The American childcare system is a patchwork set of processes, structures, systems, and care options that currently work for a very narrow set of family lifestyles, structures, and incomes. However, plenty of families, care providers, and mobilizers have been working outside of traditional business and funding models to get families and caregivers what they need as they need it in ways that feel distinctly different from the mainstream. This subset of folx holds collectivist, community-forward and culturally affirming principles at the core of how they work and how they think about child care.
In 2019, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation partnered with IDEO.org to start the Care Constellation, an initiative to fund and support these types of families, care providers, and mobilizers doing child care differently. From hundreds of applicants emerged a cohort of eight—including six nonprofits, an individual, and a collective—who shared with us their ideal visions for what child care would look like in 2030.
For some, these were visions they’d already created and had been working towards for years. For others, the application itself was an exercise in creating something new. Regardless of where they were starting or hoping to go, their participation in the Care Constellation funded twelve-months of everything from direct childcare provision, cost subsidies, and community gatherings all the way to messaging, policy advocacy, and professional development for anti-racist caregivers and educators.
Since this program ended last November, we co-authored an in-depth report where we share more about each cohort member’s purpose, motivations, and pilot outcomes. We invite you to dig into the report and reach out to us for more information about this trust-based, co-designed grantee process—or to get in touch with any of the teams involved. In the meantime, we’ve highlighted some of the insights below. Read on to get inspired.
"We envision a transformed early childhood education system across the St. Louis region where—regardless of race, income, or ZIP code—families can access affordable education and care for children ages 0-5, care they can trust to be joyful and high-quality. This system will create, for our children and communities, boundless possibilities. Our transformed early childhood education system will be driven by a set of shared values including: joyful celebration and support of the whole child, racial equity, meaningful family and community, partnership and power, sustainable funding towards transformational quality."
This first Cohort group is an informal coalition made up of three organizations—WePower, The Gateway Early Childhood Alliance, and Urban Sprouts Child Development Center—who together house and ground caregiver network building, power building, and direct service care in St. Louis, Missouri. Their team includes leaders most proximate to racial inequities and braids expertise in key drivers of transformational systems change—from power-building and resident-led organizing to dynamic resource alignment.
This coalition spent the duration of the program providing child- and family- directed childcare, building out networks and communities for caregivers, working with caregivers to understand their needs, and channeling this knowledge into advocacy for more holistic policies and budgets. The political climate, existing infrastructure, and funding for organizing and care were the factors that most influenced their efforts. In what feels like a crowning testament to their work over the last several years, St. Louis County Council voted to invest $5.6 million in ARPA funds into teacher wages and retention in November 2022.
“In our vision, there is a collective remembering of a time when children and elders were our utmost priority. All of our institutions now center them. Neighborhood schools, peace and wellness centers, 24-hour daycares, homeschooling, summer programming, project-based learning are all norms and standards of care in neighborhoods and communities. In this vision, businesses and cooperative enterprises fund and finance this programming and there is little need for philanthropy because mothers, fathers, grands, aunties, uncs, cuzzos share time and energy as a form of mutual aid with child care collectives. In our vision, location and fees are not deterrents to access to care; children have multiple places where they are fed nutritious food, their minds and creativity are positively stimulated, and they know they are in a safe space. There are societies that have documented their indigenous education models that we have studied and will repeat.”
The second cohort group—and the only non-501(c)(3) group to win funding—is GoldenSeed Collective, a tribe of Black folx and families in Atlanta who value Black liberation, crafting kinship, earth stewardship, and centering the safety, care, and joy of Black children. As much as this community-focused effort can be led, the Collective is headed by matriarchs zahra alabanza and Alsie Parks, who describe its initial forming as one based entirely on urgent need and necessity over a decade ago.
Over the course of the program, The Collective worked on building out their infrastructure, defining and articulating their core beliefs, and beginning to document Collective families’ experiences within this microcosm of care and community. Personal capacity and space was the biggest factor for GoldenSeed, with the leaders of this group dedicating themselves to care in addition to their 9-to-5 jobs. By the end of this program, Goldenseed had made strides in re-organizing how caregiving was valued and compensated.
“With a guaranteed income, formerly-incarcerated, systems- and street-involved young parents can escape cycles of racism, poverty, gender-based violence, and exploitation. This allows them to take care of their own children or pay for care they trust. In school, their children learn about the history of survival and resilience of their ancestors and the ongoing work of justice and liberation. In turn, parents can return to school and find or be trained for meaningful and well-paid employment. In this vision, both children and families are coached and supported in practicing transformative justice to respond to harmful dynamics. Parents and guardians are not afraid to ask for support, because they know that the response will be loving and grounded in a commitment to family unity and strength and in a belief that parents want to do right for their children.”
California-grown Young Women’s Freedom Center are powered by cis and transgender girls and women, transgender men, and gender-expansive people who are survivors of violence, systems-involved, formerly incarcerated, and/or have been involved in the street economy who are working for good. Their work reflects their guiding belief that those most impacted by incarceration and public systems are the ones who can and must lead effective change.
YWFC poured Constellation funding into supplementing their Universal Basic Income program and storytelling initiatives. They conducted this work at three levels: first, by coaching young guardians on parenting and financial and life planning; second, by connecting young parents to create a supportive community; and finally, by building out a robust set of materials and resources (i.e. reports, books, photography) that share the stories, hopes, and dreams of the young parents they serve. Stigma surrounding young and/or incarcerated people’s ability to parent remains the biggest factor in getting folx to invest in supports for these communities, and YWFC continues work to combat stigma and influence relevant systems and funders to be open to aiding these families.
"Our vision is a targeted universal child care system rooted in racial, gender, and disability justice that works for all involved—parents, providers, and our kids. This new system is developed by and for the Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and the largely women providers and parents who know the most about child care. It supports wider economic growth and shared prosperity across the socioeconomic spectrum, because it is publicly funded through federal and state funds. In this vision, our child care workforce reflects the diversity of the communities it serves, by race, culture, and language."
Family Forward Oregon is a grassroots, movement-building organization that organizes mothers and caregivers in Oregon. They have a long and storied history of facilitating collaboration, breaking down silos, and educating the general public and lawmakers about the implications of policies meant to support families and kids. FFO led the development of the Child Care for Oregon coalition and co-founded the Fair Shot for All Coalition, a racial, gender, and economic justice multi-year legislative coalition.
The cohort funding went into evolving the design and launch of the effective bipartisan communication that their organization has become so well-known for–running robust grassroots advocacy campaigns around a number of policies that touch families, kids, and caregivers; investing in community organizing and leadership development; and going after strong policy outcomes that center equity. Alignment across stakeholder groups (parents, policymakers, informal and formal caregivers) has long felt like the biggest barrier to forward-movement, so FFO gathered and amplified perspectives that underlined the commonality in struggle to unite them in fighting for policies and spending to the benefit of all.
"The vision for the future is simple and straightforward. We hope to design enhancements to our current child care system that will clear a path for Black boys to succeed at the same rate as other children. This vision would directly impact the early childhood workforce and create a pipeline for Black men to find a place for themselves in early childhood.”
Illinois-based Collaboration for Early Childhood's fundamental premise is that all children have the right to the learning opportunities that will help them achieve their full potential as children, learners, and members of our community. They work to overcome the fragmentation and scarcity of services endemic to the early childhood field by leveraging and integrating all of our community resources to better meet the needs of the youngest children and their families. Our key initiatives include the advancement of high-quality preschool for all children, professional development for educators, family engagement, child health support and community engagement.
During this grant program, the team built and evolved a political brief fully describing a reverse pipeline that brings formerly justice-involved Black men interested in becoming educators into the workforce—and explored how such a pipeline would radically interrupt the existing preschool-to-prison pipeline, uplift and drive justice reform policies, and redefine who we see as role models for kids. This funding also helped them build relationships with community, academia, and government to work towards buy-in and building momentum. The biggest barrier to the was how provocative the subject matter is, which is why relationship-building and conversation with academics, policymakers, and parents is a significant portion of their work.
"In 2030, all children and their families will have access to a transformative early childhood education (ECE) because we would have universal child care for ages birth to five. Because of this public funding, families can choose the care and early education support system that works best for them, regardless of where they live or their economic status. Child care centers will be culturally responsive because there will be a demand for diverse-by-design centers grounded in anti-racist and liberatory principles. The infrastructure that is necessary to accomplish this goal will be fully funded, which includes teacher training and development, funding for competitive salaries & benefits as well as ample funding for high-quality facilities. Finally, centers who serve neurodiverse children and children with disabilities will receive additional funding so that all children may learn alongside each other in the least restrictive environment."
The RISE Center for Liberation in Early Childhood Education is a Central Texas-based answer to the lack of comprehensive anti-racist and liberatory early childhood education models in the U.S. Before its creation, and as the mother of Black sons, founder Dr. Choquette Hamilton wanted to create a living breathing example of truly anti-racist caregiving done well. She and her co-conspirator, Professor Crystal Elliott-O’Connor, wanted to answer the question, “What does it take for teachers and caregivers to become anti-racist in their beliefs and their practice?” RISE was created to reimagine early childhood education to help address these problems.
Funding helped RISE launch a direct childcare service in Central Texas while piloting educator and caregiver focused training in anti-racist care practices. Infrastructure, cost, and partnership were their greatest challenges. While their child care center was only able to run for a single year, they learned through the business challenge of providing anti-racist care amidst unpredictable enrollment due to COVID-19. Simultaneously, they were able to build, evolve, and pilot antiracist curricula with a starting group of school administrators, FFN providers, and formal providers. The team believes that it’s possible to run this kind of center in the future, and have returned to the drawing board with a clearer sense of what they need to design for in terms of business operations and administration.
Local "care cooperatives" pool care resources across the entire spectrum of community care needs (child care, eldercare, home care, and capacity building for people with disabilities, and public health professionals). By pooling resources, these cooperatives can ensure that care workers are well paid, protected, and adequately resourced while meeting the diverse range of care needs that exist in our communities. By combining diverse revenue streams (including standard fees as well public sector and philanthropic resources) the care cooperatives can provide direct support to care workers while helping families navigate their diverse care needs.
These care cooperatives, as local institutions designed with particular community needs in mind may find success in reconciling the cultural practices of their communities around caregiving with the concerns of the caregiving profession at large. In this cooperative model, care workers can organize and invest in macro-scale projects that address needs that cannot be addressed on a person-to-person level. This could result in a paradigm shift in caregiving for families with multiple and overlapping care needs (such as families in need of both child care and eldercare, families of neurodiverse children, families with disabled parents and/or disabled children).
Care Appalachia is the brainchild of Garrett Blaize, a 22-year-old organizer from Rural Appalachia who has doubled down on designing and organizing in rural communities. One of the first things Garrett shared about why they do this work is that rural communities are so often left behind or left out entirely of conversations where we’re trying to figure out how to design better systems of care. Their work is deeply influenced by their own experience being raised by their grandmother in Wise, VA. They now provide for their grandmother and their two younger sisters, both of whom have special care needs.
Funding during this grant was poured into community organizing several digital and in-person community listening sessions, brainstorming on a more holistic and accessible care system, and one-on-one interviews with caregivers in the community. Organizing during a pandemic was the biggest challenge. Joined by a fellow rural local organizer Terran Young, they underlined that the folx in rural Appalachia who most often embody the kind of revolutionary ethic of care that underpins how these communities think are elders. More than anything, the idea of collectivism anchors rural communities, and recognizing and uplifting and learning from that wisdom within their community is the way forward to bringing this vision to life.
"Our vision for the future of child care in Colorado is that it will be reimagined by those who provide, seek, and use child care, and by those who face barriers to accessing the child care system in any capacity: all of Colorado’s families, caregivers, communities, and early care and education providers. Our vision is inclusive of Colorado’s ethnic, cultural, linguistic and geographic diversity, provider licensure status, and care setting. In this vision, families, caregivers, and providers receive any needed support to engage at the state and local level as co-creators of the reimagination effort. Community, provider, caregiver, and family needs will be at the center of short-term decision making, as Colorado shifts how early childhood operates statewide. Over the long-term, we plan to build significant grassroots political power for child care to ensure that families and caregivers are always treated as experts in what their children need and providers are treated with dignity and respect."
Fondly called Team Colorado, the final Cohort group is made up of two organizations who hold deep expertise in policy development, government relations, grassroots movement building, communications and digital strategies, and campaign and coalition management. Colorado Children’s Campaign and Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition together bring a focus on forward-looking organizing and collective action for political change and community support within the Cohort. Their staff team holds deep expertise in policy development, government relations, grassroots movement building, communications and digital strategies, and campaign and coalition management.
This group invested in organizing to build parent and provider political power, working through the perceived differences between formal and informal caregivers who are undervalued and underpaid across the board. They also spent time defining a theory of change that eventually informed their late Fall 2022 initial campaign to get the public and private sector to value and invest in care. Virtual facilitation and engagement of parents, formal caregivers, and informal caregivers proved their biggest challenge. Their experiments in gathering folx together and coming up with a collective theory of change that outlines the above was the headway (and inspiration!) they needed last year to get folx to add to their Vision above.