Designing our future Early Care and Learning System—Together
By Aly Richards, CEO of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children
I’m frequently asked to describe exactly how we’re going to achieve the Permanent Fund’s mission to ensure all Vermont children birth to five have access to high-quality, affordable child care by 2025. And, I’ll be honest, this question has caused me more than a couple sleepless night since I started as CEO. I know this for sure: no individual or organization will successfully transform Vermont’s early care and learning system to work for kids and families alone. All Vermonters have a stake in our children’s future and we must build our pathway to an accessible, affordable, high-quality early care and learning system together.
A significant milestone in this work was the recent Building Vermont’s Future from the Child Up Summit last October 3 and 4. Utilizing input from over 300 interviews conducted with parents, grandparents, business leaders, teachers and innovators from across the state, 250 stakeholders convened at Sugarbush Resort to design an early care and learning system that builds on our existing strengths but also draws from outside insights and models to best meet the needs of Vermont children and families.
A soon-to-be-published report from Building Bright Futures will summarize the key components of the blueprint. For now, I’ll share a few thoughts from three insightful speakers whose outside perspective opened my mind to what’s possible in early care and learning.
State leadership is essential to creating a system that works for children and families, especially in a field where services tend to be diffuse and under-coordinated. Secretary Gobeille is serious about his leadership role. He shared his own story as a kid who would have fallen through the cracks had it not been for a few observant and committed adults in his early life. Today, as leader of Vermont’s Agency of Human Services, he said, “I get the kind of calls that nobody would want to receive, ever, with grisly stories of human suffering … We know that, if we want to reduce suffering later in life, we have to focus on the youth.” His charge was clear – do what it takes to intervene early in order to improve our lives and communities later on. And his commitment to success was unambiguous – “I want your work to put me out of business.”
An entrepreneur with a reputation as a changemaker, Marguerite uses “game theory” to creatively solve problems in the business and non-profit worlds. “If you want to tackle the biggest challenges,” she asks, “why not make them fun?” People participate in activities that make them feel happy and valued. Games, she says, “create exceptional experiences that motivate action, make complex topics more accessible, and drive behavioral change, all based on what’s naturally engaging for your unique audience.” What if, she asked Summit participants, we could find ways to make addressing our child care system’s challenges more fun? What if we could visually simulate the impact of investing in high-quality, affordable child care on Vermont’s economy? Marguerite’s parting challenge to us: find ways to incorporate more “optimism, agility, and flexibility” into your systems design process.
Ali’s personal story of immigrating from West Africa to Vermont 10 years ago conveyed a powerful message about community collaboration. When he arrived as a New American, “one person believed in me,” he said. “She gave me a job and started a positive cycle of change.” That cycle of change led Ali to launch a new program designed to help vulnerable families understand and access local school systems and to run for city council. Ali is currently the only person of color and New American serving on Burlington’s City Council. His journey from newcomer to community leader reinforced his belief that “our differences make us stronger.” In a state with wide-ranging needs for an early care and learning system, there is great power in designing a common pathway forward. Ali closed by sharing an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” which couldn’t have been a more fitting insight for our work.
These important perspectives from outside the field of early care and learning help us think about our task in new and different ways, and ensure that we are designing a system for the future rather than one focused on today’s challenges. Fortified by this inspiration, 250 Summit participants rolled up their collective sleeves and got to work designing the elements of Vermont’s future early care and learning system. At the end of two days, we pressed “go” on our blueprint for a better future – together. There may be more sleepless nights ahead, but I’m confident that we’re on the right path.