Nurturing Strong Beginnings, one of the Boston Foundation's four pathways to equity, relaunched its Coffee and Conversation series on the morning of January 26, 2024. TBF President and CEO Lee Pelton welcomed the virtual audience to the inaugural event.
"We have a responsibility to acknowledge and repair the harm that has been done to birthing people and neonatal children for generations," Pelton said. "I believe it's possible to work together and use our resources to create high-quality and positive environments and experiences that enable all families to thrive and live a life of choice."
The Nurturing Strong Beginnings pathway focuses on three key areas: Strengthening the Early Education and Care System, Maternal Health Equity, and Behavioral and Mental Health Integration. It recognizes the critical role of mental and behavioral health in advancing equity, especially given the increased demand for mental health services since the pandemic, as explained by Nurturing Strong Beginnings Program Officer Silva.
"When we talk about nurturing strong beginnings and our many nonprofit partners in this work, we need to recognize the need to both repair past harms and build a healthier, stronger, safer start for children and their families," Silva said.
The webinar featured three distinguished experts: Amy O'Leary, Executive Director at Strategies for Children, Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett, Founder and CEO of Vital Village Networks, and Dr. Alexy Arauz-Boudreau, Associate Chief of Pediatrics for Primary Care at Mass General Brigham.
The panelists began the discussion by reflecting on the pivotal moments in their professional and advocacy work and the driving forces behind their commitment to their respective fields, and how they are striving to nurture strong beginnings today.
Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett shared pivotal experiences from her journey, recalling organizing a holiday event for housing-insecure families and discovering that the volunteers themselves were also facing housing challenges. Dr. Boynton-Jarrett left this experience learning that those closest to challenges are often those working to find solutions and are important voices to have in the decision-making space.
"Who stands ready to serve and who is closest to solutions are often those who are closest to the challenges through their lived experience," Dr. Boynton-Jarrett said. "We really need to expand our thought about the abundance of members of the community who are leaders within their own right, have sage wisdom and guidance, and are serving in important ways, and how we can really expand the welcome of that leadership as we think about equitable, strong beginnings."
Amy O'Leary realized the impact of her own and other diverse perspectives in influencing policy decisions through her experiences as a registered lobbyist in Massachusetts. O'Leary spoke passionately about the importance of having confidence in advocacy work.
"I can witness educators and folks in the early child community recognizing the power and expertise that they have," O'Leary said. "I think it's that confidence that we should be the ones who can read the state budget, who can understand legislative language, who should be influencing what those bills. We should be at public hearings."
Dr. Alexy Arauz-Boudreau reflected on her childhood experiences, particularly a memory of seeing children playing soccer joyfully in El Salvador despite challenging circumstances. This instilled in her an understanding of children's innate resilience and the societal responsibility to nurture it.
These experiences influenced Arauz-Boudreau's commitment to making a difference in the lives of children, demonstrating the importance of collective efforts across communities and systems to create a supportive environment where individuals can thrive and utilize their inner resources to positively impact others.
"In the face of adversity, with just a little bit of support, people can find their real resilience and overcome. But I think it's really important for us to come together across all our differences, whether it be school, community, health system to make the world that allows people to figure out how to use their inner resources to brighten it for others."
Regarding mental health disparities, Dr. Arauz-Boudreau discussed how societal factors exacerbate mental health issues in youth. She discussed the Healthy Steps program at MGH as an example of a model that considers the holistic needs of both children and caregivers, promoting mental health and social support within the family unit. She asked the audience to consider how shifting focus towards prevention and resilience-building rather than solely relying on reactive interventions could be a needed shift.
"As a pediatrician, I start at birth thinking about how to strengthen the relationship between the infant caregiver, toddler caregiver, and child," Dr. Arauz-Boudreau said. "This is where the program Healthy Steps really has allowed our pediatricians in our practice and several of our practices at Mass General... to really think about not just the child, but the child in the context of their caregivers, how to think about the mental health and ability of that caregiver to be present and responsive to the cues that that infant and child might be playing."
The panel then delved into the role of policymakers, communities, and institutions in nurturing strong beginnings. Dr. Boynton-Jarrett emphasized the need for envisioning new systems that prioritize early childhood development. She stressed the importance of accessibility in community engagement efforts.
"A commonly used strategy for decision-making is consensus, but that's one of many models, so there's always a lot of room to grow," Dr. Boynton-Jarrett said. "Whose voice, whose decision making, who determines the distribution of funds and resources, it's really important that we have accountability pathways to honor shared decision making and equitable leadership."
Strategies for Children has developed a system to facilitate dialogue and address issues collectively. O'Leary discussed an initiative implemented at Strategies for Children, a triweekly virtual discussion, or "The 9:30 Call," inspired by the need for community and accurate information during the pandemic. The call brings together local practitioners, advocates, funders, and policymakers to share information, build knowledge, network, deliver policy and political updates, and extend moral support.
"Over the last five years, I would say we really have thought about 'what does it look like to have people who are closest to the work be designers of the system?' What we have been able to do is build an infrastructure and a place for the field to come to talk about the work," O'Leary said. "Being an advocacy and policy organization, we talk about early educators as a workforce behind the workforce."
When considering the need to include many diverse voices in the discussion on early education, the panel agreed that children's voices need to be included. Yet, what is the best strategy to include these voices, particularly for very young children who cannot participate in many discussions?
"Ask them," Dr. Arauz-Boudreau confidently stated. "Really, just ask them. You will be surprised the world that they envision."