is how we succeed,” shared a young Iraqi woman at the concluding large-group meeting of the 2015 Clarkston Early Learning Community Trust. Just a week shy of finishing her Childhood Development Associate training—the project that was selected, designed, and implemented by the community through the 2014 Trust—she knew fully the extent to which the decisions made at these community meetings can make an impact. A fellow Arabic speaker, who is a mother of three and volunteers frequently at her children’s school, added emphatically, “Without education, there is nothing in life.” With the help of interpreters, a keen listener might have heard similar convictions expressed in Nepali, Burmese, Somali, and English by the Clarkston families gathered in language groups throughout the sunny conference room of Georgia Piedmont Technical College.
The Early Learning Community Trust is one of several components of Clarkston Families Decide, a program managed by CDF: A Collective Action Initiative and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. CDF is a community development organization that seeks to encourage and equip Clarkston’s diverse community members to take leading roles in their own futures. CDF’s vision is that of a Clarkston community that is thriving and vibrant, a community where all residents’ voices are heard and where all work together to realize their collective future. Rooted in the belief that people support what they create and with the awareness that many Clarkston residents feel disconnected from decision-making power, Clarkston Families Decide is a strategic endeavor aimed at building individual and communal capacity. It also seeks to increase interconnectedness between residents within and across ethnic and cultural communities and with community stakeholders. Roberta Malavenda, the executive director of CDF, works closely with a broad range of community-based organizations to ensure that participants of Clarkston Families Decide and the Early Learning Trust are representative of the strikingly diverse community.
The first meeting of the 2015 Trust took place on November 7. With interpreters present to assist as needed, families sign their children into childcare with the staff of Clarkston First Baptist Church’s Academy. One member of the childcare staff was hired as a result of her involvement in the 2014 Trust; originally from Bhutan, she works with the Academy team to create an early learning environment that is welcoming of many cultures and languages. As the children settle in, Trust participants help themselves to a breakfast buffet and take their places at round tables designated by language. Each group is accompanied through the process by an interpreter, facilitator, and coach. While the facilitator’s job is to guide discussion and monitor group dynamics so that every resident has the opportunity to voice their opinions and ideas, the coach works as a cultural broker alongside the interpreter, verifying that key concepts are understood and that residents feel empowered to interject questions and request clarification as needed.
The morning’s events opened with a soulful opening reflection sung by Brian Barclay of Positive Growth Inc. Language groups then worked to establish community agreements, a set of principles and norms that might serve to frame the process of the discussions. Samia Mohamed, founder of International Languages and Cultural Services, explained that this step was especially helpful for participants of the Somali group with which she worked: culturally accustomed to more hierarchical processes, having a list of ideas that the community had discussed and decided upon resonated with the women and helped prepare them to add their own perspectives.
From there, each group worked to address the primary purpose of the meeting: identifying the issue pertaining to children from birth to age eight that the community was most eager to take action around. In previous community conversations that CDF had convened, early care and education centers, awareness of the importance of language, access to health, community-based informal early learning programs, and support for Clarkston’s caregivers were identified as priority issues for the community’s babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. With their facilitators, coaches, and fellow language group members, families discussed the merits of each issue, sharing opinions about why each issue mattered and ideas regarding how they might ensure families are involved and home language is honored in work on any of the issues. Finally, residents considered the amount of impact they might have on each issue and the feasibility of projects they could pursue depending on the issue selected.
Prior to the meeting, lists of the priority issues had been written on large sheets of paper and hung next to each language group. As group discussions concluded, residents were given three dot stickers and invited to place them next to the issue or issues of their choosing. This method allowed participants both to see the choices made by their fellow group members and to make choices for themselves, combining communal and individualistic approaches to decision-making. The cumulative number of votes for each issue was quickly tallied while residents took a brief break. Participants mingled with neighbors from other language groups, sharing enthusiasm for specific issues and speculating on which one would rise to the surface as the group’s collective priority. Finally, the announcement was made: quality early care and education centers—the issue selected by the community in 2014—would be the focus of this year’s Trust as well! In their language groups once more, families launched into brainstorming about possible projects, envisioning ways to support high quality care, respect for home language and culture, and family engagement in Clarkston early learning centers. Together, the groups generated a list of over 35 projects, enthusiastically sharing ideas about how they might support and strengthen the existing early care and education centers. To differentiate the priority individual groups placed on ideas, projects that generated the most energy were circled, and stars were placed next to projects that seemed big, yet still doable. Before parting ways, representatives from each table shared with the large group the idea about which his or her group felt most strongly.
On November 21, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, volunteers met at CDF’s office to participate in the Early Learning Community Trust’s steering committee. The purpose of this meeting was to narrow the extensive list of project ideas to a more manageable number from which the larger community might then choose. Participants from the Nepali, Arabic, and English language groups comprised the committee, in addition to coaches for the Arabic-, English-, and Somali-speaking groups and the Somali interpreter. The meeting opened with shared reflection on meaningful lessons learned in early childhood. Clarkston residents exchanged stories about the ways they learned the importance of cooperation and respect, the value of creativity and playful, and the difference that being open-minded and finding a way for everyone to contribute can make. The group then dove into the challenging task of identifying project ideas that were redundant or unrelated to the selected issue and of combining overlapping ideas when possible. Finally, after adding anticipated duration and project desirability to the list of criteria through which each project might be evaluated, steering committee participants individually drew checkmarks next to the projects they most preferred.
On December 5, the day of the final meeting, the conference room emanated excitement, as participants were deeply cognizant of the fact that the decision they made that morning would determine the use of $25,000. Facilitators, interpreters, and coaches worked together to carefully review the six projects that the steering committee had prioritized, verifying that residents understood the possibilities that each project entailed. Together, participants debated which project might best address the selected issue of improving the quality of early learning through the recruitment and training of multicultural teachers and tackle the greatest need in their community. And then, the time to decide had arrived! Residents used the method of forced prioritization, ranking each project from “1” to “6” on individual sheets of paper. At the earlier meetings, participants’ decisions were to individual yet still public and thus were open to being influenced by their language groups to a degree. This time, the final decision was made privately, giving participants an opportunity to practice asserting their preferences independently.
As everyone took a break to stretch, enjoy a snack, and catch up with one another, the results were tallied. Clarkston families resoundingly chose to use the 2015-2016 resources to focus on the following project: “To hire and train a core team of multilingual staff who have their CDA and/or child care or social work experience to serve as cultural liaisons and advocates for more than one child care center and to provide technical assistance and coaching to staff and well as to families.” A local high school math teacher briefly explained that the results from the ranking sheets were unequivocally clear: this project represented the interests of the community gathered and could not have occurred by chance. In a spur of the moment decision, Roberta Malavenda invited participants to vote a second time (with the chosen project eliminated from the ranking sheets) in order to gather additional information about projects residents might want to move forward with outside of the official purview of the Early Learning Community Trust. Residents then discussed ideas regarding who ought to be involved in implementing the chosen project, and a sizable number of residents expressed interest in either the project design process or becoming liaisons themselves.
Gwen Napier, Vice President of Kuumba Storytellers of Georgia, brought energy and life to this final Community Trust meeting. While the adult participants worked to make the big decision about which project would be funded, Napier engaged the 22 children present in storytelling, soliciting their help in singing, pantomiming, and drumming along as she spoke. Some of the younger children who had previously seemed anxious at being separated from their parents responded to her splendidly, vigorously participating in this communal art. Once the project-related discussions had concluded, Napier shared her storytelling talents with the adults as well: soon, a room full of Clarkston residents were chiming in to echo her calls, adding their voices and laughter to a story whose moral was that of the interdependence of all beings. As the meeting came to a close, child-sized bookshelves donated by Habitat for Humanity were raffled off to Clarkston families, and a representative from the public library helped parents sign up for their first library cards. Families were also encouraged to take home five to six books from the wide assortment that Peachtree Press had donated for the occasion. As significant as the books and bookshelves were, from the author’s point of view at least, the residents walked away with something even more valuable, albeit less tangible: for, having participated in a series of weighty decisions, Clarkston families left with increased democratic skills, skills that hold the power to transform their community.
Next steps? The participants selected Trustees, including families and others, who will meet to design and make decisions on the project implementation.
Partners for the Clarkston Early Learning Trust include Refugee Literacy Program, Clarkston First Baptist Academy, READY School Families, Scottdale Child Development and Family Resource Center, New American Pathways Parents as Teachers program, and Somali American Community Center.
The author, Janelle Adams, is a graduate student at Emory University and served as a facilitator and participant observer for the 2015 Trust. For more information, contact: Roberta Malavenda, Executive Director, CDF Action, Roberta@cdfaction.org, 404 736-6602, www.cdfaction.org
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