Friday, May 04, 2012

It Takes More than a Village

“It takes a village to raise a child.” The expression derives from a theme found in a variety of African proverbs, and became popular in the United States in the mid-1990s as a result of a book by Hillary Clinton.

I’ve visited villages of the most primitive type, where no formal organizations exist (not to mention the absence of electricity and running water), but which nonetheless function as finely tuned social machines to care for all – nurturing the young, inculcating into young adults the values and skills necessary to help sustain the community, implementing the work required for community survival, and caring for the elderly who can no longer care for themselves.

Despite what we can learn from successful village life, our large, heterogeneous, complex communities in modern, developed nations don’t possess such finely tuned social machinery, and they probably cannot. So, we have government; we have school systems; we have health and human service organizations. We attempt to achieve social goals through programs and policies.

With multiple formal entities working independently to promote the development of the community’s children, it takes more than a village. It requires connections among people who might not really know one another, formal and informal relationships, and collaboration.

To promote early childhood development, we need collaboration at both the policy and service delivery levels, according to Dr. Richard Chase of Wilder Research. To provide enough resources for access to comprehensive services and supports, starting prenatally for healthy development of all low-income children, we need both public-private collaboration and cross-department (Minnesota Departments of Health, Human Services, Education) collaboration. The collaboration must occur to supply necessary resources, to enable adequate access, and to make sure that support starts early and is comprehensive, not just narrowly focused on preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. For true reform and stronger impact, we need to engage partners and departments outside the health, education, and child care spheres – involving community economic development, corrections, and other sectors – to address early childhood holistically and coherently, so that big savings that accrue from preventive work can be reinvested in early childhood development.. Urban areas may have easier opportunities; in greater Minnesota, limited resources and lack of program capacity make access more challenging and collaboration both more challenging and vital.

What facilitates collaboration, generally speaking? In a pioneering book on the topic, in the1990s, and bolstered by later research, Barb Monsey and I at Wilder Research point to such factors as good communication, the development of mutual trust and understanding among people and organizations who must work together, and the creation of well-understood, clear, concrete goals and objectives. The shared vision, which includes those concrete goals and objectives, must arise from a participative process that involves all who have a stake in the outcome – meaning parents, community members, community leaders, and institutional leaders.

Despite the need for systems and agencies to work together, we need to recall that “more than a village” does not imply that we supplant the village; it means that we enhance it to adapt to the demands of modern life. No matter how modern, formal and complex we become in thinking about large scale issues of education, early childhood, promotion of healthy development, and the like, we can never forget that everything we need to know about raising a young person successfully we can learn by observing a grandchild sitting on the knee of a loving grandparent (if we truly open our eyes to understand and appreciate all that happens in that setting).

Early childhood is so important that it will remain a focus for Wilder Research. Take a look at our website, where you can access more information, view the recording of our recent conference on the topic, and connect with Dr. Richard Chase whose work we featured at that conference.

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