Advocacy that Builds Parents’ Power

Published: February 2023

Type: Publication

An Evaluation of Efforts to Center Parent Voice in Early Care and Education Advocacy Ecosystems

Mariah Brothe Gantz Headshot
Julia Coffman, Headshot
Black and white headshot of Melly Kitenge. A Black woman with long, wavy, dark hair. Facing the camera, smiling, wearing a dark cardigan, light shirt, and beaded necklace.
Headshot of Dr. Stephanie M. Curenton-Jolly. Black and white photo of a Black woman with above-the-shoulder length dark hair, smiling, wearing a dark shirt.
Sheniqua Jeffrey's Headshot. A black and white photograph of a Black woman with long, braided, dark hair, smiling, wearing a light tank-top blouse.
Laura Ottoni's Headshot. Black and white photo of light skinned woman with dark hair, just below shoulders, in grey sweater.

To get a summary of this report, access it here.

In 2021, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) funded two 18-month projects to support state policy advocates working in the areas of Early Head Start/Head Start (EHS/HS) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to increase the role that parents play in their advocacy efforts, particularly parents who have experienced the effects of structural racism.

Two national intermediaries led this work—Partner for America’s Children (on IDEA) and ZERO TO THREE (on EHS/HS). After a request for proposals and a selection process that included parents’ voices, five states were selected for each project, with one state selected for both, making a total of nine states.

The Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) partnered with the Center on the Ecology of Early Development to evaluate the two RWJF-funded projects that supported state policy advocates in shifting toward advocacy designed to both win and build parent power. This report offers findings on the approach states used, the progress they made, and the barriers they encountered. Our formative evaluation documented progress in the states and supported RWJF and national and state partner learning to inform the work.

primary evaluation question:

How are state EHS/HS and IDEA early childhood advocacy ecosystems developing the capacity to center families and parent advocates in the work, particularly those impacted by the structural racism that is embedded in services and systems?


Finding 1: All states made structural shifts to better center parents in their advocacy efforts.

Finding 2: States that progressed the most on centering parent voice used an organizing approach, rather than mobilizing.

Finding 3: States that are making the most progress on engaging parents impacted by structural racism are using an organizing approach led by people of color.

Finding 4: States have had to work on engaging ecosystem partners not yet fully aligned on how and to what extent parents should be engaged.

What Happens Next

RWJF has committed an additional year of funding to this work, but this funding is not focused explicitly on EHS/HS and IDEA advocacy. Instead, there is a broader focus on economic inclusion for children and families. State advocacy leads and their partners are now planning their next steps, which include the following :

  • All nine states have committed to continuing their partnerships with existing or newly created parent groups.
  • Six states will focus on building parent leadership, seeing this as the next step to engaging a wider base of parents and distributing power among parents and not just parent organizers.
  • Four states are planning to focus on relationships between decision-makers and parents to continue to underscore the role of parents as experts and to grow decision-maker champions.

The parents we talked to are interested in inviting others to participate in their groups and increasing the number of parents involved. They also would like to exercise their increasing power by advocating for greater compensation for their time and involvement, as well as more opportunities for professional development.

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